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Longo’s president Deb Craven on leadership and growing the business

Canadian Grocer speaks to Craven about the responsibility of leading the grocer
deb craven
Deb Craven. Photography by Tobi Asmoucha

While there is no shortage of challenges in grocery retail, Deb Craven is up to the task of taking them on. 

Over the last three decades, the Sarnia, Ont. native has racked up a wealth of experience at large international firms such as DeloitteNike and Purolator, where she learned valuable lessons in accountability, the power of brand, and logistics and distribution. While she was working in Calgary for Canadian Tire (as senior vice-president of finance for the Mark’s and Sport Chek brands), Longo’s came calling. Soon after, in May 2019, she joined the Ontario-based grocer as its chief financial officer. “It just seemed like the perfect opportunity,” says Craven. “I was excited to learn about grocery and being able to apply all that I’d learned at other companies. And I loved the Longo’s brand. I was a very loyal Longo’s shopper before I moved to Calgary!”

Last May, Craven was given a chance to further put her skills to work when she became president of the 68-year-old company, the first woman and non-Longo family member to hold the role. As long-time president and CEO Anthony Longo – remaining CEO and executive chairman – shifts focus to the company’s long-term strategy, Craven is charged with leading Longo’s day-to-day business and ongoing growth strategy, as well as overseeing nearly 6,000 team members across the grocer’s 38 (and growing) locations and delivering on its mission of “fuelling happier and healthier lives.”

We spoke to Craven about the responsibility of leading such an admired grocer, expansion plans, tech, employee engagement and how the Empire partnership is working out. The interview has been edited for length and clarity

After four-plus years working in the industry, what are your observations about grocery? 

Well, I hit the industry probably in some of the most challenging times there have been. Like all other retail, it’s incredibly competitive and it’s constantly changing. I think the real learning is how much more immediate grocery is compared to [other retail industries] with people coming into the stores once, twice, three times a week. Whereas with Sport Chek, as an example, maybe they were coming in once every season. There’s an immediacy to grocery, and needing to be aware of what guests are coming for on a regular basis and meeting those needs – that’s been a huge eye-opener. And the thing we’ve been really spending a lot of time on is how multicultural our province is and understanding how to best serve the different communities our stores are in.

READ: How Longo’s leads with local

What’s it like being the first woman and non-family member leading Longo’s into its next stage of growth? How do you feel about that responsibility? 

Well, responsibility is a good word for it. It’s a tremendous responsibility, one that I don’t take lightly. I feel very supported. I have an incredible team. What I love about this team is that we have a number of people who have been here for many years, and we have a lot of people who have been here for just a few years. So, we’ve got a good blend of newer people who are coming in and saying, “Well, why do we do this? Why do we do that?” and just trying to understand it. Then we’ve got that incredible depth of history and knowledge of people who say, “Well, here’s why we’ve always done it, but it doesn’t mean that we have to keep doing it this way.” I haven’t given a lot of thought to being the first woman in the role; I think because I came up in logistics and distribution, there weren’t a lot of women in that field. I was the first female VP at Purolator and I have been very used to – for most of my career – being one of the only females at the table and learning not to limit my voice. That’s what I value so much about my time at Purolator, my peers and people I reported to there really taught me to have a voice, to have a point of view and not shy away from it. 

You became president last May. As you position Longo’s for its next phase of growth, what are your priorities? 

With the partnership with Empire, last July we transitioned all our Grocery Gateway guests over to Voilà, and that has allowed us to focus solely on in-store and our digital experience – digitally giving guests information about products at Longo’s. It’s allowed us to focus on that in a way we probably haven’t had the luxury of doing in the past. Our guests are getting the best of both worlds; they’re getting all the products they wanted when they were shopping with Grocery Gateway, and they’re getting the benefit of an amazing Voilà system. So, the focus is on stores – new stores, renovations of some of our existing stores and then, of course, the doubling in size of our DC [distribution centre] to support that. And then the other area of focus is that we’ve got a much more value-conscious guest. I don’t think that’s going to change tremendously as the economy goes through the different phases that it’s going to go through. [Guests] want to make sure they’re getting value – that doesn’t mean they’re spending less, per se, they might be spending the same amount, but they want to make sure they’re getting value and the best products they can for the money they’re spending. 

READ: Longo's tops Ontario in-store customer experience ranking

Speaking of meals – Canadians are dining out less at restaurants. Is there a bigger opportunity right now for grocers to win more of the foodservice share of stomach? 

We’re definitely looking at expanding our prepared foods – trying to create meal solutions that cater to any level of preparation our guests want. If they don’t want to do any prep at all and are thinking about going to a restaurant but then say “Oh, it’s expensive. Let’s stay in, but let’s do something special,” then we have amazing ready-to-eat options. If you want to do a little bit of prep, then we have all kinds of ready-to-heat solutions where the bulk of the work has been done. If they want a bit more prep, then we have meal kits – my favourite is the fish tacos. I love them! And then we’ve got Kitchen Hub [the first ghost kitchen to open inside a Canadian grocery store] in our downtown Toronto Liberty Village location. [The partnership] has worked out really well. Longo’s is amazing at Italian food – it’s our heritage – and with Kitchen Hub we have people who do other cuisines really well. By providing that kitchen space to them, we’re providing our guests the ability to go pick up a ready-to-go meal and either eat it in our restaurant or take it home. Kitchen Hub has been very popular, so much so that we’re putting in Kitchen Hub at our newly renovated Maple location. We’re really excited about trying that [concept] in a very different market than Liberty Village. 

Can you tell us more about Longo’s recent expansions and what else is in the works?

We opened the Brooklin [Whitby] store in July – we’re loving that community. And we’ve completed renovations on a number of our stores in the last year – Markham, Maple, Milton and our Rutherford store. In Mississauga, we have our Argentia [Road] store coming in the spring – it will be our fifth store in Mississauga. The location was a Bed Bath & Beyond previously and we’re in the process of remodelling it. And we’ve broken ground on our new Kitchener store [to open in 2025]. It’s a new community for us that we’re really excited to be joining. It’s a community that maybe hasn’t been as aware of the Longo’s name, so we’re really excited to be moving into that geography. Then there are other locations we’re working on – we just haven’t signed leases yet for those. 

Keeping employees engaged is something retailers struggle with – how is Longo’s tackling this?

Culture is another thing that we keep very top of mind. We just did our full employee engagement survey. We do it every single year and typically we get a survey back and get a bunch of numbers that say, “Here’s your team’s engagement level.” Okay, that’s great, but it’s just telling us numbers. Liz Volk, our chief HR officer, said “You know what? I think we need to dig a little bit deeper. Let’s find out what’s behind those numbers.” So, she asked me – and this was before I got this new role – if I’d be interested in doing “listening sessions” with team members, and we saw an opportunity to hear from our distribution centre and supply chain teams. They had been through the ringer going through a huge expansion, so we started listening sessions with these team members. None of their managers or supervisors were involved, it was just Liz and I, and we said, “please share with us the good, the bad, what you would change and what you want to make sure we never change.” And they just completely opened up to us, and we left that session with, “Wow, okay, so now we understand what’s behind the numbers.”

And then we looked at the actions we could take, and we now update the team members quarterly and communicate to them: “Here are the actions that have been acted on, check! Here are the ones that we’re currently working on, check! Here’s the ETA for those other ones, and then here are ones that we think are just going to take a little bit longer. So, we don’t have an update yet, but they have not fallen off our radar.” It worked out really well. We did the same thing with our department managers in the stores. We had those same sessions. It’s just so eye-opening to think, “OK, wow. I didn’t know that was something our stores were struggling with. Well, we can do something about that.” The sessions have been so successful [they’ve been extended to most departments] and we’ve seen significant improvement in the engagement survey we just completed with the DC team. We’re so proud to see that. 

Technology is on everyone’s mind – how do you know where to put resources to get the best bang for your buck?

Whatever investment we make, it goes without saying, is going to have to have that payback. I’d say the big focus area right now for us is that we have so much data, but we have not figured out – and everybody struggles with this – how to use that data to turn it into insights. So, we’ve identified a high performer within the organization, and we’ve asked her to take a crack at this and look at what we need to do to make sure all that data we have can help us make stronger decisions. And what do we need to do to make sure the data is clean and usable? She’s just starting to get us organized on that. I think it’s going to help us, because that sets the foundation for being able to use AI, but you can’t use it if your data isn’t in good enough shape. So that’s something that’s taking up a lot of our brain space right now, in terms of how we do that and where are those important pockets of data. 

READ: Longo’s unveils seven new fast-charging EV stations at Oakville store

The other area is our investment in automation in the DC. It is a challenging environment to work in. You’ve got different temperatures, you’ve got all that fresh product. So, if you expand and double the size of the DC, finding team members who will join the organization and do that very difficult job, it’s a challenge. So, we’re putting in light automation that will enable team members to do their job more easily, safely and more efficiently and that will, ultimately, provide the best service possible to the stores and then to guests. We will not be eliminating any positions with the expansion – putting automation in is about making sure the team members that we have and the ones we’ll be adding have those tools to service the stores the best. 

Finally, what excites you about the grocery industry right now?

I think what excites me is that there’s still so much growth to be had. Just when you think, “Oh, are there any more new markets?” The population keeps growing in Ontario, which is fantastic. So, there’s just all these new opportunities to be able to do what we do really well and have that be impactful to a growing and really diverse population in Ontario. I’m excited about our expansion outside of the GTA [Greater Toronto Area], and what opportunities that can provide. And I’m really excited about the opportunities our expanded DC is going to give us. I think we’re just scratching the surface with what some of the automation and tools are going to provide; what it’s going to be able to do to serve our stores better, serve our guests better, be better partners with our vendors. We probably don’t fully understand all the benefits that we’re going to realize from that. Also, what’s ahead of us in terms of the service opportunities we can provide to our guests. We’ve got a lot on our plate – there’s never a boring day.

Read the full interview in Canadian Grocer’s February 2024 issue.

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