How one family-owned small business found success by sticking to strong values
By Erica Larson
“I was in my booth at a trade show once, I think it was the Equine Affaire,” recalls Andrea Gillespie. “A gentleman approached with a question about my sales team.”
A third-generation business owner, Gillespie is no stranger to sales, marketing, production, and the other aspects of running a successful organization. But she hasn’t necessarily taken the mainstream approach. Rather, she’s stuck to the values her grandfather and father used in the family business. Gillespie now sits at the helm of her family’s Republic Mills, Inc., a northwest Ohio-based corporation that provides manufacturing services in and outside the agricultural sector, including livestock feed and horse supplements.
At this specific trade show, the gentleman asked about the sales team for Farrier’s Magic, a Republic Mills brand that includes a number of horse supplements.
“I said, ‘It’s me. Me, my booth, and my two sons,’” she recalls
Who’s your biggest competitor, he wondered.
“I told him I don’t have any competitors,” she says. “I’m the only one who does what I do, the way I do it. I don’t compete with anyone.”
(He didn’t quite know how to react to that, she adds with a chuckle.)
But that concept is nothing out of the ordinary for her. It’s how her grandfather and father taught her, and it’s what she’s instilling in her sons.
“If you like me and trust me, you’re going to like our products,” she says. “It’s very simple. It’s a family business built on quality and strong values.”
And it’s these values that have helped her keep the family businesses thriving.
Family Business Roots Run Deep
Gillespie’s family has deep roots in owning and running small businesses, and they’ve always done it their way rather than following the trends.
“Back in the late 1940s, my grandparents had a fine menswear store downtown,” she says. “When they made money in the store, they bought rental homes and then started buying farmland.”
In the 1950s, however, the quaint downtown shops were losing their luster as malls popped up around the country. Gillespie says her grandfather wasn’t interested in making the shift from his downtown location, so he shifted his focus from selling clothing to farming.
“My grandparents had one son—my dad—who helped in the store, with rentals, and with farming,” she says. “My grandfather was extremely instrumental in putting large tracts of land together in proximity of what we would call now our home farm. The heart of what we love in agriculture is the farm, the community, the neighborhood, and the personal relationships.”
After working alongside his father for a number of years, Gillespie’s father took over the company in the late 1970s and added a local grain elevator, and subsequently a second, to the portfolio. Ultimately, the foray into the livestock feed sales would start a series of acquisitions that would shape Republic Mills into one the Ohio agriculture community still relies on today.
Expansions, Evolutions, and Excellence
“Hudson Feeds had been in business since the ‘30s,” Gillespie says. “They were also a multi-generational family business rooted in agriculture. It was the only feed brand that we carried on our local elevator at the time.”
Unfortunately, she says, the company faced some financial challenges and found themselves at risk of shuttering. But a local poultry farmer with a loyalty to the brand and a loyalty to the local elevator he purchased it from was the catalyst to the next step.
“He had about 30,000 pullets, which is absolutely nothing compared to the millions we see at today’s poultry farms,” Gillespie says. “But back in the day, 30,000 birds were a sizeable operation. He obviously was a big customer of ours; we kept his birds fed.”
At the poultry farmer’s insistence on loyalty to Hudson Feeds, the family approached the management with an offer.
“My dad said, ‘Let us help you manage this back into profitability,’” Gillespie says.
“’If we can do that within a specified time frame, we’d like the option to purchase.’”
Hudson Feeds agreed to the offer. Before long, the feed producer returned to financial stability, and it officially became Republic Mills in May of 1995 giving the family business a more vertically integrated business structure.
Like most industries and thanks to technological and scientific advancements, agriculture and feed production look much different today than they did in the mid-‘90s. Republic Mills has embraced change and, throughout the years since acquiring Hudson Feeds, made new equipment and ideas work for them.
“We still do quite a bit of livestock feed,” says Gillespie. “But now, we do all kinds of custom work. We’re able to blend and mix all kinds of formulations. We can run any natural product through our mill. We do all sorts of custom projects across the board for clients all over the world.”
And it was one of those custom products that ultimately led to Republic Mills to its most recent expansion.
“We’d been manufacturing the supplements for the Farrier’s Magic line of products for the past 25 years,” Gillespie says.
An avid harness racing trainer began developing the product line for his own horses, in his own barn. An entrepreneur with a background in pharmacology, he created and tested supplements, liniments, and hoof creams with the goal of selling effective and high-quality products that didn’t break the bank. Word about the products quickly spread amongst horsemen and breeders near and far, and it wasn’t long before his “side project” (his main business was in the human pharmaceutical industry) took off.
Republic Mills had been producing the consumable products for more than two decades when he sold the parent company—Berlin Industries—in 2016. The buyers were only interested in the more lucrative human pharmaceutical division, so the seller set out to find a new home for Farrier’s Magic.
“Long story short, it ended up in my life,” Gillespie says. “I was the manufacturer, why not be the sales and marketing part of it, as well?”
While she credits her father for making most of Republic Mills’ recent acquisitions while she’s mainly focused on maintaining it, Gillespie couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take on Farrier’s Magic.
“I always want to put out a good product that I have 100% confidence in,” she says. “I was attracted to (acquiring this line) because I knew what was going into it. I know the care of that we take in manufacturing things.”
It was a natural fit (as noted on the Farrier’s Magic website: “Farrier’s Magic and Republic Mills are names that are steeped in family and built on tradition. Names that draw their strength from the wisdom, hard work, and values of the generations before them.”), and it wasn’t long before Republic Mills had expanded yet again.
Core Values Still Drive Operations
When Farrier’s Magic joined the Republic Mills family not much changed on the supplement side—ingredients, formulations, or offerings—which Gillespie says was by design: “I care about putting out quality products that haven’t changed a lot over time because they work. People trust those products.”
(And, she added, “if at some point, the products don’t work, we’ll talk about it.”)
But Gillespie opted to remove several other products—liniments, gels, and creams—from the line. While at first it might seem like a counterintuitive move, it was driven by some of Republic Mills’ core values: quality, confidence, and excellence.
“I don’t make liquids,” she says. “I couldn’t check every single step of the production process and have 100% confidence in something that I don’t own or manufacture. I want to put out a product that I have 100% confidence in and not spread myself so thin that it’s not a good product.”
Like her grandfather and father before her, Gillespie puts the same thought, care, hard work, and passion into everything she does. And while it’s certainly grown since the first farm became a part of it in the 1950s, Republic Mills has remained very much the same, she says.
“I’m an only child of an only child of an only child, so when you say a small business you’re absolutely right. There’s not very many of us,” she says.
“It’s still family-owned and -operated. I know every step of every process. I can fill in on any step of the process. I’ve got employees that have been with us for over 40 years, employees that were with us when I was a kid. Employees who are like family. Those are the kinds of things that are important to me.”
“You can keep expanding and make all kinds of money, but is that really what it’s all about? I have no intention of taking advantage of people, no intention of pricing things so high that only the top echelon of our society can afford it. That’s just not where I come from.”
The Future’s Already Begun
Today, Gillespie lives with her husband on the original family farm, where they instilled in their two sons the same values and drive that helped get the family business where it is today.
“My oldest son is involved in the farm operation,” she says.
“My youngest son does all of our welding and fabrication for the farm and both are horsemen.”
While neither Gillespie nor her husband had much personal involvement in the equine industry, horses have still played a role in their children’s lives. Her younger son, for instance, learned about responsibility from her in-laws’ two horses.
“We took him to spend a lot of time with Grandma and Grandpa to learn about horses, learn how much work they are before we invest in something. That’s not fair to the animal,” she recalls. “If, when you’re old enough, you still want to do it, I’m all in. I’m not doing it for you.”
Ultimately, after some time riding and caring for the horses with his grandparents, her youngest got his own horse.
“We boarded it with Grandma and Grandpa, so he always had someone to ride with,” she says. “He took care of chores with them frequently. And eventually we moved his horse back home, and the older son ended up buying a horse, too.”
Gillespie says the brothers also work with Bella Run Equine, an Athens, Ohio-based 501(c)3 that focuses on rescuing and rehabilitating horses from the slaughter pipeline.
“One of the horses in our barn right now was adopted through Bella Run, on occasion we foster horses for them” she says. “But it’s not all about the horses. It’s about the relationships and helping animals in distress that need love and support. That’s kind of where they found their niche.”
Gillespie says a few times each year, the boys will park a camper in Bella Run’s driveway for a week to “help with whatever projects need doing, donate their time, and have a good time doing it.”
“And Zack and Rachel (Bendler),” she adds, “they run the rescue and are a great married couple that works together can carry strong values with them. As a mom, I think it’s good to send your kids to be around other people who give them such a good example.”
Gillespie says both her sons have finished school, and she’s already enjoying working alongside them in the family business.
“I have every hope and excitement that they’re going to take it and run with it,” she says. “Maybe Mom can retire at some point!”
Gillespie says she’s looking forward to watching the family business grow and flourish in whatever direction her sons elect to take it.
“We’ve instilled in them to do everything with excellence and quality. You can farm 2,000 acres and you can do it really, really, well, or you can farm 8,000, 9,000, or 10,000 acres and maybe not get to or forget to harvest a field. That’s not excellence.
“Let’s take what we do and do it the very best that we can possibly do it, and let’s be thankful and understand the blessing of that. Where they take it and run with it, I don’t know, but I’ll be right on board with whatever it looks like.”