Last year, Saskatoon-based Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL) reached the impressive milestone of 90 years in business. For the last 28 of those years, Ron Welke has been part of the FCL team and during his tenure he’s had a hand in all parts of the company’s food business, from buyer to grocery operations and marketing. As associate vice-president, food—a role he’s held for nearly seven years now—Welke leads a team responsible for providing support and leadership to FCL’s network of food stores across Western Canada, and also to the Co-op’s convenience, liquor and pharmacy locations.
In October, Welke will be adding to his already hefty workload when he steps up and assumes the role of chair of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers (CFIG). Taking over from Summerhill Market’s Christy McMullen, Welke will be a voice for some 4,000 independent grocers across Canada. Recently, Canadian Grocer spoke to Welke on subjects ranging from the virtues of the Co-operative Retailing System to the crucial need to level the playing field for Canada’s independent grocers. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.
What was your introduction to the grocery business?
It’s not a unique path. I started as a clerk/grocery bagger at [the long shuttered] Dominion Stores—I’m dating myself a bit here by saying that—in Saskatoon when I was 15 years old. I worked there for a couple of years then moved on to Safeway, where I worked while I was going to university. That got me some experience and I enjoyed it, and then I joined Co-op after graduating and I’ve been here for 28 years.
In 2018, FCL celebrated its 90th anniversary. How do you account for the company’s staying power?
FCL and about 170 Retail Co-operative Associations are part of a federation that we call the Co-operative Retailing System. We work to fulfill those needs of our retail members and owners. Our retail locations have been successful over the years because they’re integral parts of the communities they serve and they have continued to adapt to their customer needs. We have both benefitted from and have supported their success. We also continually invest back into our facilities, technology and people to ensure we’re sustainable for the long term. We’re not a publicly traded company so we’re not as focused on just trying to meet this quarter’s numbers—we’re looking more long term.
What would you say is the advantage of the Co-operative Retailing System?
We describe it as “centralize for efficiency, localize for effectiveness.” So, we use our scale, all of our retail network, to leverage efficiencies and build central programs to keep us competitive. Also, each individual Retail Co-op has the autonomy to make decisions locally to best serve their members, so that’s a significant advantage and the leaders of all of our co-ops live, work and play in the communities they serve, so they are very connected with the communities and make decisions that help build sustainable communities where they work. The other advantage, I would say, is our profits that we generate stay in the communities where they were earned. They are reinvested in new facilities for the community and paid back to members in patronage and cash dividends.
What’s the best part of your job?
The best part is just having the privilege of leading our team; they’re highly engaged and talented and seeing them excel at what they do is really rewarding.
How do you/FCL go about attracting talent?
Our goal is to set clear objectives for people, give them the tools they need to do their jobs and provide opportunities for their personal and professional development. We have been able to recruit seasoned talent from other retailers as well as hire the brightest graduates. It’s not always easy, but we do have a good track record of attracting talented people who share our values and who want a rewarding career.
In the larger grocery industry, what are some of the most significant changes that you have noticed over the last few years?
There are a few changes that I’ve noticed. The first one that comes to mind is the use of technology and data to help improve decision-making and execution right down to shelf level. Then there’s the consumer’s desire for more ready-made meal solutions and also their willingness to be more culinarily adventurous with their meals. And also, the influence of digital on consumers’ decisions on where they shop and what they’re having for dinner tonight. And then really there’s so much more choice for consumers now and we, as retailers, are really continuing to try to evolve and meet those consumer needs and differentiate.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given in this business?
I’ve been given lots of advice over the years [laughs] but I’ve found the simplest is often the best. One of my colleagues used to say, “The grocery business doesn’t have to be complicated, just plan your work and work your plan.” I’ve found that to be very useful, especially if things seem to get a bit over- whelming the odd time; just take a step back, take a breath, plan your work and work the plan and everything will work out just fine.
What would you say is the top issue facing independent grocers today?
I would say the playing field is tilted in favour of the large national and international giants out there. So this makes it difficult [for independents] to compete when negotiating, for example, with suppliers and with credit card companies.
Will this be your chief focus during your term as chair of CFIG?
Yes, I’ll be doing everything I can to ensure that playing field is as level as possible so independents can compete and thrive and continue to make a difference in our communities.
We hear a lot of negative stories regarding the future of traditional grocery retail, but what are you most optimistic about?
There is a lot of change going on with significant growth in the online business and increasing competition, and that’s not going to go away. However, I’m very optimistic—I think there is plenty of opportunity for retailers that can provide an outstanding customer experience. The environment we are in right now is driving a need for change and, as the saying goes, necessity is often the mother of invention. We know that retailers are a pretty innovative group and those who act as merchants certainly have a real opportunity to evolve and differentiate their business offering and be successful.