The golden touch

Meet the winners of this year’s Golden Pencil Awards: Mary Dalimonte and Tom Gunter

One has spent an entire career helping shape
two of the country’s large grocery chains. The other is a CPG veteran who has worked at some of the biggest companies in the business. Both were recognized with the industry’s highest honour Nov. 19, when the Food Industry Association of Canada presented the Golden Pencil Award. Read on to see why this year’s winners, Mary Dalimonte and Tom Gunter, are so deserving of this accolade.

Mary Dalimonte, senior vice-president, merchandising & commercial programs (retired), Sobeys 

Mary Dalimonte’s parents left Italy for Canada in the 1950s, bringing with them the hard-work ethic so common in immigrant gpwinner_mary_edit-mfordfamilies searching for a brighter future.

“They came here with nothing, and they built a life for their family and for their children and did it through determination, drive and courage,” she says. She inherited her parents’ work ethic along with their passion for food. No matter how busy everyone was, they always made time for family; good food—carefully selected and lovingly prepared—was at the centre of most family gatherings. “Food is love,” she says.

Dalimonte retired earlier this year after 40 years in the grocery business. She started with Loblaw as a part-time cashier while still in high school and stayed on while studying at York University. After graduating in 1979, Dalimonte joined Loblaw full time and embarked on an upward career path that touched most parts of the business. In 2008, she made her one and only employer change, joining Sobeys, where she led the launch of its innovative Urban Fresh concept. When she retired, Dalimonte was senior vice-president, merchandising and commercial programs.

Like many successful business leaders, Dalimonte points out the importance of the people she’s worked with, explaining how her management philosophy created a virtuous cycle of performance for both herself and her teams. “I’ve always said teach them, train them, coach them—they will take care of the customer,” she says. “Our businesses are built on people and the stronger you make your employees, the more you invest in them, the stronger the business.”

So, along with a relentless dedication to the basic building blocks of business, Dalimonte says she and her teams were committed to treating with respect anyone they came across—from peers, to subordinates, customers of course, and vendors. “You have to take care of the vendors,” she says. “Negotiations can be hard, but at the end of the day, vendor-retailer partnerships are built on trust, integrity and a collaborative approach where both win.”

Her own determination to learn, grow and innovate kept her connected to the kitchens, markets and shopping aisles of the food industry throughout her career. If a challenge presented itself, Dalimonte knew how to find a solution. “You go to the stores, you talk to the people, you talk to the employees. That is where the answers are.”

That philosophy meant regular field trips for herself and her team, from food conferences in Italy to hidden gems a short drive away: “Little markets, little independents where there was great passion and offers that built loyalty with consumers. It was about getting them [her team] to open their minds and say, ‘We can do this and better.’” Eventually employees would start making their own great discoveries and bring them back to the office. “When your people are dragging you to places and bringing in their own bags of things saying, ‘You have to try this,’ that is pretty satisfying.”

Even after 40 years in the industry and now retired, Dalimonte’s love and enthusiasm for food and the grocery industry is evident as she recalls those trips. Passion is what drove her and, she believes, it was instrumental to her success. “If your passion is shining through, you will always inspire as a leader,” she says. “It is all about inspiring others; it creates great things.”

Tom Gunter, executive vice-president and general manager (retired), Fiera Foods Company and former president, Conagra Foods Canada

When Tom Gunter reflects on his long and successful career in the food industry, some common themes emerge.

gpwinner_tom-mfordMaking time to connect with people—this is a big one. Colleagues, co-workers, even competitors. Help them out and forge real relationships, he says. Another one is the importance of seeking change and challenge as an opportunity for growth. “If I was giving people advice today, I would say don’t get too comfortable in any role or company for too long,” says Gunter.

The learning and experiences from other people and organizations brings fresh perspectives, he explains, providing new ideas for old problems and different ways of thinking that can lead to break-throughs and progress—always moving forward, never getting stuck.

Gunter spent the first 10 years of his career at Scott Paper before joining the food industry for good with Frito-Lay in 1990. He took on increasingly senior roles with Frito-Lay, Molson, Conagra and Fiera Foods. In each place, he can recall lessons learned from new challenges.

His time at Frito-Lay, for example, included an extended stint running direct-to-store deliveries in both the United States and Canada. You gain an incredible amount of people experience in delivery, he says, working with everyone from road sales employees, to district managers, to warehouse and logistics. “You get some very rich experiences in the DSD business,” says Gunter. “When I left Frito-Lay, there weren’t many HR situations that I hadn’t dealt with.”

When he was considering joining Conagra, an executive at the company told him the road ahead would be difficult. “Don’t come in here expecting everything to be rosy, we have a lot of heavy lifting to do,” he was warned. He took the job anyway. “It was probably one of the most gratifying 10-year runs that I had because I was able to help retool the business,” he says. “We turned it around and four years into that, they made me president of the Canadian division.” During his tenure, they launched Healthy Choice frozen entrees and Orville Redenbacher ready-to-eat popcorn, and also acquired the Del Monte Canadian business.

After a career in publicly owned business, Gunter joined Fiera because he wanted to learn more about working in a family-run business. “My first year there it was like going back to school,” he says.

“It’s not like a big company where you have a lot of people to delegate to.” Loyalty matters more, and people moved quickly and boldly. “It changes how you operate as a leader.”

Along the way, Gunter took the time to speak regularly as a guest lecturer at universities and was an active member of Food and Consumer Products of Canada (which just honoured him with the 2018 Award of Distinction) and the Grocery Foundation.

These days, Gunter is retired, but not really retired. He has created a new firm, T.A.G. Marketplace Consulting, and is working with Burnbrae Farms as a senior advisor. And he’s still building new relationships and mentoring young professionals through his position on the board of Toronto food business incubator Food Starter.

The difference now is that he’s his own boss, working on his own schedule. “My whole goal is to not be commuting every day,” he says. That’s meant more time to read, play tennis and sing in a rock band— they practice every Monday, and play four or five gigs a year just for dinner and drinks, he says.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer‘s November 2018 issue.