2020 Star Women in Grocery winner Vittoria Varalli (Q&A)

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Senior level star

Vittoria Varalli
Vice-President, Sustainability and Chief of Staff
Sobeys Inc.

How did you get into the grocery business?
Food has always been a passion of mine. I grew up in the food business. My dad manufactures frozen Italian food, so I spent much of my childhood exploring the frozen food section of grocery stores. As a retail consultant at The Boston Consulting Group, I worked on the Empire [Sobeys’ parent] account. After working with the company on their Project Sunrise transformation, I fell in love with the culture. When the opportunity arose to work for a visionary CEO like Michael Medline, I couldn’t pass on it. After a few career pivots, it makes sense that I found my way back to my first passion: food.

What are your greatest career highlights?
Over the last three years, I have had the incredible opportunity to be a part of really exciting moments at Empire. The Farm Boy acquisition, the removal of plastic grocery bags and the launch of our new three-year strategy are a few highlights that come to mind. I’ve also had a front-row seat watching and supporting one of the most significant corporate turnarounds in Canadian retail through Project Sunrise. These were all big moments, full of learning, that I will carry with me throughout the rest of my career.

What is your proudest moment?
In January 2020, I led the elimination of single-use plastic grocery bags at our 255 Sobeys stores across Canada. We were the first national grocer to make a bold move on single-use plastic bags. As a result of this initiative, we removed 225 million plastic bags out of circulation annually. Empire’s entire family of brands (IGA, Safeway, Farm Boy, Foodland, FreshCo, Thrifty Foods and Lawton’s Drugs) is committed to follow suit over the next few years. This initiative has undoubtedly been one of the proudest moments of my career so far—a rare opportunity to do something of this magnitude that positively impacts the planet.

How would you describe your leadership style?
Before I dive into my leadership style, I’ll start by talking about building the right team. I think it is critically important to invest in building a diverse, high-performing team. Diversity of thought–and really, all aspects of diversity—are of incredible importance, particularly for the team I’m leading.

I’ve always been a leader who believes in enabling the potential of others. This was taught to me by the many great leaders I’ve had the opportunity to work with. As a leader, I strive to highlight the potential of the individuals on my team by celebrating their successes and helping them overcome the learning curve. I have always measured my success by the successes of those that I work with.

What is the biggest challenge you faced in your career and how did you overcome it?
I love to be challenged and have always tried to see an opportunity to develop in every experience. I have a law degree and my professional background is largely focused on corporate strategy. Empire was ready to start looking at sustainability in a really meaningful way and because of my strong knowledge of the business and experience in corporate strategy, I was asked to take on the role. However, sustainability wasn’t my background, so I knew this new role was going to be a challenge.

When I took on the role, I stuck to the model that has always helped me succeed: build a strong strategy and enable the team to execute on it. I also took the time to learn from other extremely talented leaders who have all helped me to navigate my new challenge. Like them, I will always remember to help the next generation of leaders. It’s the best way to invest in the future.

What is your best quality?
This is a tough question to answer about yourself. I’ll answer it a little differently and reflect on what helps me the most in my work, which I have been told by my colleagues is my ability to remain “unflustered.” Staying calm and focused in chaotic situations has been invaluable to me throughout my career and was especially important during the early days of the pandemic. The journey isn’t always pretty, but if you stay calm and focused, you’ll find the way.

Click here for the full list of 2020 Star Women in Grocery award winners.