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Burnac Produce focuses on partnerships, products and service

Not only is Burnac Produce one of the larger independent wholesalers in Canada, they are also an exclusive supplier of produce for one of the largest food chains in Canada. The Produce News had a chance to sit down with Co-Chief Executive Officers, Lorne Burnett and Domenic Raso for a behind-the-scenes look at what makes Burnac Produce the success it is today and where they are headed in the future.

Co-Chief Executive Officer, Lorne Burnett, is the grandson of Provincial Fruit Co. Ltd. founder, Jack Burnett, and son of Chairman of the Board, Joseph Burnett. Graduating with an MBA from the Schulich School of Business at York University, Lorne gained twenty years of experience in the financial industry. In 2007, Lorne began his career with Burnac Corporation before joining Burnac Produce in 2009.

2-Burnac-ExecFrank Defrancesco, President, New Business Development with Co-Chief Executive Officers, Lorne Burnett and Domenic Raso. (Photos by Melanie Richer)“I enjoyed the finance world but when the time was right, and an opportunity presented itself, it was nice to get back into the family fold. There is only one constant in this industry — change,” said Burnett. “My background complements Domenic’s wealth of experience and excellent reputation in the industry.”

Co-Chief Executive Officer, Domenic Raso, has worked in the produce industry, and in particular the retail environment, for more than thirty years. Raso held key positions with Fortino food stores and was vice president of produce procurement for Loblaw before joining the Burnac team seven years ago.

“I oversaw other departments before coming back to produce,” he said. “I was fortunate to end up over here, it’s a great family atmosphere, it really is a different culture. I was ecstatic when Lorne came on in a different dimension, he brings an analytical view that is needed.”

Burnac Produce’s mission statement reads: We act with honesty and integrity in developing sustainable partnerships, providing quality products and service through innovation, driven by our dedicated personnel and resources. It is not just a cleverly worded placeholder on marketing pieces or the company website. For the executive team at Burnac and all the staff, it truly is their daily mission to live up to the outlined expectations in all they do, every day.

Burnac Produce is the umbrella company that overseas three companies on the Toronto-based Ontario Food Terminal Market: Provincial Fruit Co. Ltd., Rite-Pak Produce Co. Ltd., and Morris Brown & Sons Co. Ltd. The three companies make up approximately 25 percent of the stalls on the terminal. The company has a rich history, beginning 70 years ago in the 1930’s as a one-man produce trucking operation. The Produce News was privy to a behind-the-scenes look at the multi-million dollar fresh produce operation and its 127,000-square-foot refrigerated distribution center located in Vaughn, Ontario, just north of Toronto. “This facility was built to provide fulfillment for the operating companies on the terminal,” said Burnett.

No detail was left out in planning the warehousing facility including the logistics of location and maneuvering around the key traffic arteries in and out of Toronto. Technologies are modern and reviewed and updated on a regular basis and include temperature control for each individual holding chamber, the air is recycled 12 times an hour, air purification is provided by NASA equipment, there is also state-of-the-art security, icing machines, repacking equipment, and more. All loading docks are cold chain preserved and a generator is on hand to ensure business is not disrupted by blackouts or grid issues. While the system is state-of-the-art, Burnac will be undergoing an upgrade to accommodate for the growth of the business.

A second facility nearby handles value-added, kiwi bagging — up to 50 bags a minute, packaging for items including blueberries and citrus, as well as pick-and-pack. At the warehousing facility, there are approximately 8,000 pallets, and around 3,000 SKUs at any one time.

Multidisciplinary, Burnac Produce is privileged in that the company’s success and resources allows them to work proactively and not only reactively. “We can take a long term view, be proactive and plan conceptually in pursuit of excellence,” continued Burnett. “It’s nice to be able to work on ‘we want to’ instead of just ‘we need to’.”   “We are fortunate to have the resources we need, great people on the ground, and long term partnerships,” he said.

The company has a field-to-fork mentality and are looking to reach all corners of the earth in finding the right supply partners. “We take pride in putting food on people’s tables, there’s a lot of passion in all we do,” said Raso. Both Burnett and Raso often travel to see what’s available and where things are headed. Most of the operations they work with are family-owned and they are cognizant that succession planning is an important factor. They are constantly looking to continue to be innovative and to establish secure, consistent supply quality. “We like to know the faces behind the boxes. We regularly visit with or fly in our growers from various regions. It humanizes the experience,” said Burnett. “We call it the amazing race when we travel for procurement. For us, it’s about face time with our partners, building trust and developing relationships,” he continued.

“They take great pride seeing their product managed by us and we often take our customers to see programs in place,” said Raso. “It’s about getting a feel for what’s out there.”

With over 400 people on staff, many with 30-plus years, Burnac Produce is still able to maintain a family feel. “With lots of people from many different backgrounds and in many different roles, training is key,” said Burnett.

The culture is very entrepreneurial and the company likes to promote from within, helping to steward their employees’ careers. Burnac is also currently actively recruiting women, and often hire staff fresh out of school. Their open door policy was witnessed first hand during our meeting. “We want to be accessible to our employees, our partner suppliers and our customers,” said Burnett. “The greatest asset we have and the greatest challenge is HR, developing our people.”

The company places a huge emphasis not only on job training but also on career development. Employees of Burnac Produce are encouraged to further their training and education. Marian Gaudry, assistant to both Raso and Burnett is currently taking her buyers course and told The Produce News that not only do they have an open door policy, “they actively support my training, I’ve even come to them with questions on assignments.”

Raso and Burnett consider themselves custodians, responsible for helping employees continue to blossom in their careers. “That’s what’s going to take the company to the next level, reinvesting in the people,” said Burnett.

When asked about opportunities and trends in the sector, Burnett noted that change is constant, that changing demographics and consumer tastes has brought about a proliferation of organics and ethnics. A consistent year-round supply thanks to offshore partners has made the tropics category very appealing as well.

Raso also noted the ever increasing importance of food safety and how no matter your link in the chain, “If we’re serious about food safety we have to become one as it impacts everyone.”

“With an aging population, baby boomers are looking for health and value. We’re also more conscious of what our kids are eating. The future of produce is a bright one,” said Raso.

Burnett added, “I would like to see more consumer education. Produce manager education is key as are new products demonstrations.”

They also noted that food retailing in general is seeing produce floor plans growing, salad bars being added as well as a fundamental change in sizing and convenience such as mini melons and easy peeling fruit. “We’re seeing heavy investments in offshore regions such as Asia as well as innovations” citing stand up bags and modified atmosphere packaging.

When asked about the key to their success, they replied long term partnerships — both internal and external, integrity and honesty, and following best growing practices.

“In the produce industry, you don’t need a license to be a buyer, integrity is key as well as supporting our partnerships in getting product to market and our actions speak volumes,” Burnett said.

“We strive to continue to demonstrate that we live up to our mission statement and continue to be leaders in the industry. At the end of the day, we bring value to our customers,” concluded Raso.

Burnac Produce have effectively become an extension of their customers’ merchandising and procurement capabilities. They want to be a true one-stop shop offering procurement, logistics, inbound/outbound, product innovation, and presentation of product.

“It’s an environment with boundless opportunity and rich history,” Burnett stated. “We’re mindful of our roots and humbled by them but we also have aspirations to continue to evolve. We want to leave perspective individuals wanting to work with our company and flourish in our environment.”