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The Leaders · Season 1

Supporting local matters

Jun 17, 2020

A transition thirty years in the making. This is Mark Whitmore’s story from the consulting field to the farmer’s field.


Mark WhitmoreA transition thirty years in the making. This is Mark Whitmore’s story from the consulting field to the farmer’s field. No longer wearing a suit and tie, Whitmore, MBA ’91, speaks passionately about cultivating his land, supporting his local community and advocating for greater self-sufficiency in agriculture and food processing in Canada.


Insights and wisdom lie within every business decision. Welcome to the Leaders by Ivey podcast, where we discover hidden narratives and unlock key learnings for our own leadership and career journeys. Hey welcome to our second episode, I’m Matt Quinn. Today's guest is Mark Whitmore. Mark is founder and CEO of the Great Canadian Hops company, which is a family-owned agricultural business that grows Hops for Canadian and global craft beer producers. Mark discusses his journey from the board room to farmer’s field. The importance of supporting local economies and appreciating the contributions of rural communities in Canada. Mark is a graduate of Ivey’s MBA program, Class of 1991. Today he joined us from Turkey Point in southwestern Ontario. Let's get started. Welcome to the podcast Mark. Let's start with a little bit about who you are what you do, and what's your relation to Ivey. Great thanks Matt and thanks for having me on the on the podcast. So, you know I went to Ivey, I’m graduated from the MBA program in 1991. I graduated, went out to work for Deloitte, we’ll come back to that in a second, but I married Patty in 1995. So this year was our twenty fifth anniversary. That was special and we have three kids. Grant just finished first year at Ivey, Erica just finished first year, Engineering at Western and also is Ivey AEO status, and Alain just graduated from high school and is accepted to go to Medical Sciences at Western and also has AEO status. So there's a chance that we could be three for three with our kids at Ivey. If they all follow through that. I worked at Deloitte for 33 years. I was a partner in the consulting practice and I left there a year ago to start up a family business focused on agriculture and food processing, and our main focus was first, all is on the farm and we grow hops for the craft beer industry. We grow hazelnuts for the confectionary business, and we grow hay for livestock, and we closed our next deal, which we bought Dennis’ Horseradish, which is a manufacturer of prepared horseradish. Over the last couple of months, obviously, we've been going through a lot of disruption. What has been the biggest challenge for you and have there been some different challenges between the hazelnut and the hops? What have you noticed as far as challenges and changes? There's a whole bunch of challenges in agriculture for first of all, agriculture was deemed essential, so we were fortunate that way that we were able to keep working through the situation. But you know probably there'd, be you know a number of challenges, and I can think of three. So first, was a disruption with the sales channels, so people would know about the issues with dairy and potatoes and how they were disrupted. As certainly there are a number of other sectors you know. For us, the disruption is worth of craft brewery industry. A lot of them were switching their production to be sold through the wrong tap rooms, in addition to bars and restaurants and LCBO, and on online, and all the tap rooms were shut down. So that was a huge issue for all of them, and so that's going to impact the hop sales when it comes to selling the next set of crop. Next issue would be around labor in particular here in Norfolk county, where we farm, we produce a lot of produce, and that requires off short labor and that's been a significant issue on a number of affronts. Fortunately, for us in horseradish, we partnered with a smaller producer who had had their offshore already here, the (inaudible) farm based out of the (inaudible), and so we were fortunate with that. But there's other growers around here, like the (inaudible), the prosects and the chevauteaurs, who got like one third to one half of the workforce, and so that's kind of a downstream impact on the produce that will be available. And then the final issue would be around supplies that it hasn't been as big of an issue or concern as it was at the start of the challenge. But in hops a key a component for us is what it's called coconut core and it's a string made from a natural product. It's a waste by product ant from cooking and processing, but that product comes out of Sri Lanka and India, and so there were a lot of concerns at both those particularly India was very disrupted channel. We were fortunate enough that we purchase all of our supplies a year in advance so that even when the crisis hit you, we were able to work through it, but what a whole lot of people may not appreciate with agriculture, unlike other industries, is that there's a very narrow window and if you miss it, you miss it for the whole year, so you're unlike car manufacturing you if we shut down for April and May and start up again in June, it's unfortunate where we can start up again. That's not the case in agriculture. If we have missed that window and hops it's and it's a two-week window and that's it if you miss it, then you lose the crop for the whole year and you can't say I’ll start again. In August, I’ll started again in November, like you're done until the next year. So it's a never window. It was critical and we were fortunate. We were able to work through it. Can you think of some other things that looking forward, you hope that the industry keeps or that you're going to keep some learnings to again insulate yourself from other challenges or ensure that the industry evolves. I think, for me, one of the biggest lessons learned and it's applicable to agriculture and food processing, but I think it's true for a lot of industries is the whole concept of business model diversity right. I've been in business now, you know whatever you call 45 years of my life and we've had what we called two black swan events in the last twelve years. You know we had the 2008 financial crisis. We had this thing in 2020. Guess about there's going to be another one in who knows eight to ten years time and when we think back to 2008 we think about to this one. You know companies that had diversity and supply chains and customer segments and sales channels, and a number of things that's what's going to help you get through these black swan events. So I look at companies and you particularly go back to my (inaudible). I look at craft brewers, who are our main customers, and they only had one sales channel, which is their tap room like they're done, they're shut down right and it's very difficult now to try to get into the LCBO and when we look at our specific business, one of the things that we were thinking about over the last year of I wouldn't say we put a lot of attention to it as the home brewer segment and that's been interesting to watch that develop over the last four or five months as people have been at home, you'll pulling out the old home, brew kits and think about how to get supplies, is a very different segment for us, but again it gives a diversity in addition to the craft brewers, who I’m confident will come back, but we also need to diverse fly into the home brewer segment, because it gives us a different way to push our product. So you've mentioned homebrew you've talked about the craft brewers, can you think of other industries or other businesses that have done a really good job of this? Of diversifying where you could go? Maybe the listener could look at to get some inspiration from along with those brewers in the home, brew industry. You know a guy that I would really call out, one of my suppliers would be Tony Geng of Superior Glove. There are a second generation, family business, that manufacturers gloves for a number of industries and they supplied gloves for us for the agriculture space, they supply gloves for a frail automotive and it's been interesting to watch them. I would almost call it a bit of a pivot right, and so they had to with the automotive lot of their automotive shut down, you know they had to ask themselves see, what can we do and they look at their business a go? Well, innovation is a key part of ours. We got a manufactory base. You know how to be diversifying other things, so they pivoted and started making face shields face masks, hand sanitizer, which they're selling to a lot of their custom based, but also some new base as well too, but again it's. I think this is one of the things that Tony is able to acknowledge is that you're being singularly focused on gloves was good and in that, but now having other products in their product line as automotive comes back as others come back, I think they're going to continue to do face shields and face masks and hand sanitizers in addition to gloves. But I was really impressed with Tony and how his team pivoted so quickly and had new products in the marketplace that quickly. Yeah, it sounds like he and his team were not only able to pivot but willing to and have that mindset of willing to try out some new things. Experiment maybe fail in a few which I’ve seen businesses I willing to fail and trying to have that mindset. Yeah, but that was always you know, keep part of their culture. When you talk to Tony and asked about his values, innovation is one of them and they the pride themselves, because the glove industry is a very tough industry. There's a lot of other commodity gloves and they focus on specialty, gloves very niche protective gear for a very specific thing. So, like you, no chicken processing, handling and air gun nailor protecting type stuff, and- and so they draw it upon that- that innovation culture to say how can we quickly put it into making facials as they've never done before? So that's an important part of their cultures, innovation. One thing that you touched upon earlier is you know, you're doing the call from Turkey Point and for those of you that aren't familiar with where Turkey Point is, Google it, check it out down along the down along the lake. We've talked about how this is impacting industry and businesses. How have you noticed it impacting the community because there's a very strong sense of community there, what have you noticed, people pulling together? What are some initiatives that they're doing? I think it's interesting to also here about what's happening in the small towns and the community. Yeah without a doubt it would intact farm community and the small towns around as just as much as it would in the big cities. I think the you know we see the line up at the stores. You know we resee the shortages of the products. Well, you would also notice to those that I mean there is a strong sense of community, see a lot of science and support and so on for that, but in some ways to because a big part of our community has been deemed essential right like there's a lot of you know a lot of  high percentage of the people there working in the agriculture industry or in the food processing industry and there's a fair number of people that commute to be part of the health care sector. So in some ways it's been heads down for a lot of people that way and not as disruptive a little bit more so if you're, in the heavier manufacturing like automotive but yeah again down here in Norfolk or nearby in (inaudible) a lot of agriculture, there a refinery here as well that in a steel mill that had to keep going so and so in some ways it's been heads down and keep going that way. Do you have something you'd like to share with the audience or an ask that you, like our listeners, to go and do or check out an initiative that you're passionate about or really supporting as an individual or as a family. Yeah and that's a great question. This would be the topic that I would like you, people to pay attention to. There's been a lot of discussion of late around the topic of self sufficiency for Canada, and I particularly in the area of health care and health care supply. So, we think about all the masks and ventilators and the syringes that were having to bring into the country and there's a level of concern about you know: are we too dependent on other countries? I would argue that that same conversation has to happen in agriculture and through processing. A couple of facts for you, so Canada imports thirty percent of the food that it consumes and that number has doubled in the last fifteen years. The second is that we are a net importer of food products into this country, so those are a couple of concerning facts, particularly in a time when global supply chains are strained and at risk now is. You can tell I’m a big supporter of Canadian agriculture in food processing and believe that we can be successful, but Canada really needs growth, oriented companies and particularly growth-oriented companies that could be successful on the global scale and we need them to create jobs, to support our communities to pay taxes. So we can pay for the health care and education, the infrastructure that we all need it as Canadians, and I think that the Made in Canada brand offers, Canadian agriculture and food processors that opportunity to build to compete and succeed at a global level. What's really change in the pandemic. In my mind, though, is that this whole topic has evolved from an economic opportunity to an economic opportunity and a risk factor. You know Canada’s food supply chain. We cannot take that for granted. You know, and we got to make sure that it doesn't get a compromise, and so I think, as we think about self sufficiency, I think we also have to think about Canadian agriculture and food processing so that we can continue in times of crisis like this to be able to produce the food that Canadians need. Like you said so, many of them have been deemed essential. So there's opportunity there, but that you've mentioned some of the risk factors about supply chain employees coming in to help harvest, et cetera in that short window that you talked about so other places where the audience can go to learn more about the industry, about the Canadian industry to just get up to speed on it. If they're, maybe not as familiar with the industry. Where do you go well, I walk up my jar and, and I go into the fields and check it out, but I, for example, real kind of fine one that I have is that Charlotte Field brewing and they're based just of two concessions away. I don't know sure how far that is away from me, but Tim and Melanie. You know they had set up a tap room and when that got shut down the quickly averted online and- and I think there there's thousands of stories like that of small croppers and small food processors and small farm operations that I have to go online. So it wouldn't be difficult for people to google and to look at local. Local is important because one of the things that people have to appreciate to about agriculture and food processing is that it's a long lead time right so, for example, in hops, I can't just say I want to be in hops next year and I’ll have hops next year. It takes a year to put up the infrastructure, it takes three to four years for the for the for the plants to mature to be able to produce a crop and same with hazelnuts. It takes five to six year before you get your first crop. So if we want to have a Canadian food source, we want to have Canadian craft brewers. You got to support them today because it takes a long lead time, and he can't just say okay we’re going to start making masks tomorrow. You know like Tony was fortunate. He had a great team and was able to start doing it. But if somebody came to me and to and said Mark, I need to start growing asparagus. I would say it's going to take me two to three years before I have the infrastructure in place. I have the water in place. I have the work force in place, that have the root in place, and so that's why it's important to support Canadian food and agricultural so that when we need it next year in the year after the year after, it's all there ready support. Canadians. That's great and Tim does a great job with the brewing company with his social media. I've had a chance to meet him and work with him before and it's interesting to watch how their diversifying their communications with great stories, interesting videos and pictures that show that process of getting ready to brew the whole industry and what they've set up at the farm is really cool to follow in to watch so for listeners, go and check that out on Facebook do a really nice job of telling the story. Mark you've talked about the changes in industry and you've talked about the changes you've seen on your farm, talk a little bit more about the change that you went through from going from the board room to the farm. What were some key skills that you've used to make that change or was it easy? Was it an easy transition? What did you find? Well in some ways, this is a transition that I’ve been planning for, probably thirty years. In fact, it was a reason I went back to Ivey because I’d always wanted to have my own business. I didn't notice necessarily it was going to be agriculture and food, but you know, over the years when I was at Deloitte, luckily towards the end of my career, I was able to work with a lot of private clients and saw family businesses and saw the fun that they were having and also to the commitment to Canada and the contribution that small business is a family business is of made. So, if towards the talent of my career delight, you know, I kind of had an idea of this is the direction I wanted to go, and it took me a while to kind of get my head around farming and around food processing and would be these be the places I want to do it. But I really wanted to do something that I could think about the next generation for my kids and I wanted to get into a family business, and I thought food processing was another one that took the box on something that would allow us to compete on a global level, and what my dream would be that I, in ten years time after my kids, have gone to school for five years and have work for somebody else for five years that one or all of them will come back to family business and say you know, this is something where I think I can contribute to society and build something with. I didn't have that opportunity as a kid. I went right for from university into the corporate world and I don't regret it. It was fun, but I also really love what I’m doing today. I mean I really am passionate about food processing and, Canada, and so I couldn't be in a better place, and I think back to your point around you, Ivey again, I just go back to you, the general. You leadership, skills, the diversity of the cases that we were through, because you know I’m having to do stuff. I would have done you know even like two years ago, so, for example, something as small as you know, I’ve got to repair of thirty motors every year right and so every winter, I’m up to my elbows in oil and grease and wrapping my knuckles, because you know the wrench slipped and stuff like that, and but it's fun right is something different. It's a new skill and something I probably should have learned. He was eighteen and nineteen, but didn't. But what Ivey teaches you is it teaches you the confidence to get into a new area, and so you can figure it out. Now, a little secret these days is YouTube holy smoke man. If you want to learn anything about oil changes or part changes, you can go to YouTube these days. So it's a lot easier, but it still it's a confidence, the ability to say you know I’ve got to change out you know that electrode on my sprayer so go to YouTube. Look at it watch him do it, and so, I’m going to rip it apart and change it and you do it right so again, I’m pulling on my Ivey experience every day. I wondered you know, given your experience with Ivey a number of years ago and then seeing your kids go through it. Has there been anything that you've been really interested in or a change at the school or an evolution, they've gone, that's really cool. I like that or wow what difference or has there been themes that have stayed consistent over the years? I just think it's interesting to get that that bit of a change of what you're witnessing from your perspective. Yeah, I would give you two things that haven't changed and one thing that will change. So you know what hasn't changed is Ivey’s focus on general leadership and general management right, so it's not just homed in on finance or homed in on one particular area, and I think that's you know selfishly for me. That's been very helpful, as you knows, I’ve pivoted from Deloitte now to farming and then, when he bought Dennis, having to look at all aspects of those of those businesses and so having a general background from Ivey was very helpful. That way the case methodology that hasn't changed and can’t change. That is absolutely critical. That's the reason I went back to Ivey. That's why a lot of people go to Ivey and it just reinforces it's as close as you can get to you know being in real business situations. But what I was a change junkie you are all change junkies, we like to change all the time, so it was nice to change with every case new industry, new challenges, new geographies and all that kind of stuff. But you know that that change and diversity, a diversity of case, is really helps you as a leader grow and get abroad set of exposure, so that that I don't think it's going to change. I think would have, of course, is going to change to the whole online component, and I think this is not unique to it or it's going to be in the whole higher ed. In fact, all education is, you know how do we shift from a very in person hands on experience to still of getting that rich aspect, and I think you know, I think, back to my time, an Ivey. You know the classroom was a big component of it, but there's other things that were quite you know helpful in my development, so things like field trips, things like clubs, things like guest speaker, so you know some of them. We could pivot to an online.  You can fact do more speakers, but you know same things like the clubs and stuff like that. That's that'll be interesting to see how we work through that so, I do that's going to be a big change for Ivey, but I’m confident that Ivey is going to tackle it head on and find a way to work throughout. As we look to wrap up here today, anywhere else that you'd like to have the listeners go and check out or businesses to support or any final thoughts that you'd like to leave or calls to action for the audience. Yeah. The final call I would just make is just about you know supporting local, it's very easy to do, no matter where you live, where you live in Toronto or live in in Turkey Point. You know when you go into a grocery store, you have choices to make and those choices have a downstream impact on the Canadian agriculture and food processing industry. So you'll make your choices. You know look for look for products that are for grow in Canada that are made in Canada. That's very easy to do, and that's going to have the long term support for all of us going down the stream. Thanks to Mark Whitmore. MBA ’91 for joining us on the Leaders by Ivey podcast. We hope you enjoyed it, be sure to join us next time when we speak with Ian Rosen. HBA ‘11 from Harry Rosen incorporate, like what you heard on today's episode, subscribe to the Leaders by Ivey podcast. Have any feedback send us an email at Until then be well!