Gary Wade, president, Unilever Canada

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.

Gary Wade, president, Unilever Canada

Crisis leadership initiatives

While we are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we now have the benefit of some distance with which to look back at how the crisis unfolded and the effectiveness of the early actions we took. This has been an extraordinary time for all of us in the packaged goods industry and we have all most certainly learned along the way. The swift shift in strategy and ways of working will provide lessons on how we can lead with greater agility and compassion as we move forward.

At Unilever Canada, I believe that the initiatives that we took early on have been instrumental in taking us to a position of strength today. The key areas of focus for us at Unilever Canada are the safety or our employees, supply continuity of essential products to Canadians, and giving back to our community. 

The safety and wellbeing of our employees remains first and foremost our top priority. At our factories, safety measures that seemed foreign when initially implemented such as health questionnaires upon arrival, temperature checks, masks, physical distancing and enhanced disinfectant site cleaning have now become routine practices that will improve the overall safety of our people and the community.

Similar to other workplaces, our office staff has been working from home since mid-March whereas our retail representatives have continued to visit and support our retail customers in order to ensure the ongoing availability of our products to Canadian consumers. Whether staff are out in the stores, at our manufacturing facilities or working from home, there is no question that the pandemic and quick transition in ways of working has placed a toll on both the physical and emotional health and well-being of our employees.

We took early action to address these impacts by providing a variety of programs including EAP resources, yoga and meditation classes, mental health awareness seminars, cooking classes from our Foodsolutions chefs and much more to support our employees. The effects of this crisis on the mental health of our workforce will be long lasting and we will need to continue to invest to ensure that we remain as resilient as possible in the face of dramatic shifts in our lifestyle and the negative impacts of the pandemic.  

Second, we worked to continue to provide essential products to all Canadians including soap, personal care, food and home hygiene. Our factories continued to run 24/7, using the increased safety protocols, to respond to the explosion in demand for products in many of our categories.

Third, we recognized the need to support those most vulnerable in our communities and committed to a $3 million donation of products to food banks and distributed 30,000 surgical masks to health networks near our factories. In addition, our Dove brand created a campaign called “Courage is Beautiful” which highlighted the heroic efforts of the country’s frontline health workers while distributing an additional $1 million of Dove products to those workers via hospitals, paramedics and health units. 

Impact on your supply chain

Early on we noticed significant shifts in consumer behavior which required us to ramp up production on some items, not an easy task while at the same time implementing the new safety protocols at our factories.

In terms of changing demand patterns, there was a significant increase in the sales of our Dove soap as well as our Vim and Seventh Generation home cleaning products while not surprisingly, as much of the population stayed home, we saw a decrease in the need for hair styling and deodorant products. At the same time, as Canadians adapted their own enhanced hygiene practices, we were able to work quickly and effectively with our global supply chain colleagues to bring Unilever’s #1 hygiene product, Lifebuoy, to Canadians within a 28-day period. This work exemplified for me the agility within Unilever to leverage its global scale to respond to local market needs. As we move forward, it’s clear that we will need to continue to look at shifts in consumer demand and remain flexible and agile in our product assortment.

I am incredibly proud of all of our colleagues and partners in our supply chain who worked well past regular hours to ensure that we succeeded in getting our products to store shelves – everyone from our factory colleagues to our planners, buyers, and customer service representatives to our distribution team and retail representatives.  

Q What are your business takeaways from the recent crisis?

There have been many lessons that I have gained from this crisis and I know that we will continue to learn as we take time to look back and reflect.

First, I saw the incredible resilience, ingenuity and determination of our team to adapt quickly to the new working arrangements and those inherent challenges to ensure business continuity. The ability of my colleagues to adapt to different ways of working and shifting consumer demand was inspiring. While I have always believed that it is the team that drives success, not the individuals in leadership, this has never been more evident as it was in the past three months.

Second, early on we established an incident management team that met daily to review the needs of the organization and ensure the safety of our employees. I believe that the diversity of the team members and their ability to bring different perspectives made the team stronger.   It was with diversity of thought that we were able to look at the challenges from different angles so that we could respond effectively.   

Third, I was once again reminded of the importance of constant, clear and transparent communication. From the beginning of the pandemic, we increased our communications and the frequency of virtual town halls so that we could keep our colleagues up to date, answer their questions and respond to their concerns.  

Finally, I have been impressed by and grateful for the collaboration across the industry via the Food and Consumer Products Canada (FCPC) and the Retail Council of Canada (RCC). This was critical as it enabled us to take a unified approach across the sector. The work these coalitions did with government and stakeholders was invaluable in keeping the supply chain moving and protecting the Canadian food supply.  

I am truly proud to be leading Unilever Canada as I see how we have been able to adapt as a company and as an industry. I have been struck by the demonstration of care, empathy and consideration amongst my colleagues as we all respond and adapt to the changing environment both in our personal and professional lives. I want to once again thank those in the company, our extended supply chain, our customers and our industry associations for their incredible work and support during a difficult and certainly unprecedented time. 

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