OTHER LIVES: MARTIN AND KATI DAGENAIS

Mushing is a very time intensive sport. We all know how it can consume our every spare moment, not to mention resources. However, we do know that our readers are a great and varied bunch with incredibly diverse backgrounds and professions. In “Other Lives” we continue to explore the interesting hobbies and occupations of our readers. Martin Dagenais is a top level limited class sprint musher from St. Saveur, Quebec, Canada. We spoke with him to find out how he juggles the time needed to train a competitive team and run the family business.GS: Hi Martin. First off, I’d like to congratulate you on an outstanding season.MD: Thank you, it was a lot of work. In addition to working 60 hours a week at the business, I have to drive an hour and fifteen minutes each way to train during the fall and winter.GS: Wow, that’s commitment. How long have you been in sled dogs and how did you get started. MD: I started in 1986, I was 13 years old, I went to a local race and met a local musher who was kind enough to mentor me and we, myself and my dad, got hooked right away. I’m a pretty competitive guy, I hardly ever do anything just for fun. So after this guy showed me how to put a harness on, I then met with Brian and Judy Pearce (successful sprint mushers in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s) and they showed me how to feed for competition. I then enlisted in the Quebec sprint club (CACQ) and got to know Real Turmel, who showed me some of his winning ways and how to train dogs for competition. I won a few championships in the early 90’s. Then in 1993 I met my wife and took a larger role in my family’s business, so it was all too much for me to handle, and I sold out my kennel in 1994 to concentrate on business and most importantly my new family.GS: When did you get back into it?MD: Well, we wanted to have a house dog after our house dog died in 2002. He was 17 yrs old, and was the only dog I kept from my previous racing team. I was looking at German Shepards, and I ended up talking to a friend in the sport who said “You should look at some of those Ellis dogs. They look like they can be very nice house pets, and if you ever want to go skiing with them, they are very athletic, obviously.” So I started studying pedigrees, because I knew if I got a dog like that I’d probably get back into mushing. I finally called Egil, and he told me that he doesn’t sell small pups that haven’t been harness-broke yet. He finally offered me Koby, who was 4 months old at the time. We were very fortunate in that he was from an outstanding litter, 4 of his littermates won the ONAC. Koby has been winning races for me since he started racing as a yearling in lead. He is out of Timmie x Lonely. GS: Getting that dog rekindled your interest in racing?MD: Absolutely. We put our little girl on a sled, and put Koby in front of it, and he just was a natural born leader. After that, I bought a bitch from Birgitta Naess from Norway and it just took off again from there. I treat these dogs like human athletes. Top level human athletes don’t sit around and get fat for half of the year. Every day I free run these dogs two times – every day, 365 days a year. I believe the future of this sport is in better dog care. I’m really into details especially with equipment.GS: Tell me a little bit about your “other life.” What you do for an occupation.MD: Well my family owns a building materials store where we sell electrical, plumbing and hardware supplies for contractors and consumers. We also own a very large lumber yard. My grandfather started the business in 1929, then my father took it over from him. I’m the 3rd generation owner. I run it with my sister who is the co-owner. It is a pretty big company in Quebec. We have 2 stores, over 250 employees, and over 20 trucks. It is a bit like a small Home Depot, with a really big lumber yard. We sell materials for over 1000 houses to be built every year. My father is still involved, he is 65 years old. We are the biggest seller of building materials per store in Quebec. The other guys who own stores the size of mine just can’t believe I can juggle work with my hobby. I work 60 hours per week at the store. I’ve been working there from the age of 12 or 13 after school and on the weekends. It wasn’t until I was 21 that I started working there full time. At that time there were 10 employees total, and we only had 1 store. We’ve grown tremendously since then.GS: That sounds like a huge responsibility. How are you at delegating responsibility? I don’t imagine you still stock the shelves yourself.MD: Actually what I’m good at in the dog sport and in my business is I know how to surround myself with very good people. The employees that we have are the very best in the business. We are known throughout Canada for that. We pay more than anybody else, but we also get more. My sister and father also help with that. I do the same thing in the dog sport. When I want to know how to treat a dog with foot problems, I call Dawn Brown. When I want to know how to train a dog to compete at the best of its abilities I talk to Real Turmel, when I want to know about nutrition I call Rob Downey. I consider these the best people I know of. I do the same with my business. I surround myself with the best purchasers and the best sellers, the best employees I can find. I’ve got people working for this business that have been here 30 years. Those are the people who are the easiest for me to get along with. They saw me sweeping the parking lot when I was a kid, they saw me pricing merchandise, they saw me delivering building materials. I didn’t come to this store at the top level. I had to work my way up from the ground.GS: I know that from the various businesses I’ve worked in that is a great quality to have, but some managers don’t have the self confidence to hire somebody who is better at their job than they are. I’ve seen it be a real problem. It tends to lead to a “dumbing down” of the work force just so the manager can look good.MD: What I can tell you is that I don’t know anything about building a house. I don’t care to either. What I know is that if I hire the best guy who does know how to build a house from top to bottom, and I hire the best buyer who can get the best prices on materials, and I hire the seller who has the personality and ability to sell the products to the client, all I have to do is check on the results. I’m like the conductor of an orchestra.GS: I guess you don’t have to know how to play an Oboe to hear when the notes are wrong! What kind of hiring process do you go through, and can you draw any comparisons between hiring employees and picking or purchasing dogs for your team?MD: Actually there are many comparisons. We are very selective. I have some very specific things I am looking for, some of them don’t really have anything to do with their job function. If a guy has no family values, I don’t hire him. If a guy smokes, I don’t hire him, and things like that. In dogs, I’m willing to spend quite a bit of money on a dog, but I’m very, very picky. Some of the people I’ve bought dogs from often get mad with me because I ask so many questions that at a certain point that they wonder if I’m really serious about purchasing, but I am. GS: It sounds like you received an incredible education growing up and working at the family business. Did you attend University to study business also?MD: I went to a technical school for three years for business administration. After 3 years of that I was ready for university, but I decided to go right into business with the family. The type of work that we do here is mainly learned in the field, not in school. Some of the ways we do business here, you just would never learn in school.GS: But aren’t there fundamentals in business that are true universally? I’ve always held the notion that good business fundamentals are true whether you’re business is toilet paper or two-by-fours.MD: Yes, of course. I’ve traveled around the world a lot. Everywhere I go when I meet people they offer me jobs. I’ve been offered to manage hotels, etc. I think they pick up on the business sensibilities in me. My father was like that. He was a biology teacher until the age of 32. At that age he stopped and went to work for his father, and made it expand very quickly. He was a natural at business without being trained at all. It was in his blood.GS: Tell me a little bit about your family.MD: My oldest daughter Matisse is 11, the younger one is Sandrine, she is 7. When I came back from vacation this winter I was a little lost with the dogs—it was becoming very overwhelming. I love them and I love working with them but I didn’t know if I could handle the work it took to compete anymore. I told them that I might be selling all the dogs, and they decided to help me out with the chores. Matisse immediately offered to help me feed the dogs, and Sandrine helps with taking care of them. They have become really involved. I think they will become very involved in the future. Sandrine just raced the 1-dog in L’Epiphanie this year. For me the family comes first. The dogs are definitely a part of the family. I like things to be balanced. I don’t put all of my energy in dogs, or all of my energy in business, but my first priority is my family and my wife. At the end of the season I missed out on the Markstay race and a possible ISDRA Gold Medal, but I had promised my kids to go to Disney World. GS: Is Kati, your wife involved in the sport with you?MD: Yes, every training run she is with me. Whether it is on the 4-Wheeler or the sled she comes along. I never train alone—she is with me on every training run from October to the end of the season. She gets really involved with the nutrition and the health of the dogs. Kati is an accupuncturist, and she applies a lot of her understanding about health issues to the dogs. We complement each other well. Next year if we get snow early, and she can practice, she will probably race 4-dog.GS: As your daughters grow up, if they show interest in your business, how will you handle that? Is there something inside you that wants to pass it on to the next generation?MD: I think the best thing is to let them make the decision if they want to be involved or not. I do know that they have the ability to do what I do no problem. When they get old enough they will be offered a job in the store and then they can see if they want to do it, or if they like it. If they end up looking like their mother—I think I might have problems with some of the guys in the store! I hope the guys in the store will act like gentlemen around them! I’m just kidding. If they are interested I will try to do as my father did with me. I will try to coach them and let them find their way on their own. I hope that they will continue in the business, but if they don’t, we will support them in anything they do. GS: Thanks Martin, have a great summer.MD: No problem, you too. I just wanted to add that I really want to commend you in putting out a great magazine that shows the sport in a great way. I show Mushing Magazine to my business acquaintances who know nothing of the sport. I always have a copy to proudly show them what it is I do with my dogs.

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