Frontier Co-op’s Tony Bedard talks with Nate about lessons learned from sports and leadership during a recent recording session at Frontier’s Norway headquarters. PHOTO ADAM MOORE
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By Nate Kaeding
When asked how he would describe his job as CEO of Frontier Co-op, Tony Bedard humbly told me, “I actually don’t do anything. I don’t know the last time I actually did anything productive. The role of any manager, and specifically mine, is just to sort of break down the barriers for people to get their work done.”
If, in fact, Mr. Bedard makes a practice of not doing anything (a fact I call bullshit on), he’s pretty darn good at it. Norway, Iowa-based Frontier has grown roughly 12 percent a year for 15 straight years since 2002, becoming one of the region’s largest privately held companies, all while donating 4 percent of its pre-tax profits to organizations around the world and here in the region. “Doing well by doing good” is fundamental to Frontier’s success, and firmly embedded in Mr. Bedard’s philosophy of what it takes to build a winning culture.
We sat down at the company’s amenity-rich Norway headquarters to discuss his unique upbringing, lessons learned from his wrestling days and how it all informs the (lack of) work he does at Frontier.
Tony, you’re from a big family that merged with another big family. Tell me a bit about your early family dynamic and how that shaped your life?
Yeah, I have a background a little different than most people. I grew up south of Waterloo, a family of six kids. My father died when I was young and so my mother raised us alone for a bit. He was a meat packer. He worked all kinds of odd jobs on the farm, carpentry, and I understood the value of hard work. I understood that if you’re going to make it in the world, you got to do it by yourself and rely on yourself.
Anyway, my mother remarried, so they merged nine more [children], and that made 15, and then they had one more — that’s 16. So for numerous years, we had five in high school at a time. I grew up in a household of 13 kids. Needless to say, there weren’t big allowances or anything like that. I had a job when I was nine years old. I had a mowing business before I was 10 years old.
You also grew up by Waterloo – that’s Dan Gable country. I know wrestling has played a big part in your life.
A little bit, yeah. He [Dan Gable] was everything. When he won the Olympics, I was 16 years old. He gave me my first chart at the Wahawk Invitational. I was 12 years old when he won his title, and that was a big deal. We talk about quotes in life or whatever. It was a quote he wrote down one time — “make your own luck.” I’ve used that forever.
I think for a while there in my life — especially through my kids and stuff — looked at sports and thought we make them too important, but in my life, sports were everything. It’s what kept me in high school. Wrestling was an outlet for my aggressiveness, or something that I couldn’t quite get under control in my high school years. The sport of wrestling is about you as an individual. There’s no excuses, and a lot of sacrifice. In my background, if it isn’t hard, it isn’t worth it. And that’s the way it was growing up.
Building your confidence.
Yeah, and it teaches you how to lose. Obviously, it’s a cliché, but you learn more from losing than winning if you take it in the right way. I won two matches my freshman year. I was good but I had a bad attitude, and I didn’t lose a match my senior year. I tell people it was just the attitude. I was the same physically. I mean, yeah, a little bit better, but it was in your head. That’s the kind of stuff I learned out of wrestling.
What were some other jobs you had as a young kid?
We always had a couple jobs. I would work the detasseling crews, but I would take a contract. So, we wouldn’t go on the crews, because we’d make better money if we actually took our own acres.
As I grew up, I grew up doing construction. My stepfather was a carpenter and had a small farm. We did night jobs. We had our own cement-pouring business, we did that for years on the side. Even when I was working at Winnebago in the early days, I’d do a lot of cement. We roofed houses. We took the roofing jobs that other people didn’t want. But we had five boys and we were a crew. To this day, that’s what I do in my spare time — dig holes and pound nails and stuff.