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Lifting greens with Mike Furi

Head of procurement at The Grocery People, Mike Furi, talks produce, supply chain and food policy

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More than four decades into his grocery career, Mike Furi jokes that when he grows up, he’s “gonna be a pilot.” In 1973, that’s what a then 18-year-old Furi was training to do in his hometown of Prince Albert, Sask.

But then a good-paying job came up at a warehouse for Westfair Foods’ Western Grocers division, and suddenly Furi “got the grocery bug,” as he puts it.

Over 20 years, Furi moved up the ranks at Western Grocers, ending as region produce manager before joining The Grocery People, the arm of Federated Co-operatives. After managing its Saskatoon and Winnipeg branches, he became manager of procurement and pricing, a position he holds today.

Asked to describe his job, Furi keeps it simple. He has a team of six in Calgary, and “our role is to find the best products, across all categories—that meet our standards and that our consumers are looking for.”

Today, The Grocery People distributes to some 575 stores, including Super A, Bigway and Co-op, plus more than 100 foodservice outlets in Western Canada, the territories and northern Ontario.

Now a grandfather, Furi lives with his wife of 41 years, Bonnie, just outside of Saskatoon in the town of Dalmeny. There, he’s been involved in local organized baseball and spent 17 years as a town councillor, an experience, he says, that helped him work with government officials as chair of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association.

“I’ve been able to understand the process of advocacy. You have to go to the government with solutions, not just demands. If you can show how you can help make an industry better, you become the go-to for the government about your industry.”

Furi’s term as chair comes to an end at the CPMA’s annual convention, in Calgary, which wraps up Friday.

Canadian Grocer spoke with Furi about the past year, from seven-dollar cauliflower to store training to a national food policy. Here are edited excerpts from our interview.

The impact of weather on the produce supply chain seems significant lately. What’s going on?

There have always been weather issues, but if there were strawberry problems in California, you could go to Mexico or Florida. Now it doesn’t matter; everyone’s [affected]. You heard about the seven-dollar cauliflower. The problem was the Christmas cauliflower was extremely expensive because it was short. The cool weather had stopped production.

What’s behind most of the problems, drought?

There were droughts in California and floods in Florida. There was Hurricane Sandra in Mexico, which took out a lot of their vegetable crop. Today, we’re pulling product from everywhere. We’re buying grapes from South Africa; normally we buy from Chile but [now] we’re not as confident in the product [thanks to weather]. But South Africa is in a drought, so the berries aren’t as big.

Does that make it tougher as a retailer?

Yes. Now we’ve got to figure out where to go to get the best product and maintain a competitive situation—because those Chilean grapes have to be sold. Are they going to discount them to move them into our market, or do they move them to other parts of the world? I use Chile as an example, but in just about every country there’s a problem right now.

In your career, have you seen anything like this before?

I’ve been in the produce side of the business for 25 years and in the food business for 40, and I don’t remember seeing anything like this. The Canadian dollar has affected prices, too.

When you became CPMA chair, you started holding town hall meetings across the country. What was the purpose?

CPMA has to show what it’s doing for the entire industry—to explain what CPMA is doing on their behalf. The purpose was to get out to the regions to talk to those people and explain what’s going on. We did one town hall in Wolfville in Nova Scotia, one in Montreal, one in Leamington in Ontario, in Winnipeg, Calgary, B.C. and in Florida.

The growers really enjoyed the retail panels, with people from Costco, Walmart, Loblaw, Sobeys, Longo’s, Overwaitea, Colemans, Metro and Co-op explaining their goals. The growers understood that, while retailers are trying to get an edge, they’re also trying to improve consumption overall. Everyone benefits.

Is this why the CPMA started an education program last year called the Produce Basics certificate?

Having an understanding of produce is important when you’re working in [a grocery store]. We didn’t have a national vehicle for training frontline staff on things like how to handle product, and now there is. Take cauliflower again: It bruises extremely easy. If you don’t handle it properly, it gets damaged and shows a spot, and it becomes shrink.

Given rising produce prices, are you seeing a shift in buying habits among shoppers?

Yes. We’re seeing a move from some commodities to others. If people aren’t buying cauliflower, let’s say, maybe they are buying broccoli, if broccoli’s less expensive. But there’s still a desire to eat healthy.

The CPMA is in favour of a national food policy. Why?

We’re advocating for a food policy that [encourages] healthy eating. There are a lot of ad hoc programs out there now but we’d like the federal government to come up with a statement about healthy eating and then move it down to the provinces because the provincial governments oversee health.

Government can do a lot here. Think about the anti-smoking campaigns and Participaction campaigns in the 1970s; both were developed by the federal government, and look what happened. People stopped smoking and we started to exercise.

CPMA would like the federal government to adopt a statement that we’re going to increase produce consumption by 20% by 2020. That sounds like a lot but we’re eating around four and-a-half servings of fruit and vegetables a day already. All we have to do is go to five. That’s an extra piece of fruit a day or a spoonful of vegetables.

A big issue for Canada’s produce industry has been the U.S. government’s decision, in 2014, to rescind Canada’s access to the U.S. Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act. PACA allowed Canadian farmers and distributors to file claims against U.S. buyers to recover unpaid bills inexpensively. How’s that being resolved?

We’ve been working hard to get that changed. We had a commitment from Prime Minister Trudeau, before he was elected, that his government would work at fixing it. We’re hoping that we can turn it around quickly because PACA is extremely important.

With PACA, as a grower or shipper, you were able to jump to the front of the line for a bankruptcy. In the case of no-pay or short-pay, you could file for arbitration with PACA, and PACA would rule quickly. And if you didn’t abide by the PACA rules, you would lose your licence and you couldn’t buy or sell produce in the U.S.

There is a solution there; we’ve offered a solution and we’re very, very close. We hope the current government honours its commitment to us on PACA.

What kind of trends are you seeing in produce?

Definitely the ethnicity of our neighbourhoods. Western Canada has seen a high influx of South Asians, Filipinos and Chinese, so we’re seeing a demand for commodities such as sui choy and bok choy, fresh herbs, apple pears and mangos. When I started in this business, if we sold a couple of pallets of mangos in a week, that was a really good week. Today, a couple of pallets of mangos is standard fare.

What’s the demand like for local food on the Prairies, and are you able to cater to it?

Yes, there is a demand and, yes, local food has become a focus for every retailer. In Saskatchewan there never was a strong local-food industry until about three years ago. Two people, Connie Achtymichuk, a crop specialist with the provincial government, and Bryan Kosteroski, who is executive director of the Agriculture Council of Saskatchewan, approached me and said, “How can we develop more local food in the province?”

Federated Co-operatives and TGP got involved. We started with two or three items and we’re now up to 49 SKUs, such as beets, radishes, corn and lettuce. It’s pretty standard fare for what we had previously pulled out of the U.S. At the same time, we’ve been cautious not to have the growers invest in significant amounts of storage because that just adds cost.

In Manitoba, Peak of the Market is well established, and in Alberta, they have a very strong industry on two or three commodities, such as carrots and potatoes. We’ve expanded on that in our stores by adding leafy items, different types of carrots and radishes.

What’s the key to a great produce department?

Freshness and education. I am constantly amazed at the number of people who work in produce departments who don’t know how to handle the produce. Obviously freshness, appearance and quality are important, but so is education of that retailer. We need to make sure our frontline people are educated to make the consumer comfortable on their purchase.

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