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Success breeds success, and challenges

EDITOR’S NOTE: Twice a month Shawn Brown will write a column that will, in his words, ‘engage the reader on a journey of (business) discovery’ by using his real world experiences from the beginning of his corporate career to his transition to entrepreneur and business owner. Each column will eventually be a chapter of his book Rules of Behaviour. The book will be available in 2013.

November 30, 2012

EDMONTON, AB, Nov. 30, 2012/ Troy Media/ – The changes in the Consumer Packaged Goods industry in the early to mid 1990′s were tectonic in many ways. The industry was consolidating rapidly, the retail accounts were in the process of centralizing every aspect of their operations at their respective head offices (and removing virtually all purchasing and marketing decisions from the retail level), and evolving into a data and I.T.-based and -managed industry in every way imaginable.

Conversely, manufacturers which had operated marginally with direct-to-store shipping and/or who had previously relied on specialty markets and distributors found themselves adapting to the industry’s changes and new realities, or being relegated to the sidelines as either a marginal or niche manufacturer and supplier.

As our company’s reputation grew in the industry, and being one of the companies at the forefront of and even leading the change (especially on the data management and technology side), we were often approached to represent new companies and products. A national manufacturer and importer of quality Italian products recognized this shift, and realized that if it was to truly be a major national player in this category, it faced a major shift in their strategy and distribution methodology.

I was starting to develop some strong inroads at my largest account, Horne and Pitfield, and had started to move the overall operation of the Edmonton office in a clearly good and strong direction. One particularly insane day I received a phone call from one of our managing partners, Ken Roulston (one of the gentlemen whom this column and journey is dedicated to) informing me that he was coming to Edmonton with a new client to share the details of what was transpiring with me. This was somewhat unusual as, usually with a new client, we traditionally held a full launch and product review meeting, along with the related trade notifications that went out. But I was so busy at that time I didn’t have much time to really ponder the reason for the meeting.

When they arrived, they told me they would provide a complete debrief of what was about to transpire, and their reason for being in Edmonton in the first place, as we drove to our specified location. I recognized the area we were heading to, but had still never been to that part of the city.

Unico was a traditional Italian food products company that had developed a strong and loyal following within the Italian communities across Canada. It had distributed its products, in the large Canadian cities, through the local, usually predominant, Italian grocery store and distributor. And the relationship was a mutually beneficial one for many years.

The company had been sold and the new owners recognized that if they were to not only survive but thrive in the changing industry dynamics, they would have to move away from their traditional business model and into major grocery accounts. The challenge was how to deliver this message to their intensely loyal trade partners, and hopefully salvage those relationships and, ideally, continue them in conjunction with the new strategy and direction.

As we drove to Little Italy, it was explained to me that this was most likely going to be easier said than done. I was told that the Italian community was exceptionally passionate about most everything, including its business relationships. I remember the tension which permeated in my car like it was yesterday. As we pulled up to our location, I was given explicit instructions to park the car in the back alley by the back door of the store, and leave the car running with the doors unlocked. If I saw them leaving the store ‘quickly’ I was to get them in the car and leave as fast as I possibly could.

I remember sitting there literally sweating bullets and wondering what mess I had gotten myself into now. It felt like I was in a movie, none with happy outcomes! After what seemed to be two hours, they re-appeared, got in the car in somewhat normal fashion, and told me to drive back to my office.

The meeting had gone better than they thought it would, and although there were certainly some hurt feelings and there was going to be a period of massaging and rectifying the relationship, they were confident it could be maintained while they focused on their formal launch within the mainstream grocery channels.

Then they told me the only way they saw this working was if I assumed direct responsibility for the management and maintenance of that relationship and business . . .

Shawn Brown is the Founder and President of Forest For the Trees, a boutique business advisory service headquartered in Edmonton, AB.

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