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The Interview Issue – Steve van der Leest

Steve van der Leest has done just about everything in the grocery store, from part-time bagger, to store manager, to independent owner. He’s spent the last 38 years with Overwaitea Food Group, and as its president oversees more than 120 stores in the West under banners such as Save-On-Foods, Overwaitea Foods and Urban Fare. Van der Leest has long been involved in industry associations and this year was made a lifetime member of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers.

Q: You’ve been in the business most of your life. What changes have you seen over the years?

In many ways not much has changed because grocers have always had to keep up with the latest technology. And alliances, buying groups and associations have come and gone as the needs change. One thing that certainly hasn’t changed is that the grocery business is a people business. Success lies in the quality of the relationship you have with your own team members, customers and suppliers.

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

Certainly the large national and international retailers that are taking up big footprints all over Canada. And more are likely to come. But the danger to a traditional grocer would be to get thrown off their own game and stop looking for ways to be different. Despite all the new big-box competitors there are many smaller food retail formats that are successful and growing by having a unique offer. Never count small and private companies out. Survival makes you try harder and be creative.

Q: What should the role of government be in the food industry?

I like to think most government programs are well intended. However, too often plans are made around food in Canada by governments without engaging at least the food retailer right from the start to consider the potential impacts on operations, costs and, ultimately, the consumer. The retailer is the face of the industry to most consumers and where everyone turns to feed their families. That’s something grocers in Canada do millions of times a day. Wouldn’t it be smart of governments involved in developing regulations, plans or programs around any food topic to involve us in their concerns, thoughts and ideas of wild programs?

Q: What is your opinion of international retailers?

The next evolution our Canadian industry will have to adjust to is the globalization of the food business. The mega-large retailers and suppliers are now doing business in a number of countries which, of course, gives them more buying scale. But more importantly, they are also having to take on some heavy social responsibilities such as the alarming rate of the dwindling food and water supply and the need for environmental and humanitarian leadership. While we should commend them for their actions for the greater good, we should realize it will impact decisions they make here in Canada.

Q: You’ve done everything from bag groceries to own a store. What lessons have you learned about customers and customer service?

That’s an easy one: Never avoid a customer complaint. It’s a great opportunity to turn a problem into a customer for life. And don’t delegate this task, either. Hearing directly how your customers feel is the best way to keep your business on course.

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