Monica Walker’s journey to becoming the first food and grocery category manager at Healthy Planet is anything but linear. She started her career in her native U.K. at Xerox doing sales and marketing, when at age 36 she decided to take a mid-career break and travel the world. Her globe-trotting adventure included a quick stop in Canada, where she met her future husband and the trajectory of her life changed forever.
On Christmas Eve of 2002, she immigrated to Canada, with the hope of continuing her career in sales and marketing. But without Canadian experience, no one would hire her.
“So, I took the opportunity to follow my passion in food and entertaining and the interest I had in organics,” she says. “When a retail space came up at Bloor and Bathurst in Toronto, I grabbed it and opened an organic food store.”
Called Organics on Bloor, Walker ran the successful business from 2003 to 2009. She then moved over to the sales side of the natural and organic food business, with roles at brokerage Marsham International and later the wholesaler Ontario Natural Food Company. At both companies, she was on the Healthy Planet account.
In 2018, Healthy Planet – at the time a leading retailer of herbal and sports supplements and vitamins but with modest food options – came knocking with an offer she couldn’t refuse.
READ: Healthy Planet gets growing
“My remit was to grow the food business to over 50% at each store,” says Walker, from 20% or less at most locations.
Today, the fast-growing family-owned Canadian company has 36 stores across Ontario and has signed leases to add six more to its footprint in 2024, with the goal of reaching 100 locations in the province in the next decade.
Here, Walker tells us how she has taken the lead in helping Healthy Planet transform into a full-scale grocer with flourishing fresh, frozen and pantry aisles.
How have you approached expanding Healthy Planet’s grocery offering?
We want offerings that are different and all-natural or organic, and we also aim for local where possible. A sustainability framework around triple bottom line – profit, people and the planet – is something we also look for in vendors. But the products need to taste good, because we want to be seen as a grocery store first and foremost, so I try and taste everything myself first. Second to that, we are a one-stop shop health food store with all the supplements. That is the vision.
How do you keep up on ever-changing health food trends and claims?
There is so much information out there! Fortunately, I’m very much a people person, because keeping on top of it isn’t a one-person job. I utilize the wonderful expertise of our distributors and brokers, knowing they are also looking for great products on our behalf. People that have really helped me along the way include Bill Ivany [past president of Tree of Life and Marsham, now at Acosta Canada]. I had never worked with Tree of Life and they have masses of expertise. We do our due diligence on brands and expect them to do the same of us. I also go and see what’s working in our industry with other grocers, and try to emulate that in our own way.
READ: Post-COVID, consumers are taking a more proactive approach to their health
How you decide which new products get listed?
We’re a fabulously growing company and darlings of the industry at the moment, so a lot of brands want to be listed with us, and that is lovely. But when I’m looking at products to put on shelf, I spend a lot of time saying ‘No’ and only saying ‘Yes’ to the stuff that really passes the test. That can be hard, because you build relationships with sales people, but you can’t treat those relationships as friendships when making a business decision.
How much time do you give a product to succeed?
We have this discussion internally, and while I haven’t come up with an optimal time, I would say at least a year. There are a lot of new local brands, and sometimes it takes customers a long time to pick up on them. Once a product gets on shelf, the second half of my job kicks in – helping bring it to life for the customer. And that is where my expertise having been in sales and marketing comes into play. One of the things we do is look at is our store planograms. Viewing each store as one big pantry, we ask ourselves, Should we merchandise this new product where the customers expect it to be? Or do we try and create a category that doesn’t exist yet? So, for instance, Keto products are spread across our regular aisles, like breakfast cereals and snacks, but we used to have a section devoted to Keto when the category was still in its infancy, and that was the right call for the time.
READ: As more consumers prioritize health and wellness, grocers step up their offerings
What do you do outside of the office that helps you be a better leader at work?
I play ladies’ doubles tennis with a social circle, and being British, I am pretty competitive. It’s a good timeout before the start or end of a busy workday, because you can’t be thinking about anything other than tennis once you step onto the court, if you’re going to play well and support your doubles partner. In Britain, you learn tennis in grade school on grass courts, so I have a pretty good chip and charge and half-volley. I’m also part of the Toronto United Field Hockey Club. I work a lot and love my Healthy Planet work, but you need balance in life.
In Canadian Grocer’s new series, we’ll speak to people from across the industry about a specific project or initiative they led. You’ll hear from grocery leaders about their passions, how they tackle challenges, what they’ve learned and what keeps them motivated. Have a pitch? Send it to digital editor Jillian Morgan.