From bikes to bison: Entrepreneur Kelly Long takes an industry by storm
You could say a Harley Davidson brought Kelly Long and bison together for the first time.
It was the summer of 1998 and Long, Regional Sales Director for Harley Davidson Canada, was revving up for Harley’s 95th Anniversary road trip across the country. Long was an experienced rider, with multiple Harleys and thousands of miles under her wheels. “I love the thrill of the open road, with nothing between me and nature but my bike,” Long said. “When I’m riding through the mountains—my favourite—I can literally taste the air I’m breathing.”
For this trip, Long was riding her black and robin egg blue Heritage Classic, customized with fishtail pipes and a nacel headlight. “Even though Harley gave me a new bike to ride every year, I loved my Heritage Classic,” Long said. “It looked like a 1950s classic car on two wheels, but I had the dealer tune it up to go really FAST.”
“Riding a bike connects you to others,” Long said. “You wave ‘hi’ to riders that you pass, and when you pull off the road, people come over to talk. Even people that don’t ride want to strike up a conversation and find out about your story—where you’re going, what’s the adventure. There’s a real camaraderie about it.” “At the same time,” Long continued, “you’re entirely independent and alone with your thoughts when you’re travelling—it’s like a meditation.”
On a crisp morning in June, Long joined riders from all walks of life to make the trek from Edmonton to Milwaukee. As lead rider for Harley, she set the pace for 120 bikes behind her. Pieter Spinder, a bison rancher from Peace River and long-time Harley rider, was at the back of the pack. Not one to take up the rear, he soon negotiated his way to the front of the ride and the rest, they say, is history.
When Long met Spinder on that fateful ride to Wisconsin, he talked about the northern Alberta bison ranch he now called home.
Peace River country had never been on Long’s radar, and she’d only glimpsed bison on road trips through the National Parks. Cresting that last hill to Wild Rose Ranch, Long remembers ‘wide open plains, ultra-blue sky, and about as far as the eye could see – bison’. Long had seen a few of these mighty beasts, but never on this scale. As she took in the landscape where the closest neighbouring ranch was a blip on the horizon, Long was certain of one thing. Pieter Spinder may have captured her heart, but it was the bison that gave her a vision for her future.
Building a brand from the ground up
A soft spoken man who traded his family business in Holland for thousands of acres of grassland in Canada, Spinder was no stranger to challenge. Neither was Long.
“When we met,” said Long, “Pieter and I would go out in the evenings and hang out with the bison, in a truck of course. It was peaceful to just sit and watch them.” At that time, in the early 2000s, prices for bison meat were at their peak. But as is the way of the agriculture industry, prices crashed two years later, along with the market. “It was the beginning of a deep dive into the intricacies of producing and marketing bison,” Long said, “and like my time at Harley Davidson, there weren’t many female role models in the industry for me to learn from.”
That didn’t stop Long from forging ahead, leaving no dung heap unturned. Needing to develop new markets for bison meat, or risk losing the ranch, Long took on the challenge to build a premium bison brand in Canada. Coming from a long line of entrepreneurs, she searched out mentors in the meat processing industry, and began mapping out the best markets for their products.
Starting with foodservice in the EU (because Europeans love their game meat), Long successfully navigated the logistics of processing and exporting—and a brand was born. Carmen Creek Gourmet Meats went on to become an award-winning premium brand of choice at both wholesale and retail. The industry responded well to quality product, innovative design and marketing initiatives, and soon demand exceeded supply. After 12 years of building not just a strong brand, but a growing category for chefs and consumers, Long and Spinder sold Carmen Creek to a large US producer. With their golden retriever Rusty, they moved to a hobby ranch west of Calgary and took a hiatus from the industry.
Call of the wild
In 2016, Long received a call from one of Canada’s largest bison producers, asking to share a cup of coffee and a conversation. Doug Griller was a third generation bison rancher, with his ear to the ground and an eye for opportunity. Griller knew about Long and her reputation in the industry as one of the best marketers out there. Long had met Griller a time or two and knew him to be a well-respected producer in an industry long on patience and short on resources.
Griller wanted to create and market a premium bison brand, and he recognized that Long was the one to do it. After an initial highly successful launch to the hospitality industry, Noble Premium Bison is now the only Canadian bison brand sold nationally at fresh meat counters right across Canada. With sales growing exponentially year over year, bison is becoming the meat to eat, thanks to demand for planet-healthy protein, and experienced marketers like Long. “This is an industry still dominated by men,” says Long, “so for me, there was a huge learning curve in navigating certain dynamics, to grow the business the way I wanted. I understood early on to listen more, talk less, and surround myself with the best people in their own fields.”
One of those people is her husband, Pieter Spinder. “I don’t think anyone can be a successful entrepreneur without good people in their home corner,” continues Long. “Pieter is my fiercest supporter. He understands my desire to build Rome in a day, yet makes sure I pack a lunch when I do it.”
Long also acknowledges that hard won gains come from surrounding yourself with the best. “I’ve had the good fortune in my career to meet some exceptional individuals who set their own bar pretty high,” says Long. “From my forum mates, to mentors and business coaches, to my branding team, I’m like a sponge when it comes to absorbing the expertise around me. They keep me grounded while at the same time, inspire me to step outside my comfort zone.”
The road more travelled
In an industry where women are still the minority, Long continues to search out other entrepreneurs who have broken through gender and business barriers. “I think organizations and associations that give women an opportunity to learn from each other are really important,” says Long. “I also think we need to acknowledge and reward excellence in female entrepreneurship; not because we should be defined by our gender when it comes to success, but because we’re still a minority, especially in the Canadian agriculture industry.”
“For that reason,” Long continued, “it’s important to be more visible. When women see other women succeed, it lets us know we can follow our own path, even if that path leads to bison.”
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