Golden Pencil winners: Eric La Flèche

The president and CEO of Metro talks about his grocery career

Each November, the Food Industry Association of Canada recognizes lifetime contributions in grocery with the Golden Pencil award.

The two recipients for 2013 are: Dino Bianco executive vice-president and president of beverages and Canada at Kraft Foods Group, based in Chicago and Toronto; and Eric La Flèche, president and CEO of Metro Inc., based in Montreal.

How did they come to the biz and what happened next? Here, Canadian Grocer’s George Condon (Golden Pencil winner in 2000) speaks with La Flèche.

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Montreal and went to school there. I attended a CEGEP, Collège Stanislas, the program of which was based on the French lycée system of education. It graduates students a year younger than other high schools. So, after graduating at the age of 17, I enrolled in law school at the University of Ottawa.

I took my bar exam at 21 and went to work at Martineau Walker. In 1985 I became involved at a junior level in the Conservative Party and became a special assistant to Michael Wilson, who was in the Mulroney government. That was a two-year position, and then I enrolled in the Harvard Business School. I graduated in 1988 with my MBA.

How did you get into grocery?

After Harvard I returned to Montreal and joined real-estate developer Canderel. I dreamt of becoming a real-estate tycoon. But in typical MBA fashion, the day I joined that company the industry peaked and went downhill after that.

After two years and a recession, I needed another job, so I called Pierre Lessard, who had just been named CEO of Metro, which was in a turnaround mode. He hired me, in 1991, to head the real-estate department, as vice-president.

Where did you go from there?

Real estate is a good entry point for retail because real estate is so key to retail development. A year after I joined Metro we made an important acquisition when we bought half the Steinberg stores. That was my big initiation into the food industry; a good learning experience.

In 1995 we began opening new stores, which not many people were doing at the time, and in 1997 I transferred to operations as vice-president of Super C under then–senior VP and general manager, Jacques Obry. He was a terrific coach.

Then Metro bought Loeb, in 1999, and I moved to Ottawa to be president of Loeb. Obry retired the following year and I was named senior VP of Super C as well as president of Loeb.

In 2005 I was appointed COO of Metro. A few months later we acquired A&P, another great learning experience, and in 2008 I was named president and CEO.

Who were your mentors?

I have learned from everyone–those people at my level and those below. People like district managers, who spent their professional careers in merchandising and operations. But if I were to name names, I would say Pierre Lessard and Jacques Obry, both of whom had a major impact on my career.

Giving back to the community is important. how do you do that?

Metro is focusing its efforts on things relating to food, such as healthy eating, with programs such as our Green Apple school program. We’re involved in many charitable endeavours, such as the United Way and the Kids Help Phone, and so many more.

Personally, I chaired the food and packaged goods campaign for United Way and I’m a committee member of the campaign for Sainte-Justine Hospital, the children’s hospital in Quebec.

What are you most proud of at metro?

Being part of, and then leading, a great team of men and women as we build for long-term success. The record over a long period is something we can be proud of.