A grocery exec at the top of his game, a CPG vet now advocating for Ontario’s dairy industry and the former head of a group that champions independent grocers—these are the three outstanding recipients of the 2019 Golden Pencil Awards. The prestigious awards have been presented by the Food Industry Association of Canada since 1957 to recognize individuals who have made lasting contributions to the Canadian food industry and their communities. Read on to learn more about this year’s impressive winners: Christian Bourbonnière, Cheryl Smith and Thomas A. Barlow.
At an early age, Christian Bourbonnière knew he wanted to work in the food industry. After all, it was kind of the family business, as his father operated a grocery store, a fruit store and even a restaurant at different points. “My dream was to have my own store,” he says, then adds with a laugh, “but things turned out differently.”
While Bourbonnière didn’t end up with his own store, his career of more than 40 years has been a steady ascent, from working the checkout at Dominion Stores on weekends to becoming an executive vice-president and head of Metro’s Quebec Division to his new role as president of Metro’s Adonis Group.
“[With] each position I had in my career, I had a passion for it, because I always learned something new,” he says, proudly noting that he “didn’t skip any steps” along the way. Describing himself as naturally curious, Bourbonnière says throughout his career he has always sought to do things a little differently. As a produce buyer at Provigo in the 1980s, for example, he sought new ways to buy products that involved working more directly with suppliers and opening doors to countries beyond the United States and Canada. As a merchandiser, he looked for new ways to get shoppers to buy more produce. “It’s important to always question what you’re doing,” he says. “Sometimes we think that because something [worked before] it should still work; but working like that, one day you’re going to face a wall.”
Generously, Bourbonnière credits much of his success to the teams that have helped him grow and that have supported him throughout his career. And the advice he would offer those coming up in the industry? “Don’t be afraid to have people around you who are stronger or have better experience in some segment of the business. It’s how you form the best teams,” he says. “It’s always about the team around you.”
Hard work has always been part of Cheryl Smith’s DNA. While she didn’t grow up on a farm herself, she credits her farming relatives for instilling in her the work ethic tied to farm life. “I think I was 13 when I got my first part-time job, and it wasn’t because my mom and dad told me to get a job, I just did it,” she says. “I can’t remember not having a strong work ethic, or not knowing the value of education or the value of hard work.”
This can-do attitude has clearly worked for Smith. Right after graduating with a master’s degree from the University of Waterloo, she was hired by Unilever in 1990, where she worked in marketing for seven years before taking on a brand development role with Rogers. She moved on to Lactalis Parmalat Canada in 1999, where she would spend two decades, quickly moving up the ladder joining the executive team by 2006 and becoming general manager of cheese & tablespreads, fine cheese & yogourt in 2016, overseeing a billion-dollar portfolio.
Among her other accolades, Smith was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network in 2012 and won a Canadian Grocer Star Women in Grocery Award in 2018. Smith left Parmalat in June, but is by no means slowing down: she’s now CEO of the Dairy Farmers of Ontario, while simultaneously pursuing a long- held goal—completing the management program at Harvard Business School.
Smith says one of the most gratifying parts of her career has been her work with industry associations and charitable organizations. Being on the board of the Grocery Foundation and Kids Help Phone has been a particular source of pride. “I love grocery’s capacity to do good. It’s really hard to dwell on competitor and customer issues when you’re all working together to either feed hungry children or answer the phone when children are in crisis,” she says. “It’s important to find a way to give back.”
“You could almost say I was born into the business,” Tom Barlow jokes, recalling his first brush with the food business when, as a young lad, he would tag along when his dad went to work at Canada Dry Bottling in Toronto on weekends. When he was old enough, he got his own job at the company, working there during summer breaks from school.
That temporary gig turned into a 36-year career at the beverage company (which would eventually be acquired by Coca-Cola in 1989). By the time he retired from Coca-Cola in 2013, Barlow had completed every kind of task, from warehouse work to driving to sales. Later on, he was deployed to the United States to rack up some experience in that market before being appointed head of the Canadian business unit and, ultimately, vice-president vending and wholesale for North America. “I think one of the reasons I was able to move forward is that I never shied away from the tough assignments,” says Barlow. “I looked for sections of the business that were broken and where I could make a difference.”
Barlow jumped at the chance to lead the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers (CFIG) in 2013. “When John Scott retired as CEO, it was an opportunity. I knew the industry and I wanted to come back to Canada.” Last year, after five years at the helm, Barlow retired from CFIG.
Barlow credits his father for helping form his approach to leadership. “My father believed everybody in an organization plays an important role, whether it’s the person working on night sanitation or the president. Everybody has their role to play and when everybody does their role, the organization works better.”
When asked what advice he’d give to up-and-comers, Barlow is quick with his response: continue to learn. “I’m a big believer in lifelong learning. The skills you have today aren’t necessarily going to be the things that are going to make you successful tomorrow. You have to continue to adapt and improve.”