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The Interview Issue – Eric La Flèche

After graduating from Harvard with an MBA in 1991, Eric La Flèche called up Pierre Lessard, then president of Metro, and asked for a job. Lessard must have been impressed because he hired him. Over the next 17 years, La Flèche moved up the corporate ladder, becoming VP of Metro’s Super C discount chain and getting involved with several acquisitions, from Metro’s purchase of 48 Steinberg stores in 1992 to acquiring Loeb in 1999. La Flèche was named COO in 2005, the same year Metro bought A&P, and, three years ago, CEO.

Q: What are the major changes that you’ve seen in the grocery industry?

The amount of consolidation, the arrival of new entrants such as Costco and Walmart and pharmacies selling food. One of the biggest changes from a retail point of view is how the customer profile has evolved, both in Quebec and in Ontario. The socio-demographic change in Ontario is particularly striking and it’s caused us to analyze and try to adapt our offerings to the customer. We’ve also seen a huge improvement in Canadian stores, store sizes and food store equipment over the past 25 years.

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

There are a few. Top-line growth, especially with the intensifyingcompetition; the inflation/deflation cycle; and government regulations. Succession is also an issue, not only at the store level but at head office as well.

Q: What should governments do, or not do, to encourage the grocery industry?

Governments need to be cautious about passing on more costs to retailers–things like energy costs, the pace of implementing minimum wage increases, blue box programs. We can deal with these costs, but everyone knows it is the consumer who pays them in the end.

Q: What is your greatest achievement?

I would say being named president and CEO of Metro. But I don’t indulge in self-admiration. There are a few other proud moments in my career, such as developing new stores, the Steinberg deal, buying A&P and being at Super C when sales hit $1 billion.

Q: Are there any other grocery retailers that you admire?

You can learn something from every retailer. But among the grocers, there are several I admire: Wegmans, Tesco, Trader Joe’s, H. E. Butt and Aldi, as well as Belgian discounter Colruyt. There are lots of good retailers.

Q: What does the future look like for independent grocers in Canada?

The future for independents is very bright, especially if they offer great service, are close with their customers and offer true differentiation. They also benefit from being associated with a larger group, such as Metro.

Q: What lessons have you learned about customers and customer service?

It’s all about training, especially store personnel. They are there to serve their customers.

Q: Over your career, was there a major mistake that you made?

I’ve made lots of mistakes, but my philosophy is learn from them. So far they haven’t come back to hurt me [laughs].

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