- Investment in automation and innovation is key to growing agrifood businesses in Canada.
- Canada’s educational institutions must step up their entrepreneurial education as well as efforts to equip talent with future skills.
- Entrepreneurs must seek out diverse advisors in order to challenge themselves in the areas they are weakest in.
The agrifood ecosystem in Canada needs more support from academia in training the next generation of highly skilled talent for an increasingly automated sector. Coupled with the growth of a talent pipeline, continuous investment in automation and innovation will be the key to success in the agrifood space.
What does Homestyle Selections do?
In late 2019, my partner Lee Newton and I developed a concept of a platform that would serve both grocery retail and food service companies in preparing and delivering to them freshly prepared products for the deli counter or restaurants. Homestyle Selections was born from that concept.
Why did you decide to start your own agrifood business? What is in an entrepreneur’s DNA?
My entire career and life have revolved around the agrifood and agribusiness world. I grew up on a dairy farm in Saskatchewan. From there, I eventually took over some farming operations while attending university. Even while I had my first career job, I was very active on the farm, growing various produce and tending to livestock. I also worked closely with people in agribusiness, helping farmers determine what they should grow and market their products around the world.
As I was working, I realized that farmers are actually the ultimate entrepreneurs. There is a lot of risk, opportunity and reward in this line of work. There is also a lot of learning along the way. Entrepreneurship grew in my DNA from that point in time.
I have also worked for many large organizations in the agrifood business such as in food processing and worldwide distribution and so I was able to learn what it takes to be successful in running a business. I always had this drive and desire to have a business that I could say I helped create from the beginning.
When I was looking for a change in my career in 2019, I took the step of looking for some partners to work with in creating a vision of something that there would be a market for. This goes back to your question about an entrepreneur’s DNA. Having an entrepreneur’s DNA means being in tune with where the markets are currently but also where they are going. If it is a product-based business that you are creating, you need to understand that the consumer is king and make sure you have an awareness of what the consumer wants. You will need to always find innovative and efficient ways to provide consumers with what they are looking for.
What were the challenges you faced in growing your agrifood company? What solutions got you through them?
We faced two big challenges. The first challenge was the pandemic. We had to refine our business thesis. We went out and raised capital. We aligned our debt structures so that we can go and execute things quickly. As it turned out, we were able to purchase three different businesses during the pandemic. We had to hone our ability to do proper due diligence, interact with the teams in the companies that we acquired and understand the different operations. We believe that we are fairly good operators, but it is still tough to do that remotely. It was very difficult in the early stages to get in and understand how to improve the business and enhance the business platform that we had.
“In Canada, there is a gap for talent at key leadership and operating levels.”
The second major challenge for us, which is a common theme across North America and maybe even the world, was the talent side of things. Each of our acquisitions came with a different model. The first one had an existing management team in place. The second one was basically a group of individuals who had grown their business from scratch and then wanted to sell their business and retire. The third one was purchased out of bankruptcy and so it did not come with a lot of infrastructure or overhead. We had to work with those three different business models and identify who could run each business and work with us to make this successful, right from the front lines all the way up to the C-suite. That was a challenge because there is great demand for talent. In Canada, there is a gap for talent at key leadership and operating levels.
We did whatever we could to leverage technology. Everybody was on screen a lot. As soon as we could, we went out to our operations and interacted with people to let them know that they were an important part of our family. We actively looked for ideas to come from the factory floor right up to the executive level on how we could improve the business. The remote engagement was different from what we were accustomed to but nonetheless, it was important.
As for the talent side of things – I have over 35 years of experience in the agribusiness world, so I reached out very aggressively and deeply into my network. A number of the senior executives that we brought into the organization were people I had worked with or for before. We knew we could trust them because of our relationship over time and the successes they had since I last worked with them. It was important for us to be able to build a team that we could trust and that trusted us. We wanted to make sure we had top-quality people who had a solid track record before.
What are the opportunities within the Canadian agrifood space?
I have had the good fortune of being able to travel around the world and see many different ecosystems in the agrifood world. One thing that always impresses me about the Canadian agrifood industry is its resilience and willingness to innovate. I am excited about it. I am very bullish on the agrifood industry in Canada. I would not have invested significantly in what we are doing if I was not. I have seen that there is always a willingness to try new things to be responsive to the marketplace and what consumers want. That is a good first step in anything, but after that agrifood businesses should look to invest in innovation and automation.
Within our business, we have about 180 different distinct and unique products that we provide. It is sometimes difficult to get cohesive automation in place, but we were able to bring in some great leadership to the company in the operations and commercial side to help us get better at this. This is just an illustration of how, when we in Canada set our minds to do something, we will go through the necessary steps. Innovation and automation are the two things that will help Canadian agrifood businesses thrive.
What kind of support is needed for agrifood players in Canada?
Private and independent businesses need to and can take care of most of the needs they have, without a ton of intervention. Where support and assistance can really come, particularly from governments at all levels, is in the traditional areas of education and in the creation of support for the market. I am not necessarily talking about financial support. The government should be helping us to open doors with various marketplaces and create the kind of skill base that we need. Labour is changing. It is more about intellectual property and people who can operate more complex systems and processes. There is still a gap there. We are not quite there yet with our education systems. The public and private sectors must work together to build more future skills and provide a greater supply of labour that can operate in a new, innovative and automated environment.
“There needs to be more emphasis in education on how to properly create and structure entrepreneur-driven businesses.”
Oftentimes, most of the learning that happens for entrepreneurs is in “The University of Life” or “school of hard knocks”. There needs to be more emphasis in education on how to properly create and structure entrepreneur-driven businesses. We also need to pay more attention to the kinds of skills that are required for entrepreneurship. Education institutions need to help students understand the kind of automation and innovation that is coming down the pipe. We have made great strides and many universities have started to respond over the last five or 10 years, but there is still room for improvement.
Why did you opt to take investment from the Canadian Business Growth Fund? What will that investment enable?
When we raised additional capital through the Canadian Business Growth Fund (CBGF), we were pretty clear on what we needed. First of all, we needed the funds to complete an acquisition that we were working on. It was one of those cases where we had enough capital, but we did not 100% know what the end price was going to be. CBGF helped us with that. They stepped up quickly. We also earmarked a significant amount of the investment they made for growth capital that would go into improving our assets, productivity and processes. So far, we have invested most of the available dollars that they have contributed in process and equipment improvement as well as innovation and automation. This has helped us position ourselves for great growth going forward.
What is your advice for young Canadians looking to become entrepreneurs?
I have the good fortune of being able to coach and mentor three or four entrepreneurs at this current time. Whether it is in a production or technology environment, my advice always is that entrepreneurs need to come up with a clear vision of where they want to go. This vision is going to change over time, so you must spend time thinking through and planning where you want your business to go and what you want it to provide.
“Budding entrepreneurs should seek out trusted advisors.”
Then the second biggest piece of advice is that budding entrepreneurs should seek out trusted advisors. That can be a little cliche because advice is everywhere, but you need to seek out specific people who can help challenge you in the areas you are not the strongest in. Maybe you are excellent at marketing and sales, but you are not good with operations or logistics and supply chains. Entrepreneurs need to diversify their advisory groups so that they can be challenged in a number of areas. The most thrilling thing for me in this environment of agrifood entrepreneurship is the willingness of people who have been-there-done-that to help those that have not. So, make sure you leverage those advisors.
The final piece of advice I have for entrepreneurs everywhere and people who are starting or growing a business is to remain humble. You can have some very rapid success and you can be going in a great direction, but there are actually a lot of curveballs that can come your way. If entrepreneurs remain humble, they will become more attuned to when curveballs are coming and seek support before they become big issues.