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How Sobeys Quebec aims to ensure store owner succession

First graduates set to emerge from novel training program for the next generation of supermarket leaders

Two years ago, Francis Duchemin quit school and went to work full-time as the fruit manager at his dad's and uncle's IGA store in Montreal's St-Laurent neighbourhood.

This fall, when he and a dozen other sons and daughters of IGA store owners graduate as the first class in a unique management training program created by Sobeys Quebec, the 21-year-old figures he'll be ready to help lead his family's business to new heights.

"I've learned so much from it," Duchemin (pictured) told Canadian Grocer this week about the program, called Flambeau (or Torch).

"It really opened my eyes to many facets of the grocery business."

READ: Sobeys Quebec drops prices on over 8,500 products

Launched in the fall of 2014, the two-year program is designed to help ensure succession of family ownership of IGA and IGA Extra franchises across Quebec.

The 13 participants in the first group ("about half guys, half girls," said Duchemin) spent the first year doing three- and four-week apprenticeships in 11 different departments and functions in stores other than their own.

They were evaluated after each apprenticeship by department managers, and got personal coaching and mentoring as well.

Participants spend the second year applying that knowledge back in their family's store.

Each is also doing a thesis on a different aspect of the grocery industry, and will make a 45-minute presentation of their findings to a board of store owners and company officials in the coming months. A graduation ceremony will be held in the fall.

A second group of 11 participants began the two-year process in November.

According to a Sobeys spokesperson, the novel training program is intended to provide participants with a good understanding of everything from the IGA corporate model and industry issues to the operations and management of every department in a modern grocery store.

READ: Sobeys lands sushi sandwiches in IGA stores

"It's a very comprehensive program," said Laurie Fossat.

It was created, she said, in response to concerns voiced by IGA store owners about the many challenges in passing on the family business to their children.

"We wanted to help young grocers acquire experience outside their stores but inside (the Sobeys Quebec) network of grocers," Fossat said.  "It widens their knowledge and vision."

Duchemin's father, Daniel, agrees.

"Francis's eyes are more open now," said Daniel Duchemin.  "He's more interested in the business now too."

Duchemin added that he would have liked to have taken a similar course back when he and his brother, Richard, started working for their father, Normand, who opened the store on its present site 32 years ago.

"Dad taught us a lot, but the business has changed so much," said Duchemin, who is putting the final touches on a new 52,000-sq.-ft. store next to the old 18,000-sq.-ft. one.

"The way the grocery business is now, each department is like its own little business.  You have to know so much more."

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For his part, Francis says the course will help make him an effective assistant manager at the new store, which opens next month.

"I love this business because you get to handle products and talk with and manage people," said Duchemin, who works with two cousins in the business, one of whom is thinking about taking the program.

"But now I know a whole lot more about it."

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