Ryan McKenna comes home to McKenna Bros.
- by Terry Sokol | August 30, 2006
It wasn't a simple choice, but it's one Ryan McKenna is happy to have made. The 23-year-old gave up his study of medicine at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, to come home this summer to Prince Edward Island, Canada, and join the business founded by his grandfather and great-uncle.
McKenna Bros. Ltd. in Cardigan, Prince Edward Island, is a distributor-shipper of potatoes and seed potatoes. Mr. McKenna became an official, full-time member of the company's sales department in July.
"I had been teetering back and forth, trying to make a decision," said Mr. McKenna, who graduated from the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown with a degree in biology in 2004. "This is something I had grown up in and had a lot of pride in."
While he "really enjoyed the study, when it came right down to it, joining the family business was not a difficult decision," he said. His grandfather John and great-uncle Terence started shipping potatoes and other produce in 1954 from a general store they had opened in 1952, utilizing a railway track that ran behind the property.
"The track is long gone now," Mr. McKenna said, and the store closed in 1984, with the business operating strictly as a produce dealer. The company was restructured in 1989 as McKenna Bros. Ltd., under the direction of the second generation, including Mr. McKenna's dad, Shawn. "My father, uncle and a few cousins took over full ownership," Mr. McKenna said.
The firm's offices are located in the original general store, and "my grandfather and my great-uncle still come in every day; they're very active in the business," he said.
Mr. McKenna is ramping up his own activity level as the current potato season gets underway. "I'm working on cultivating some clients," he said, noting that while some potatoes are being harvested now, "by the middle of September, we'll be going full tilt." McKenna Bros. sources from growers throughout the island. "We deal with as many growers as we can," Mr. McKenna said. Customers are primarily a mix of retailers and wholesalers. "We do a lot within Canada - Toronto, Montreal - the Eastern Seaboard, the Caribbean and a little bit into Venezuela."
The transition from student to produce salesman has presented "a bigger learning curve than I expected," he said. "It's very different - a whole different language. The challenges are varied, from lining up trucks to get the loads to clients to dealing with customers you've never met face to face. "It's tough on both ends. You also have to stay up-to-date on a lot of literature, not just on what goes on locally or within Canada but in North America and even Europe." Ag news and certifications comprise a large portion of his current reading.
Mr. McKenna said that his youth -- and academic interests -- could work to his advantage in certain respects. "I'm sort of more up to date with technology, and with my background in biology, I can understand a lot of the different processes with pesticides and chemicals."
While most of the growers he will be dealing with are contemporaries of his dad and uncle and can sometimes be skeptical of the younger generation, he noted, "On the other hand, I have known a lot of them since I was 10 years old."
Whatever the difficulties of his new career, the rewards are tangible, he said. "The biggest reward for me is coming back and the satisfaction that you're actually working for the family business -- you're a part of it."
Mr. McKenna foresees making business trips to conferences and trade shows to meet people and "shake some hands and hand out some business cards. I know a lot of the growers around here; I need to meet customers," he said.
He has already traveled extensively in Europe, having taken advantage of his stay in Ireland to travel throughout that country as well as to Edinburgh in Scotland; London; Paris; Venice and Rome in Italy; and Spain. He was accompanied by his girlfriend, Erin Thompson; the two have been a couple "since 12th grade."
Besides travel, Mr. McKenna counts a number of sports among his favorite leisure activities: participating in soccer, golf and ice hockey.
History is another passion. In fact, he spent the year between obtaining his university degree and beginning his medical studies researching the offshore fishery industry of Prince Edward Island in the 1960s at the suggestion of a former professor. The end result of a series of interviews with retired fishermen is slated to be published this fall in The Island Magazine, a publication of the Prince Edward Island Museum & Heritage Foundation.
Mr. McKenna actually began his tenure in the produce industry as a boy, working "around the plant and warehouse." He also picked strawberries at Coffin Farms in nearby Mount Stewart, but "I didn't last long," he laughed.
As he grew older, he worked on the grading and packing of potatoes for McKenna Bros. In the summer, when the company began taking in potatoes from farmers, "everything had to be pressure-washed and the machinery serviced," he said.
Those early jobs gave him a solid grounding and helped to establish his work ethic. "Just growing up watching my dad and grandfather - there was no better example than my grandfather," he said. "He and my uncle worked hard and invested in the general store, and look where it's taken them today."
Mr. McKenna lives in Cardigan Head. His mother, Marie, is an educational assistant in the local school system. He has a sister, Nicole, 21, and a brother, Christopher, 17.
"There's a whole other generation coming along -- my uncle and [older] cousins have kids my age," he said. "I don't know if there will be the same progression, but they definitely have an interest in it."
Meanwhile, Ms. Thompson is very understanding of the demands of working in the family business - she was used to it from the hours he had to put in studying medicine, he said. Despite the challenges, "I try to balance everything -- work, study and leisure," he said.