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Loblaw’s Mike Venton discusses industry trends and issues

The Produce News recently sat down with Mike Venton, senior vice president fresh food discount and produce procurement for Loblaw Cos. Ltd, and discussed key priorities for the company, including trends, issues impacting the industry and what qualities they look for in suppliers.

Venton splits his time between two offices: the head office in Brampton, Ontario and the second office, where he manages produce, in Cambridge, Ontario. “It’s a juggling act between two offices. In a typical week, I’m usually in Cambridge a day and a bit and then there’s always traveling to add,” Venton explained. “It’s a matter of managing and building in some flexibility into the calendar.”

One of the key priorities for Venton this year is rolling out SAP implementation, a renewal and enhancement of their information systems. “This is the most critical year with SAP launching; three stores are already on it and we’re looking to be completely rolled out by 2014,” he said.

Other areas of focus include conducting customer surveys and responding to the results. Customers at Loblaw stores are encouraged to go online and to answer the surveys. A net promoter score, the difference between the “plus” and “minus” score, is then calculated for a particular store from the results and shared with the key individuals within that store’s team.

“We’re focused on individual stores, freshness, service, stocks,” he continued. “If you’re a store manager, you know your score and better understand the customer.”

When discussing the importance of produce to Loblaw, Venton stated that produce is a vital part of the company and every store. “We want to lead with fresh, we are a fresh food store with produce playing a key role,” he added.

When asked about issues impacting the industry, food safety, traceability and sustainability were the three at the top of his mind.

“Food safety is an industry issue and becoming more of a risk,” said Venton. “We’ve done a lot of work on that front, in particular getting vendors on GSFI. Traceability, sustainability around water, succession planning for family farms and how to grow in the future also top the list.”

New innovations is something Loblaw and Venton are always on the lookout to source. “We’re seeing lots of environmentally friendly products and novel ideas like the stand up bags now used for grapes,” he said. Some of the trends he is seeing include a shift towards healthier eating, the organic and ethnic categories continuing to grow, and functional and health benefit products. “Health is top of mind, people are looking to eat healthier and I expect that we’ll see a day with nutritionists in stores full time,” he continued.

When asked about Target entering the Canadian retail landscape, Venton expects to see some changes coming. “The concern is what other retailers will do to defend themselves in an already competitive market. While it’s great for the customer, we may see a domino effect depending on how others react,” Venton said.

Loblaw is a strong supporter of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association. Both Venton and Eric Biddiscombe, senior director at Loblaw, sit on the CPMA board of directors. This year, the company participated in CPMA’s produce manager program, sending approximately 100 people to the annual convention and trade show.

“We think we are a good partner to CPMA. Eric is also very involved and we make a point of freeing up people to attend. The produce manager involvement is very positive for all and we also hold our top 40 event during CPMA,” he said.

The top 40 event recognizes key Lowblaw produce suppliers. When asked what qualities Venton looks for in a supplier, passion for what they do was number one.

“The star in my books is Family Tree Farms’ Dave Jackson,” Venton said.

“He is focused on quality. He’s a top supplier in quality, an incredible person,” he continued. “He has a strong character and is as honest as the day is long. That partnership and the blueberry program is a success story. You look for suppliers that really have passion.”