Stacey Kravitz, incoming president, UNFI 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.

Stacey Kravitz, incoming president, UNFI Canada

Crisis leadership initiatives

The pandemic upon us has been a test for leaders around the world in having to deal with a global shutdown of the economy. The basis for any crisis leadership initiative focuses on the safety and well-being of our essential workers, the communities we live in, and our families.

Adjusting to the situation

COVID-19 has been a “once-in-a-century” event that didn’t come with step-by-step instructions. At UNFI Canada, though, we learned that we are resilient in the face of adversity and were quickly able to put strong safety plans and preventive controls in place. Our top priority was implementing health and safety protocols aimed at keeping our associates, vendors, and customers safe while continuing the essential work of food distribution.  This leadership effort was comprehensive and consistent and focused on the following activities:

  • Assembled a cross functional leadership team focused on business continuity plans both at the local level and for the North American business
  • Held daily leadership team meetings to maintain a pulse on the business, anticipate issues, and plan for the future
  • Provided recognition and gratitude to our essential service workforce
    • Regular communication with associates
    • Enhanced cleaning and sanitation protocols
    • Enhanced safety practices to keep associates, customers, and community safe
    • Premiums and care packages to our operations teams
  • Implemented enhanced facility and truck sanitization using Health Canada approved products
  • Continually reviewed and adjusted protocols based on recommendations by government and PHAC in our facilities with health monitoring, drop and go programs for our drivers, and contact tracing protocols
  • Donated masks and food in our communities and are in the final stages of aligning nationally to further support Food Banks Canada

As a leadership team we have been meeting daily to share learnings and ensure our business continuity plan is meeting our expectations as the situation continues to unfold. We also learned to leverage our business partners such as Food and Consumer Products of Canada, Retail Council of Canada and the Canadian Health Food Association and incorporate findings into our workplan.

Reopening the office

Three months into being deemed an essential service, our four distribution centres in the greater Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal vicinities, are beginning to return to a “new” normal. We are focused on taking gradual steps to re-open our offices while maintaining the flexible work from home arrangements we put in place for our office teams.

We have developed an “Open for Business” cross functional team that is guided by six key principles behind how we will re-open:

  • Safety – first and foremost, protect the safety of our associates
  • Empathy – Understand the needs and perspectives of all our associates
  • Flexibility – One size does not fit all – offer different options for our associates
  • Performance – Support ways of working that will enable high performance
  • Gratitude – Recognize contributions and commitment and celebrate key milestones
  • Confidence – Take gradual steps to build confidence over time

Our Guiding Principles are focused on three work streams:

  • Policy and Strategy – Defining safety guidance, ensuring compliance and determining timing
  • Infrastructure – Focused on the workplace environment and technology
  • Associate Experience – Preparing our leaders and associates for transition and showing appreciation and celebrating our associates

Impact on Supply Chain

UNFI plays a critical role in Canada’s grocery and produce supply chains which support over 5,000 retail customers and millions of families. Our number one priority next to the safety and wellbeing of our associates, vendors, customers, and communities is our supply chain network. As one of Canada’s largest wholesale distributors of organic and natural food, whose mission is to “Transform the World of Food”, keeping food moving has been critical during the pandemic.

UNFI Canada represents more 800+ manufacturers of natural and organic foods. In early March we adjusted inventory planning and management to provide increased flexibility. We quickly adjusted our labour to allow for increased inbound and outbound shipments to replenish and keep service levels up to support our various models of delivery to our retail partners, from direct to store, warehouse, and third-party logistics. We had to be ready.

Our network flexibility allowed us to quickly react to retailer’s needs. With more than 10,000 sku’s available in our network, we were able to source substitutions items and set up new listings which enabled us to support retailers in stocking shelves at a faster rate.

Your business takeaways from this experience

In my mind it has boiled down to three things:

  • A great team
  • Strong company values
  • Communication

Having a great team who demonstrates adaptability, flexibility, and resilience in the face of adversity, or in this case a pandemic, has been critical in our ability to keep people safe, ship product, and keep retailer shelves stocked. We have learned that we are capable of almost anything and maintaining business momentum into the “new normal” will be UNFI’s number one priority.

Having strong company values to guide and lead teams, through difficult times and everything we do at UNFI in Canada, is tied to the four we live and work by day in and day out:

  • “Do the Right Thing”, putting safety and integrity at the forefront of everything we do
  • “Find the Sweet Spot”, being flexible and make change work
  • “Feed the Planet”, Better food comes from a healthy planet, and we do our part
  • “Deliver Together” empowering each other and win as a team

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Leveraging sources of objective, trustworthy, and quality information and sharing both internally and externally. We have created smaller decentralized teams and enabled them to make decisions quickly by meeting daily, weekly, and monthly. Being transparent in times of uncertainty at all levels of the organization, has created trust and stronger engagement.

All of us at UNFI Canada recognize and understand the important role we’ve played during this pandemic. In doing so, I have such respect and admiration for our frontline associates in our distribution centers, our drivers on the road, and our field sales representatives who have continued daily to ensure that we meet the needs of our vendors, customers, and consumers. I’m proud of our team and thankful for all we’ve accomplished in support of families and communities everywhere.

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