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The Interview Issue – Bill McEwan

President and CEO of Sobeys Inc., Bill McEwan, started in the grocery industry at age 15, working at a Ferraro’s Super Valu store in British Columbia. He spent the next 13 years with the company, then moved on to hold senior marketing and merchandising roles at Coca-Cola and A&P, both in Canada and in the United States, before joining Sobeys, in 2000. Today he also sits on the boards of international food retailer Delhaize Group and the global Consumer Goods Forum.

Q: What are the main challenges you see on the horizon?

Rising input costs such as commodities, wages and energy, increased retail square footage, the ability to attract, engage and retain great talent and the changing nature of how consumers communicate and interact and what they expect from retail and service providers are just a few of the challenges that we are dealing with now, and I suspect will be for some time to come. If you asked me the same question 30 years ago, there would have been a list of similarly daunting challenges. But smart retailers continue to find ways to adapt and grow their business, in spite of those challenges.

Q: How has the industry changed in your opinion, for better or for worse?

Just as society, technology, consumer needs and the cultural makeup of Canada have changed over the years, our industry and its players have evolved in order to remain relevant. That’s the exciting thing about our industry. The late Frank H. Sobey once said, “When you’re green, you’re growing, and when you’re ripe, you rot.” He wasn’t talking about food, but about the need to adapt and not stand still as a business if you expect to survive long term. That rings as true today as when he made the comment, decades ago.

The Canadian retail graveyard is littered with companies that were incapable or unwilling to adapt to consumer and marketplace dynamics or that became content with the status quo and “ripened” beyond relevance. I would not classify any of the overarching changes that have occurred as “worse.” Changes have been made in response to shifting consumer needs and if it serves the consumer in ways they value…it must really only be considered for the better.

Q: What is the proudest moment of your career?

I’m most proud of what has been accomplished in my 11 years at Sobeys. I attribute a lot of that to our unwavering commitment to our food-focused strategy and its disciplined and consistent execution. At the outset there were many who opined on the direction we were taking… most were negative. But Sir Graham Day, our chairman at the time, urged me to embrace the notion that you can build a strong foundation with the bricks others throw at you. I took that to heart. I am most proud that we stayed our course as a team and that what we said we would do, we have done consistently. This has resulted in the growth of confidence across our organization, fuelling our drive to be widely recognized as the best food retailer in Canada.

Q: What makes for an excellent grocery store, or even grocery chain?

The characteristics of great grocery organizations are pretty consistent: They have strong brands that have been built over time that resonate with the consumer; they have clear strategies, well articulated and executed; they have strong, courageous leadership willing to challenge the status quo; they nurture innovation; and they have customer and employee engagement models that are evident in their operations and that deliver meaningful results.

Q: What is the government’s role in the food industry?

I think beyond the obvious from a regulatory standpoint, in terms of having clear and consistently applied rules and regulations in areas such as food safety and the need to continue to seek industry input and involvement around regulatory changes that will impact our industry, I believe it’s up to the grocery industry, through associations like the Consumer Goods Forum and the Retail Council of Canada, to work together in non-proprietary areas to demonstrate the value of our industry, versus relying on government.

We are making solid progress in terms of our focus on areas such as sustainability and the environment, food safety and health and wellness. However, there is much more we can–and must–do. I am a firm believer and will continue to advocate that we look beyond our borders to seek, understand and, where appropriate, implement best practices from the consumer goods industry globally.

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