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The Leaders · Season 1

Nourishing your people with good culture

Aug 18, 2020

Richard Dufresne, MBA ’92, President and CFO George Weston Limited, talks about over-communication, why people are a company’s most important asset and the stress of managing during a pandemic.


Richard Dufresne

Learn how “eating together” became a cultural cornerstone of Canada’s largest food and drug retailer. Richard Dufresne, MBA ’92, President and CFO George Weston Limited, talks about over-communication, why people are a company’s most important asset and the stress of managing during a pandemic.


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. Hi I’m match win. Welcome to the final episode of the season of the Leaders by Ivey podcast today we welcome Richard Dufresne MBA’92. The President and CFO of George Weston Limited. We dive into topics like authenticity, culture and the impact of the corona virus on frontline workers and customers alike. I know you're going to like this podcast enjoy. So Richard thank you very much for joining us today. Let's start by learning more about who you are what you do and what's your relation to Ivey good, so yeah. So my name is Richard Dufresne, I’m an MBA grad from my Ivey, graduated in ‘92. So what I do now, I’m the President of a company called George Weston, limited George Weston limited. Essentially, people will know us better by the businesses that we own we own three large businesses that touch the lives of many Canadians, the biggest one of which is law loss, and so we have blah blah shopper drug mar that people know well. We also own a large real estate business called choice, properties which came about, as has from the real estate that law la on that we spun off probably eight years ago, and our other business is a bakery business where one of the largest bakers in North America, so fresh bread that doughnuts cookies were all these businesses. So, yes, that's what I do interesting in your role. You get to see many different types of businesses working and operating at the at the best of times and then also as we go through the challenges that we seen over the last number of months. Could you speak to given your position in the size of your organization? What's the most significant challenge you faced in the past few months, and how did you respond to that yeah? I think I think most of the people you've been speaking with over the last few months. Probably all have the same answer as to the biggest challenge and a challengingly face. Then it's been it's been. This pandemic, like, as I mentioned, the fact that we own three businesses that touch the lives of a most Canadians, really drove what we've been doing, and you should be faced over the last. I guess six months now and if I were to sort of summarize it my business. If I were to start with our food business, food retailing, business like initially, what happened? Is we had? What we call to stop piling like people were afraid that we would run out of food, so they was like a rush to two stores, and so we were struggling with operations just to keep our stores full keep our warehouses full, because we had to replenish everything and the focus was and remains on safety of our colleagues and safety of our customers and- and it was not easy like people- were tired, like working long hours and that at first like the relationship with customers, wasn't great because we didn't have any PPE at the time like it was very tough to procure mask and gloves, and so it created a very, very difficult environment but like by being focused on safety like we reached a good balance, and fortunately, this top piling portion of that business for that business lasted probably about a month or six weeks, while on our drug retail side, if you, if you as you, know Shoppers Drug Mart like they were essentially no more doctor visits and therefore like people to get the treatment or get their medication, how did how would they do that? So there was a big push for telemedicine, so telemedicine started to grow really rapidly and a we are active in such businesses, and so that helped a bit. But we saw a dramatic drop in in prescription sales, because just people could not renew. We knew their prescriptions and on the cut and shoppers are the big cosmetic business and, as you can imagine, people didn't care much about how they looked for the first few months, so that business was also significantly affected for real estate. Business was very different, like the challenge that they faced is that businesses were failing h, people were not paying rent and they didn't know whether their business would be able to reopen at first. We didn't know how long this this pandemic would last so people, some initially said people say, is going to last a few weeks, so they have and but then, when people start to figure out that it would last longer like we saw a lot of people who couldn't afford to pay rent. So that's been an issue that that business is faced and that we still face us of today and finally, bakery was a quite interesting because every category is reacted differently, as, as you could expect fresh bread because of people's stock filing grew rapidly. So, people were just consuming more fresh bread with everything that a was related to celebration like cakes and pies. We saw like these business grind to a halt and every business that was related to like what we call quick service. Restaurants and dying in restaurants also fell rapidly because those were all closed so that created all sorts of issues and managing through that been interesting and but I’d say the other pieces to run all these business. We've got support, function, head offices for each of our businesses, and how do you keep how you keep the business working like we're doing this podcast today? We're not together we're all in our homes or in our offices, and so we've learned to work remotely and in wild technology has been really good in helping us transition. It's not easy! So there's a bunch of issues which I’m sure will be pulling on later, but that's been definitely a key, a key challenge that we face and we continue to face the day. That's probably the biggest one that we're still facing now. One of the things we talked about before recording here today is some of the podcast that you listen to and why you like them. You brought up a number of them that talk about you know the personal impact of the personal side of it. I’m really interested. If you you're open to talking about this, your company is so large with so many different moving pieces. How did you, as a leader, get your head around that in a time of so much rapid change? How did you do that for from you know your personal perspective and you're in your role overseeing so much? That's probably the biggest learning from my perspective since this crisis started and it's a theme that I keep emphasizing with everyone within the organization and it's over communication, because, as you can expect, when you're managing such a large business that spread all across the country and even unto true North America, you need to stay in contact with people and everybody who's, not working in a plant or in the stores working from home. So you had to define ways to stay in contact so there was a process. I was doing before the pandemic that I’ve intensified, and I call those let's stock sessions. An to me a let stock session is, is I a convenient ten fifteen people in in a room and people coming from all over the organization and we have no agenda- and we talk for an hour. Ninety minutes about whatever people want to talk about, and I’ve been doing this these sessions for years now and for me it's always been a good way to get a pulse of what's going on in the business, because I talked to any everyone, and so I remembered Monday. After a week, did he shut down? My assistant called me up and she said Richie other lets stock session wind up Wednesday and want to cancel it. I said no, actually, let's not cancel it and, I said actually like. I want you to double the number of sessions. I want to have two sessions per week and we're just going to keep those going and so at first we were doing them. My conference calls and then, when we learn how to play with video, we added videos, but these, as these have been amazing, because I’ve been in contact with the business conveying what's going on in the business employees so that they can convey it to their callings and- and I find that that's a really good way to stay connected, because if you don't do that, like email or like formal ways to communicate they're, not working well, and so that has been something that I thought was very powerful and useful in managing the business, and I can feel that people really like him. So do you think you'll keep this doubled volume, even if things go back to a relative normal? Whatever that looks like good question, good question, probably not twice a week, but at least once a week and because video t is such now, that it allows you to reach out to people that are far away, and I don't think that's going to go away. I think you're going to be able to keep doing that like sometimes we try to get people to come to talk to us about stuff and it's actually easier to get outside speakers to come and talk to us about what's going on in their business and because it's just a video call like you just need to convince them to get on the call and like take an hour the their day and it works. So we had this woman who works in Beijing. She runs an executive recruitment form in Beijing and she talked to us about a month ago out her life there and I go wow like it was so interesting. So so that's a that's an advantage. I guess of learning to use these tools, but like to me over communication is something that has worked really well for us. That sounds like such a huge lesson and something like, like you, said it's involving people from all across the organization. When you look back, is there anything that you wish? You would have done differently either with these? Let's talk sessions, or just in general, with your with your communications or managing the business. Not really actually was thinking about that question, and now because I think what I was fearing is that we would lose on culture and I fell a concern I have because of the size of our organization, and so we've been working really hard at here, not only to like these let stock sessions or my own personal initiative, but, like I, been working really hard with the teams to have like company wide events and because, like as you know where, when the food business and one event that that we really cherish every year as we call it, our eight together event like we feel that eating together is a really important thing in life, and so we apply at work and the way we bring it to life in our businesses. Is we actually organize events where we go and eat together with all our colleagues, and so here at head office? Every summer like we, we bring in food trucks and we all gather in an area and we leave together in so much fun, so that event was coming up and- and we said like won't, be able to do it, and so like people on my team came up with the idea said: no, let's go and order some of our pc chef meals will get them delivered to people's house and we'll cut them and eat together. So we had a neat together session. I think we're on no hundred fifty people, I guess on it. We had lunch together and then the team laid up this jeopardy game on video, which I could not comprehend how they made it work them, but it was amazing, and so again we saw engagement really go on. These are things that companies, big and small, can do, and it's really speaks to culture, and we've heard that as a recurring theme throughout the various discussions that we've had. What else is your organization doing to support and bolster culture and reinforce that positive culture that you that you have in your organization? Yeah culture is something that's very important to me. It's very important to our or whole organization, because, because we're because of our scale and and it's something that we spent a lot of time and resources over the years to bill, especially like in light of when we, when we completed the shoppers acquisitions, there were, there were different cultures and- and we thought it would be a right thing to have such an initiative. And it's been so successful that, like now we're perpetuating throughout our other organization and through how like we're, pushing it down to stores and we're pushing it down to our bakeries and it's quite powerful, because I think it pushes some very strong values that help us thee to the managing. Our businesses, like one of one of these values of enticing, being able to have honest discussion with people about everything, is very important but being able to do it with respect and it's I think it's something that we've improved so much on like and- and I feel that we were better as an organization because of this. We actually call this the blue culture. It's we. We put a theme on it a few years ago and it's something that that probably help us do so well during the pandemic. But there are drawbacks and the drawbacks is. I was looking at this stat actually before getting on this podcast, that, as of September first at head office, will have fifteen percent of employees. I who have not set foot in this office. I e been hired since March, so I’ve never met these people personally yet, like I’ve only met them through video and so we need. We need to get back to the office, which is another big initiative that we're starting to work on and we're going to be doing it slowly. But I think it's relatively easy to maintain a culture because you've been doing it with colleagues that you know- and you know of them, but I think it's a little bit more difficult to build a culture with new employees who don't really know the organization because, like you need more than programmed events on video to get to know someone, you need the impromptu, meaning walking down the office or driving lunch. So these things need to get going again so that we can sort of keep the culture strong. And what did you do for those that you said? How do you say fifty percent to haven't been in one far man fifteen, that s that's a huge amount of your team. What have you done to welcome those people to make them feel a part of the organization that they've never step foot in? Yet what have you done the last few months? But I guess it's the same theme like obviously the interview with more people: okay, because they it's a two way to a thing like they need to decide to join us and we need to decide to hire them. So we just had to do more. So more of these video calls now that our protocol to for return to office is not in place or were insisting that the final interviews need to be done face to face, but it this is new from two weeks ago. So, but before that, like we've hired a lot of people and as I was mentioning and but like- and I think we're getting good talent too. So to me, it's the same thing like if, if you communicate make people feel comfortable, it'll, it'll work and I think it's working for us now. I want to hop back to something that you mentioned, which was the shopper's acquisition. Is there anything from that process where you are blending two cultures, a bran brands? Obviously, that are very, very well known. Are there any major learnings out of that when you sit back and look and go wow? That was something that we did well or something that wow. I never expected that to happen. Yeah, yes and again, that was that was like six years ago now. So the key thing is having a process to share best practices and- and it was very clear that choppers had practices that were better than at law. Laws and law blow had also better practices than choppers. So creating a forum by which you can share those practices was quite important, and mostly, it happened when we were funneling. Both teams together and people were talking about their businesses, and so over the years as we've learned about how shoppers was doing, things and choppers were learning about how we were doing things with both elevated our game, either in business processes and like and like or any other areas hr it like, so together. I feel very strongly that both businesses are much better today than they were then, because of the fact that we were able to work together. But I can tell you when we created this culture initiative. It was an imperative that we did it because the cultures were very different, like law was sort of the freight train that just keeps going. Okay, Shoppers was much more agile, and so, how do you mash those culture? So we had to do this blue culture initiative to bring both cultures together, and but it's been, it's been a big mix. Success for us now you just in getting to know you a little bit on this call. You've mentioned you know where one companies may be better than another and can learn from each other. It sounds like you're, pretty open and authentic with your own personal style. How do you translate that to those that work for you? How do you encourage that openness and authenticity other than just modeling it? No, that's a very good point like this blue call, coming back to that, but, like this blue culture initiative would not have worked if the top senior executives of the company did not believe in him, because I’ve seen it not. I’ve seen it fail at other organization, but I’m of the view that my job is to help others. That's my job because, like we're just the sum of everybody, that's in the organization, so how? How can I help? Others is to be listening to them to be understanding what their issues are and helping them manage their business, the business better? And so I’ve always been a big believer in it. Like I’ve got a big poster of new culture in my office that I have it there, because I want people when they walk in my office. They can see that I believe in it and- and I think I think I try to be very open with everybody when I have these lets talk sessions. I had one two weeks ago with our summer, students that were leaving, and I always say them the same thing like they asked me, questions about advice, one career and all that stuff, and so I give them my thoughts, but I always see them. That's the same thing at the end, I said, as you know, they gave through life or jobs or whatever, and you want to reach out to me like just do reach up to me, like I’m more than happy to be helpful, whether you're with this organization or not, and then I add by the way I say this to every group of people. I talk to the percentage of people who take me up on. It is actually quite low. So I don't know maybe to people are too shy, but each time I say that I’ll get two people who sort of send me or an email and say: okay, like yeah. Let's do this and I take the time- and I really like it, and, and so I think I don't know it's something that now I can sort of give to others because of what I’ve lived in my career and but I think, it's important because to me the most important asset that we have in any business as people and you know internal audiences. I want to take a slight different, slightly different path and talk about the customers and the relationship with customers that you've got. You know it's still early days, we're still getting things back open to people returning to what the new normal they say. How do you feel that your relationship is an organization with the consumers and the customers may have changed during the pandemic? Yeah? No, I think it's got me better. Obviously, it's very tough to gauge, but we have a. We have all sorts of customer metrics that we follow all OSATs and PS and the like and we've seen ups and downs throughout the pandemic, but over all. I think I think I think our relationship with customers is better and it was before because we were quite open about what was going on yale and was writing letters and sending emails to every Canadians about how things were going. How just to keep people informed, because people didn't know like it was created so much uncertainty for everybody, so again, being open and honest about what's going on in your business and how we want to be, we want to be treating customers and treating calling was so important like we change the way. A grocery store works, a lot since this pandemic and each time that we made a big change. We wanted to communicate it because for some customer they didn't really like it like now we have plexy shield and all our a lot o our stores now for our lanes and so at. First people didn't really like that. But then okay, now we feel safe and then, when we bid them first with that and just on one side but like the consequence of that, is that each lane has two sides, because you actually walk behind. So then, oh my god, we don't have one. So we had to close these lines. So we learned a lot of stuff like if you've walked our stores. Now you've got arrows on the floor to tell you how to direct traffic so that you don't need people. So all of these things I feel made your customer feel safer and- and I think today it's now the way of life like if you go in or stores now you'll see that everybody wears a mask like it's sort of the thing and it's not normal. I don't know how each of you are managing your life now, but I’ve masks and my work bag. I’ve masked in my car. I got mask at the front door and it's just part of life time. I just have a mask and when I go indoor in a store something I put it on so I think people have learned that and feel good about it, and when I look at Canada in general, I think I think we're doing a decent ( on this issue. Yeah. It's amazing how adaptable we are and to now we're used to those masks and the plexy. Could you talk a little bit about the impact on the employees, because you just mentioned communication you know one example: the plexy one side and now flex the on both sides of that front line worker d: you know what were some of the things that you did to help frontline workers at help them adapt and you mentioned communications, that’s obviously one anything else stand out, but I guess like at first. It was overwhelming for colleagues because, like the amount of work that needed to be done just to keep a store open like we, we've increased the sanitation processes in our stores like to keep the store super clean and those are still happening today, and so the pressure we put on our employees at first. What was I meant so we put in we put in some pay premiums at first, because of the extra work, essentially and so- and we got really positive feedback from our colleagues on that program and it worked well- and I think if you look at, if you talk to colleagues today, there they quite had and they're quite happy of what of how we treated them like to us. Like colleagues and customers are the saying like they need to be safe and it needs to be good for their health and their families, health. So some themes across all the audiences that you've talked about lots of communication, engage, engage and gauge as much as he can authentic and open health and safety being paramount. It doesn't matter what the audience make sure that that's the case, and I want to dive back to you personally. As a leader. You have something that you want to share with our audience or ask our listeners to follow up all of free for as whether it be an initiative, a cause or a problem that you're passionate about. Personally, that you want or a check out but to me to me it's the same team I’ve been talking about and it's about people and actually like, because this is Ivey, I’m going to, I’m going to wander tell you a bit a little bit of an anecdote of my time at my MBA in ’92 like if you know me, my background is very analytical, like I studied in math and like I’m, very rational and, and so I’ve always been attracted to like chemistry, physics and math. So those were subjects that I really liked him. When I was young- and I remember in my first year at MBA, we had a course called organizational behavior thought by Jim Rush, and I was sitting, I think second row at that time and we had our little board and, like we were in that class, which didn't really like because to me HR was organizational behavior. That was not my thing like I love the finance classes and that's what I was really eager and I remember like I was probably not really listening and Jim comes to me. Dufresne. Okay, like you need to need to focus, but this is important like and I looked at them at him and I sort of roll my eyes sort of saying you know what and then he looked at me says Richard says the most important thing in business is people, and I didn't really believe it. But you know what I don't know when this revelation came to me, but he was right. He was totally right because it's all about people and I think successful organizations do a great job with people. So that's your biggest asset, recruiting talent and if I look at what I do today like I spend a lot of my time on talent, just making sure we have the right people in the right place and recruiting good talent, and you can never get enough good talent and you can never like you need to care about your employees ye to respect your employees and you need to give them a rewarding tasks and- and if you do that well, like your business is, will thrive. If I look at all the big strategic moves that we've done over the last like ten years, we couldn't have done it without the tale we have and, and so that to me is a theme I’m quite passionate about and- and I push on that every day with everybody in the organization. Many thanks to Richard for being with us on the season finale of the Leaders by Ivey podcast. Thank you, our listeners, for joining us on this turn. We're really excited to bring you season to, and the lineup looks fantastic join us in the fall to hear and learn from these amazing guests. Until then take care!