Émile Cordeau, Agropur

Since the pandemic began, the grocery industry has been at the forefront, rapidly adapting and implementing measures to ensure that Canadians continue to have access to safe food. “In Their Own Words”  brings the behind-the-scenes stories of retailers and suppliers to Grocery Business' readers.

Émile Cordeau, CEO, Agropur

Crisis leadership initiatives

As a business that provides an essential public service, Agropur moved quickly to keep our entire supply chain functioning and protect the health and safety of our frontline employees.

We were proactive at the outset of the crisis, immediately setting up a crisis unit and implementing a business continuity plan, including the now-familiar rules such as travel restrictions, telework, hygiene and disinfection measures, social distancing and access control at all our sites for our employees, suppliers and visitors.

Throughout the crisis, we have focused on a clear set of priorities: minimizing the health risk to employees, preventing our premises from becoming a hotbed of transmission and ensuring business continuity. We continue monitoring and strengthening our measures in response to changing circumstances and decisions by government and public health authorities.

Transparently communicating all relevant information on an ongoing basis to our members, employees, consumers and business partners has certainly been key during this crisis. Our customers have shown their appreciation throughout this challenging period. That is a great source of pride for us and we will continue doing our utmost to serve them well.

We have stood with Canadians by doing all we can to help curb the spread of the coronavirus and we continue delivering the products that feed our communities. At this point, we have been able to keep the situation under control and maintain business continuity. But as we learn to live with the “new normal,” given that the pandemic will be with us for some time, we can’t let our guard down. We remain fully mobilized as an organization: we are constantly reinforcing our practices and adapting to the constantly evolving situation. We won’t compromise on health and safety, product quality or the environment.

Impact on the supply chain

At the end of the day, the impact on the supply chain has been minimal due to our aggressive action plan and the efforts of our employees. Our people have shown great agility in responding rapidly to COVID-19, applying preventive measures, planning safety stocks and adapting to sudden changes in demand patterns.

As we know, the entire industry saw a decline in foodservice and industrial sales, while retail sales were up significantly. For us, this meant instant SKU prioritization to guarantee efficient delivery of dairy products, a feat accomplished in close partnership with our customers. By taking these steps, we were able to meet the demand for the most critical SKUs demanded by consumers.

In the first weeks of the crisis, Agropur played a major role in processing large quantities of surplus milk to help reduce spoilage and minimize the impact on dairy producers.

Our Cooperative has also stood with the community. Seeing families in need during this pandemic has been wrenching. To support communities across the country, Agropur has donated dairy products amounting to more than a million litres of milk – worth close to $7 million – to food banks and other organizations.

As the crisis is not over, the food supply chain will continue to be impacted. We are seeing deep shifts in consumer behaviour and we have to adapt. The recent trend towards online grocery shopping will only accelerate. Our retail partners are doing an excellent job of enhancing the shopping experience and finding overall supply chain solutions. We have already noticed significant growth in dairy sales at many retailers. This is great news for the dairy industry, since the fresh nature of many dairy products was frequently a barrier to online shopping before the pandemic.

One thing that is hard to predict is the percentage of the workforce currently working from home that will eventually return to an office environment. Obviously, families have been spending more time at home and many have rediscovered the pleasure of cooking together and eating healthy, delicious food. Dairy products play an important part in the “new normal” and we are definitely seeing a different mix in some dairy categories that are directly impacted by new routines. The habits consumers have developed in recent months may continue into the future.

As we are currently seeing growth in dairy consumption, we are monitoring the trends and we’re ready to adapt as they stabilize.

Your business takeaways from this experience

Agropur is a local food processing cooperative that generates wide-ranging benefits in all the regions where our operations and members are located. We continue to take pride in our contribution at this time, despite the rapid changes and uncertainty the pandemic has brought. We know we can rely on our people, who have responded heroically to the crisis, while keeping our values at the forefront. We salute our member producers, our employees and our business partners, who are doing an exceptional job to continue providing quality dairy products.

COVID-19 has really brought home the extent to which we must constantly adapt to change and review our plans on an ongoing basis. Agropur has become more agile as a result of the lessons learned during this crisis. In the face of adversity, it has shown great resilience. Our teams have significantly improved their flexibility and speed; they have benefited from working in a multidisciplinary way to find solutions and have remained efficient while teleworking. The concept of work organization is evolving, and this is a good thing.

Of course, this is not the end, because we will be living with COVID-19 for some time. But I am convinced that our organization is in a stronger position to meet the challenges ahead.

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