Grocery’s got talent: Meet the 2022 Generation Next winners
Get to know the 22 young leaders – all under age 40 – making their mark on Canada’s grocery industry
David Brown, Chris Daniels, Danny Kucharsky and Rosalind Stefanac
From sales and marketing pros to a development chef, co-founder of a booze-free beverage company and more, Canadian Grocer’s 2022 Generation Next award winners are an ambitious, passionate bunch.
Find out more about this year’s cohort below.
STORE MANAGER SAVE-ON-FOODS
Having started working with Save-On-Foods out of high school, Stephanie Benbow quickly demonstrated her prowess for leadership and business development. At the age of 22, she was promoted to assistant manager of the busiest Save-On-Foods on Vancouver Island, where she helped increase gross sales to reach No. 1 in the company.
Soon after, as one of Save-On-Foods’ youngest store managers, Benbow led operations at the Port Alberni, B.C. store, producing consistent double-digit sales increases for more than a year. Not only do sales continue to boom at her brand-new store in Surrey’s Guildford Village, but Benbow has worked tirelessly to build the grocer’s ties to the community, partnering with local school initiatives and supporting programs that feed families in need. “It’s really nice to be able to connect with your community and create positive change,” says Benbow. Not only does she thrive in giving back to her community, but also in mentoring others on staff in finding fulfilling career paths. “I’m really grateful for all my mentors, too, as I wouldn’t have been able to get to where I am today without all their support along the way,” says Benbow.
DIRECTOR OF SALES – METRO MAPLE LEAF FOODS
One of Maple Leaf’s core objectives is to be the “most sustainable protein company in the world.” But at discount banners like Food Basics, premium products like sustainable meat and chicken can be a tough sell with value-conscious shoppers. Melanie Carreira figured out a way to overcome that disconnect, helping develop programs for Maple Leaf RWA (raised without antibiotics) chicken and its Greenfield branded wieners, sausage and bacon that broke through with Food Basics shoppers and repositioned sustainable in the value-added space. Carreira's accomplishments there led to a new role as Maple Leaf’s director of sales for Metro, but beyond those business boosting results, she contributes in other ways, including being part of Maple Leaf's Women in Retail Sales network. “[During] My entire career in the (predominantly male) meat industry there were times where I did not feel comfortable to share my opinions and felt I did not have a voice at the table,” says Carreira. “Sharing these experiences with my colleagues and discussing solutions and opportunities to improve has been rewarding for me personally. If we can help support and build a safer, more inclusive work environment that is the true reward.”
CO-FOUNDER AND HEAD OF SALES & MARKETING LIBRA BEVERAGE CO.
As the co-founder of non-alcoholic craft beer brand Libra, Deborah Coleman loves changing people’s perceptions about non-alcoholic beverages.
“Until the last few years, there haven't been many choices for Canadians,” she says. “At Libra, we’ve created a lineup of great tasting non-alcoholic beverages so people can fully participate in social occasions – without the alcohol.”
Launched at the end of 2020, Libra recently crossed $1 million in sales over a 12-month period. The brand is now available in more than 1,000 stores including 60-plus Sobeys banners in Atlantic Canada.
Her marketing tactics are a big part of the brand’s success. This summer, Coleman secured Libra as the first non-alcoholic beer sponsor of the RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa. The attention this generated led to all three Costco stores in Ottawa to carry it for “Dry January.” Libra will also be launching at Costco stores across Atlantic Canada in 2023.
Coleman was previously part of Skinfix, another challenger brand based in her native East Coast. “There are a lot of growing CPG companies here,” she says, “and the fact they’re holding up against national brands is so exciting.”
SR. BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT MANAGER CONAGRA BRANDS
Reid Fenwick has been racking up accolades. Having exceeded targets with his team for growing Conagra’s business with Sobeys last year, he earned a sales award, his second with the company, and earned the distinction of being a close runner-up as “Most Valuable Conagran.”
“It’s a new award, and just knowing I was in the running meant a lot because nominations and voting is done by the employees,” he says. In January 2022, Fenwick was promoted to lead the Loblaws and Shoppers Drug Mart sales team for Conagra.
With the support of HR, Fenwick also helped launch an employee resource group for young professionals about how to best support them in their jobs and heighten their overall work experience through empowerment, education and motivation. “I’ve been fortunate to be mentored by amazing leaders and want every young employee to have the same opportunity,” he says.
Fenwick – who was 15 when he got a part-time job at a grocery store in his native St. Catharines, Ont. – also helps organize Conagra’s annual United Way fundraiser and led a silent auction this year that raised close to $4,000 for the charity.
DEVELOPMENT CHEF FARM BOY
Developing (and sampling) tasty recipes all day may seem like a dream job, but as Liam Fulcher describes, it’s also a science – especially when your recipes are being rolled out to 45 Farm Boy locations.
“I have to be able to take a soup recipe from 1 litre to 500 litres, and make sure it still tastes good,” he says, of developing Farm Boy’s popular in-store dining and take-home offerings. “In my job, I’m really motivated to provide great-quality food to a large group of people.”
As a development chef, his work has inspired the launch of more than 500 products at Farm Boy – some of which (his garlic sauce and triple-chocolate loaf cake, for example) continue to be top picks among customers.
During the pandemic, Fulcher was also the heart and soul of a new bi-weekly table d’hôte-style menu that helped to feed thousands of grocery patrons every week. “I really like product development as it allows me to hone my culinary skills while being creative,” he says. When he’s not working his magic in Farm Boy's test kitchen, Fulcher also trains front-line employees on new program delivery.
DISTRICT MANAGER FOOD BASICS/METRO
When he began working at Food Basics as a part-time sales clerk in 2000, Thomas Giergont was still in high school. But he quickly climbed the ranks, becoming an assistant manager at age 26, a store manager at 29 and a field specialist at 31.
Over the years, Giergont helped open several new stores while overseeing everything from construction to hiring. Since 2020, he’s been a district manager, responsible for store operations including sales, labour, business analytics, customer focus and efficiency in 16 Greater Toronto Area stores. He says he’s still the rookie among Food Basics’ district managers.
Giergont is proud to maintain an open-door policy with colleagues. “My phone goes off seven days a week. I don’t tell them my days off,” he says. Store managers and assistants “come to me for everything. As much as it can be overwhelming at times, I love it.”
Promoting people is a great part of his job, Giergont says. In 2022 alone, he trained and developed seven new assistant store managers and three store managers. “I can guide them in the next roles in their careers,” he says. “Watching them succeed is very rewarding.”
DIRECTOR, DEMAND AND SUPPLY PLANNING DANONE CANADA
Given Emmanuel Guimont’s background, it’s only natural he’s helping a major consumer goods company weather its supply chain challenges. He completed a master’s degree in manufacturing and supply chain management in food companies at France’s Institut national agronomique Paris-Grignon, before joining Danone.
“I can relate to supply chain challenges in the food industry. I can connect the dots,” says Guimont, who came to Danone Canada after stints with the company in France and Ireland.
Handed his current title two-and-a-half years ago, Guimont was swiftly tasked with dealing with the effects of the pandemic. However, “we were able to achieve a top-tier service level and get our products on shelves.”
Guimont oversees a team of 20 people and “it’s super inspiring to see them enjoy their work and see them grow within the organization.” Looking ahead, he says he would enjoy getting into an operations role with more opportunity to connect the dots in the organization.
INNOVATION AND STRATEGY CONSULTANT LOBLAW
As an innovation and strategy consultant at Loblaw, Nicole Hamather is laser focused on finding ways technology can make the shopping experience better for customers, constantly searching for ideas that can sometimes seem small but end up having a big impact. “Nicole is a superstar with a bright future at Loblaw,” says Nelm Khangura, the company’s vice-president of stores and colleague technology.
Since joining the team in 2018, “the Hammer” – as her colleagues call her – has played an invaluable role in launching a number of initiatives including electronic shelf labels, which enable store staff to spend more time serving customers; the Loblaw Concierge program, which provides in-store assistance to the 20% of customers with disabilities; and the “remote optometry” program, which connects patients with a remote optometrist. “This is something I am extremely proud of as it has the potential to increase access to eye exams for all Canadians,” says Hamather. Her success, she believes, stems from a passion for solving complex problems and overcoming any hurdles in her way. “The path of innovation is not linear,” she says.
And her determination to have a big impact extends beyond the office. Last year, she raised more than $46,000 by running 48 miles in 48 hours for Jessica’s House, a residential hospice in Exeter, Ont. named for her sister who died from cancer in 2015.
LOGISTICS DIRECTOR METRO
Metro's distribution centres have been part of Alexandre Lévesque’s DNA since he started working at one as a summer student at age 17. His responsibilities grew over the years and by 2013 he was overseeing logistics at the new Laval, Que. distribution centre, contributing to its planning, design, system configuration and processes. It quickly became one of Metro’s most efficient facilities.
In 2016, Lévesque was tasked with improving operations, productivity and labour relations at the company's meat and frozen food distribution centre in Montreal where he helped negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the union.
Given current labour shortages, he is now working to automate tasks at Metro’s new Terrebonne distribution centre in Quebec, which is scheduled to open in 2023. He’s the program lead for construction, ensuring everything’s on time and on budget. Once it opens, he’ll shift to operations to make sure it gets off to a successful start.
Lévesque is convinced the experience he has gained in several positions “makes a difference in my management style.” He’s motivated by the opportunity to improve processes and think outside the box. “It's so exciting to wake up and deal with new issues every day.”
DIRECTOR OF MARKETING, PET SMUCKER FOODS OF CANADA
Leah Milne arrived at Smucker Foods of Canada as an intern while pursuing her MBA at Wilfrid Laurier University. Twelve years later, and after a string of business-building accomplishments that gave a jolt to some of the company’s mature brands and saw the successful launch of new ones, Milne is now the company’s director of marketing.
Most notably, Milne relaunched Jif peanut butter in Canada with an integrated campaign shaped by her insight that Canadians wanted a more premium peanut butter. The campaign included a partnership with the Toronto Raptors, TV, social media and retail marketing, all of which launched the brand to the second-leading share position within its first two years. “We heard and responded to an unmet need in the Canadian peanut butter landscape,” says Milne. “When you truly listen to consumers is when you can make a tangible impact.”
Milne also volunteers as a crisis responder for the Kids Help Phone, and she’s been working to make the industry more equitable by advocating for pay transparency. “Over the past year, my passion for pay transparency has led to education and the proposal of practical solutions at [Smucker Foods],” she says. “I want to help make our company and industry more diverse and equitable.”
KEY ACCOUNT MANAGER A. LASSONDE
Adam Murray got his start at beverage company A. Lassonde as a DSD (direct to store) account manager for independent retailers in the Greater Toronto Area. Today, Murray manages the Loblaw account nationally. “It’s an exciting desk to be on,” he says.
Aiming to better serve this key account amid supply chain challenges, Murray optimized the product portfolio, ordering patterns and promotional activities, and kept conversations less formal with Loblaw. “It's a challenging time for all parties,” he says. “Being able to communicate openly to identify problems and find solutions is critical.”
Murray attributes his ascent to not being afraid to ask questions and leaning in on new projects. “Even if I didn’t think I was ready for it, if someone else believed in me, I would jump in,” he says. For example, he became a liaison for Lassonde at United Grocers Inc., helping roll out marketing programs to its members in the West.
When he was working at a car rental agency prepping cars, Rishi Patel’s girlfriend at the time jokingly told him, “You need to get a real job.” Enter a job at Lactalis Canada where he’s been for a dozen years, rising progressively in the ranks from accounts receivable to overseeing the trade marketing department.
Patel marvels that “I keep being given the trust to be involved in some pretty game-changing initiatives for the company.”
In 2021, for example, Patel was a driving force in the integration of Ultima Foods into the company, an acquisition that made Lactalis the country’s second-largest yogurt maker. He played a key role in the Canadian launch of Siggi’s yogurt, and in growing the ethnic yogurt brand Khaas outside of Canada's major cities.
He was also instrumental in setting up a category management and insights team that uses data to analyze product performance and shopper behaviour. And he led crisis management efforts during the pandemic, “when all hell was breaking loose,” ensuring yogurt was always available on shelf. “My jokes and calm demeanour usually help people stay connected,” says Patel.
SHOPPER MARKETING MANAGER KRUGER PRODUCTS
It was a full circle moment when Megha Ragno joined Kruger Products in 2020 after spending eight years with Loblaw.
“I was an intern at Kruger when I was studying at the University of Toronto,” explains Ragno. “A lot of the people that I worked with back then are still here. It has been amazing to come back with that continuity, along with the new connections I’ve made.”
At Kruger, Ragno has established a workflow for shopper marketing, making collaboration easier across functions, from retail operations and sales to marketing, as well as with agency partners.
Ragno’s leadership in this area contributed to the recent success of important brand launches such as SpongeTowels Ultra PRO and Bonterra, Kruger’s brand of responsibly sourced household tissue.
Over the past two years, Ragno has also led the development of the “Kruger Canadian Made” campaign with both internal and external partners. “The campaign increased brand awareness around the fact that our products are made in Canada at a time when people were hyper-focused on supporting local,” she says. “It’s some of the work I am most proud of.”
STORE BRANDS SPECIALIST FEDERATED CO-OPERATIVES LIMITED
In her role, Katelyn Rawlyk is responsible for getting innovative new products to grocery shelves. This includes everything from choosing strategies for product categories to sourcing vendors to supply the goods. “Sometimes I’m even working with ingredient suppliers and connecting them with the food development centre in Saskatoon to develop products, so I’m in every taste-testing meeting, too,” she says. “I really get to be privy to the whole process.”
Rawlyk is passionate about working with local producers and establishing closer connections between grocery products and the farmers who grow the ingredients to create them. “I come from a farming background myself, so being able to connect those suppliers – who grow and produce here – to create new products that will serve Western Canada is really satisfying for me,” she says.
Be it premium pasta or chickpea ice cream, Rawlyk's ability to identify and capitalize on trends has resulted in two Canadian Grand Prix New Product awards. “My background is in business marketing and my passion is food, so this role comes quite naturally,” she says.
SR. MERCHANT, PRODUCE WALMART CANADA
At Walmart Canada, Robert Rigato wants to help alleviate some of the worry families have about high inflation.
“I feel it’s our responsibility as an industry to help make fresh food affordable for Canadians,” he says. “While there are things out of our control, we can find innovative ways to help reduce food costs through efficiencies in areas like supply chain and packaging.”
He has done that at Walmart, where he’d like to model the career path of his coach and mentor, 2020 Generation Next winner Kimberly Roberts, who is Walmart Canada’s senior director of merchandising, produce and floral.
“I want to continue to grow within the business and be a passionate leader in the produce category,” says Rigato. The seeds of Rigato’s flourishing career were first planted at age 15 when he got a part-time job in produce at a Loblaws store in Richmond Hill, Ont. “I loved the bright colours, tastes and smells of the produce department – it appealed to my creative side,” he explains.
Today, Rigato also finds inspiration in growing fruit and vegetables in his garden “and researching new and innovative growing methods within the industry.”
CUSTOMER TEAM DIRECTOR MCCORMICK CANADA
Shabir Sarker began his career as an intern at Frito-Lay “driving around in trucks selling potato chips.” By age 22, he was leading a team of 15 people, most of whom were older than his dad, which “really developed my leadership and set me up for success longer term.”
Now at McCormick, that success has included being instrumental in breaking up an exclusivity pact, giving French’s Ketchup access to grocery shelves nationwide and transforming it from a brand that wasn’t growing into a major player. News about the ketchup using only Canadian tomatoes and consumer engagement “definitely helped build a story to increase distribution of the brand nationally,” he says.
Sarker, who is responsible for the Loblaws account, also launched McCormick’s revenue management department at the beginning of the pandemic. He developed an educational plan that helped the sales team understand and drive net sales and profit.
These days, having a cross-functional view of the organization is necessary, he says. “You can’t be a salesperson anymore and not care about supply or about marketing. Everything’s just so integrated,” says Sarker, whose long-term goal is to become a general manager.
MANAGER, ECOMMERCE OPERATIONS LONGO’S
After starting her career at Longo’s bricks-and-mortar stores, Angelica Siecinski transitioned to the e-commerce side of the business just as the pandemic hit. During a particularly stressful period, she played a key role in ensuring the successful operation of the company’s Grocery Gateway delivery service, reaching record targets in sales.
As the chaos of those uncertain times subsided, Siecinski made it her mission to improve team member engagement and promote a supportive and “family-like” work culture. “That meant celebrating wins when we reached our KPIs (key performance indicators) and always being advocates of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I),” says Siecinski, who oversees 350 staff. For Orange Shirt Day, for example, team members created shirts to sell, with proceeds going to an Indigenous foundation. A DE&I board on-site lists all the celebrations and events that are happening each month. “It’s great to be successful, but bringing the team along with you is the best part,” says Siecinski. “I also like to think of myself as an uplifter – coaching and mentoring others to lead strong teams, too.”
STORE MANAGER SAVE-ON-FOODS
With a reputation for creating strong, cohesive teams, Alex Speckman has played a major role in opening new Save-On-Foods locations in Yorkton and Prince Albert, Sask., as well as Winnipeg over the last six years.
During the height of COVID-19, he was promoted to store manager and launched yet another location. “Opening a new store in the middle of a pandemic and being entrusted to hire 120 team members and instill our workplace culture has been one of my greatest accomplishments to date,” says Speckman, who has more than 15 years of experience in the grocery sector under his belt. His desire to keep learning and growing professionally is ongoing. Speckman recently started managing Save-On-Foods’ biggest flagship store in Winnipeg, while also planning to start an accelerated MBA program next year at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business (with support from Save-On-Foods’ master’s degree sponsorship program). “I still have lots of runway left in my career and aspire to work towards a senior leadership role at Save-On-Foods, eventually,” says Speckman.
MARKETING DIRECTOR, FINE CHEESE AGROPUR COOPERATIVE
Through the introduction of Agropur's Monsieur Gustav brand, for which he built the strategy, Hubert Théorêt has made fine cheese accessible to a younger demographic. Not only is the brand attracting millennials to a category they often view as intimidating, but it’s bringing the Quebec-based company $20 million a year in net sales for pre-packed fine cheese and more than $10 million for cheese cut and wrapped in-store. “Those are great numbers,” Théorêt says. “We increased the consumption of fine cheese by 43%, bringing new consumers to the category and increasing sales among people who were already buying fine cheese.”
Since most fine cheese buyers make their decisions in-store, Théorêt put a QR code on Monsieur Gustav packaging, directing consumers to an augmented reality version of the brand mascot, which dispensed advice on everything from storage to wine pairings.
Théorêt also helped reposition Agropur's legendary Oka cheese as a more premium brand, modernizing the packaging and introducing Oka Mushrooms & Truffle, which he says is overselling.
As for the future, Théorêt says: “I’m keeping my doors open. As long as I love what I do, I’m good.”
VICE-PRESIDENT OF OPERATIONS FOODLAND ONTARIO, SOBEYS
No matter what her role at Sobey’s, Vittoria Varalli has proven that her progressive and innovative leadership style has a positive impact. As vice-president of sustainability, she played a pivotal role in eliminating single-use plastic bags at checkout counters. Then, as vice-president of national wholesale, she revamped the operating model and pivoted the business to focus more on grocery, resulting in a 33% rise in earnings before interest and taxes.
In her current role, Varalli is responsible for a more than $1-billion business, leading a team of nearly 200 employees and franchisees who operate 136 Foodland stores across Ontario. “It’s easy to list all these accomplishments, but what it really comes back to is the people,” says Varalli. “For me it’s about empowering my team and I feel most proud when I see people who were on my team move on to bigger and better things.” She is particularly grateful to all the female leaders in the grocery sector who came before her. “What fuels me is that I need to continue to pave the path for all the women to come.”
FRANCHISE OPERATOR IN TRAINING SOBEYS WESTLOCK
Jason Vesely’s education in the grocery business began early. “I was a few years old when my parents got a grocery store – and so, you could say I’ve spent my whole life in one,” he says.
Initially, he would play under the desk in his father’s office. As Vesely grew up, however, he bagged groceries, re-stocked shelves and got to know customers. It didn’t feel like work.
“It’s always been fun,” he says. “With grocery being seasonal, there’s always something exciting going on.”
Earning a bachelor’s degree in commerce at MacEwan University in 2019, Vesely became the first student in Western Canada to complete the Sobeys Store Manager in Training (MIT) franchise program. His plan is to take over his parents’ Sobeys store in Westlock, Alta., a town just north of Edmonton.
“People don’t grow up thinking, ‘I want to sell groceries,’” he says. “But it is rewarding work. And I think programs like Sobeys MIT will bring in more young people, contributing continuity and growth to the industry.”
Vesely is also part of a new committee with the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers tasked with helping the sector attract and retain the next generation of talent.
FOUNDER AND CEO BLUME NATURAL SALES & MARKETING
Natural products and health food is a hot category these days, with plenty of consumer interest and demand. But Mandi Zolkowski was passionate about it long before it was a popular consumer trend. “I was in the industry before it became cool,” she says with a laugh. That passion traces back to her childhood growing up on a farm. She developed an interest in natural foods, while also learning about some of the unnatural processes involved with food production, including the use of chemicals, additives and genetic modification.
Zolkowski started working in natural foods retail when she was just 19 years old, then moved onwards and upwards to key account manager for a natural foods brokerage, a brand manager for a distributor and a category manager for a national brand. Then a little more than five years ago, while looking for a next step on her career path, she realized she could start her own business. “I wanted to do what I’m passionate about and start a business that has ethical values and a positive environment.” And that’s what Zolkowski did. Today, her natural products brokerage company Blume Natural Sales & Marketing, which is based in B.C., is growing a lineup of ethical, innovative brands in the Canadian marketplace, representing more than 17 brands in grocery with plans to add more.