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An interview with Co-op Atlantic’s Paul-Emile Légère

Paul-Emile Légère became the first Acadian to lead Co-op Atlantic when he took over as CEO in May. He spoke to Canadian Grocer about eating local, competition and the co-op movement:

How did you get involved with Co-op Atlantic?

I’ve been a co-operative member most of my adult life, having been with Co-op Atlantic for six years–and CFO since 2005. My first job when I was in university was working in Co-op Atlantic’s HR and accounting department. It’s there I became acquainted with the values associated with the co-op. It’s locally owned and operated, not run by conglomerates in another country. As CEO, you feel you have a sense of control, as much control as you can have in this day and age.

So what’s your business background?

I am a chartered accountant and I’ve had roles in the consumer packaged goods industry with Cavendish Farms, as VP of administration and finance. I then spent 12 years in a Moncton drilling business that had operations in New Brunswick and Quebec, where, as CFO, I helped grow it in 20 countries.

Does being Acadian help you in this job?

Approximately 45 per cent of our business is with Acadian and francophone businesses, so I can communicate with them directly, which is a significant advantage. My business style can be described as friendly and open, and I like to engage in a fair amount of discussions in my daily business, so I hope to expand and continue to build on relationships.

Community involvement and grocery go hand in hand. What kind of grassroots work do your members do?

Every co-operative has a local board that is interested in their communities. They understand the needs of the community, and all our co-operatives have foundations that raise funds for charities and community activities. Each year millions of dollars go back to the communities of our 70 member-owners.

What are some of the challenges Co-op Atlantic faces on the grocery side?

We’re doing a lot of things well, with our members renovating stores and improving offerings, with more square footage going toward local fresh products. Our higher level of staff service is important, too. We don’t want to just be competitive on a price basis. Our stores are sized for the communities so they’re smaller than our competitors’ stores. It makes them easier to get in and out.

The challenges remain the same for us, as with any grocery retailer: keeping costs down, bringing value to our members, and improving our fresh offering. Our roots are in agriculture, so wherever possible we try to support local farmers by building reciprocal relationships with them. We have protocols in place for local procurement, where our members can buy directly from local suppliers and farmers.

Tell me about your eat-local promotion, which is called Eat Atlantic Day.

In 2008 we began the Eat Atlantic Challenge Day (the first Thursday in September) to encourage people to purchase Atlantic products. In just over three years more than 7,000 Atlantic Canadians made Eat Atlantic pledges. This year we had our first Atlantic Food Product of the Year Award given out. There were 10 finalists that people could vote for. The winner was Wolfville, Nova Scotia’s Just Us Coffee.

The United Nations has designated 2012 as the “International Year of Co-operatives.” Why do you think co-ops still work?

Not everybody buys into “bigger is better.” Our approach to supporting local communities is well received in our marketplace. There are almost one billion people in the world that are members of co-operatives or credit unions. In our region, we’ll be doing a lot of grassroots activities in our communities to celebrate the event. For example, we’ll be putting on two plays that highlight the co-operative movement in Atlantic Canada.

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