A company is built with bold moves and an unwavering vision that reaches just beyond what appears achievable. Growth is neither easy nor guaranteed. Success is driven by the values it holds dear, values that inform every decision.
For Sobeys, commitment to people, local and community are the values that have been ingrained from the beginning. These enduring principles have provided a compass for the past 110 years, driving the company from east to west across Canada.
It’s a story that echoes the building of our nation. Sobeys and Canada both growing and thriving because of the people and their dedication; people who have been strengthened and enriched by celebrating their different cultures, traditions and backgrounds.
Sobeys is the rare Canadian family business that has not merely survived, but thrived for five generations. For 110 years, during good times and bad, Sobeys has remained true to itself. That’s what sets it apart.
Sobeys is a successful and unique business because it never strayed from what’s most important: Customers come first. In the food business, that means great people providing customers with great service, first and foremost in the stores, but also from suppliers, folks all along the distribution chain and in the management offices. They never lose their focus on customers’ needs.
From a single store in the Nova Scotia town of Stellarton, Sobeys has grown to a national chain of about 1,500 stores and more than 125,000 employees under the Sobeys banner, plus IGA, Safeway, Thrifty Foods, Foodland and FreshCo. Sobeys stores reflect the communities they serve, providing customers – neighbours – with the products they want and need.
Grocery stores, even national chains, are local. Every store, every employee is part of a community; the store connects with and contributes to that community in more ways and on more levels than any one person could ever know. That community connection has been in Sobeys’ DNA from the start.
Today, a fifth generation of the Sobey family is working with peers, coast to coast. If your name is Sobey, and you go into the grocery business, you learn the business from the ground up, with a broom or mop in your hands, stocking shelves or cutting meat. That’s a family tradition.
Sobeys management and ownership understand the joys and challenges of the folks who work on the frontlines, because they have been there alongside them. There is a deep and abiding respect for employees, and that, more than any other quality or character, may be what serves this family business best.
INVESTMENT AND REWARD
Sobeys’ present and future is informed by the values of the past, by the principles that have guided its growth for 110 years. When talking to employees across the country about what Sobeys stands for, the responses differ but the stories have common threads. The insights of company leaders today and from years past are the same.
Donald R. Sobey, a third generation family member who embodies the community spirit so vital to the company’s success, has said there isn’t much to a company that exists only to build its wealth. A great company grows, spreads prosperity beyond its owners, supports families and communities and always gives back more than it takes.
Giving back and caring for neighbours is a value that can be traced back to the beginning, when J.W. Sobey carried miners and their families on the books until better times returned. Frank and his son William did their civic duty and served their home community as mayors. Later the family established a foundation committed to improving the lives of individuals through investments in health, education and communities.
It is the family’s leadership over 110 years that has created a legacy and a company commitment to giving. Sobeys sponsors and supports events big and small, from local and regional to national initiatives and partnerships through the Sobeys Better Food Fund. From parks and playgrounds, food banks and school lunch programs, led by store managers and frontline employees, to scholarships and large-scale hospital donations backed by the Sobey Foundation, Sobeys gives back. Initiatives such as The Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, health research fellowships, fundraising for local causes, support for Special Olympics Canada and the preeminent Sobey Art Award are just a few of the ways that Sobeys serves its communities.
Supporting our rich Canadian heritage is also a vital part of The Sobey Foundation’s charitable giving. To honour our nation’s heritage and the people who have helped build this country, the Sobey Wall of Honour at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 has enabled thousands of citizens to celebrate their roots. Pier 21, which served as the gateway to Canada for one million immigrants, is at the very core of the growth of our nation and the people who have passed through its doors have gone on to help build Sobeys.
The stories and anecdotes that have become Sobeys’ mythology are rooted in the reality of building a great enterprise. They are stories of investment and reward, perseverance and lessons learned, a work ethic instilled in each succeeding generation that, by example, spread throughout the organization.
Second-generation grocery pioneer, Frank H. Sobey, a builder and a member of the Canadian Business Hall of Fame, an honour also bestowed on two of his sons, is the man who jumped into a truck with a reluctant meat manager in tow. Frank had a point he knew was best made by showing his manager that the best product is local product.
They took a short drive to nearby fields and meadows dotted with sheep and lamb.
Why haul frozen lamb in from hundreds of miles away? Frank asked, when fresh local lamb is right here. Buy local whenever you can was his point, even when it costs a little more. It’s better for customers, the community, local producers and it has become an enduring Sobeys’ practice.
A PEOPLE BUSINESS
When David F. Sobey talks about the business, you won’t hear the former CEO highlight his own achievements. The Sobeys don’t talk about what they’ve done. They talk about what they’ve learned from others, what they have experienced and admired in the people who make their enterprise a success.
It’s a people business, David says. It took a great many people to make it happen, and “I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to work with so many of them.”
David may have finished his career as chairman of the board, but like his brothers, father, grandfather, children and grandchildren, he began in the cellar – in his case literally – bagging potatoes in the old store in Stellarton.
He relates a story of war-time deliveries. His mother Irene was at the wheel of the delivery truck – the regular drivers were in Europe fighting. Aged nine, he was the muscle, carrying the groceries into each house, unpacking them on the customer’s counter and moving onto the next. The customer came first. Still does.
Building a business takes perseverance. There will be hard times but the challenges will only serve to strengthen a great company. “You learn more from mistakes than success,” David has said. “When you make a mistake, don’t point fingers, fix it and move ahead, because you can’t live with your mistakes. Understanding the customer is key. Find out what she or he wants and give it to them.”
Frank Sobey loved to load his children and Irene into the family car for a Sunday ride in the country. His sons remember their father pointing out a farm with a big, beautiful red barn, in pristine condition, beside a humble farmhouse. “See that farm?” Frank directed the boys. “That’s a great farm, a great business, a smart farmer and a good businessman. He puts his money back into his business not his pocket.”
For David, that lesson and more taught him the company does not compete with other grocery stores or other chains. It competes for customers, and it is store employees who make that a winning proposition. When employees treat customers like they would want to be treated, the customer is happy and the employee is satisfied with a job well done.
Sobeys is always moving ahead, because building and growing is what great companies do. That’s another inherent value at Sobeys.
Way back in the 1940s, the six-store Nova Scotian grocery chain bought out an eight-store chain, its bakery and its warehouse, which allowed Sobeys to stock more national brands. The move paid off. At the end of the century, the Atlantic Canada-based grocery chain bought the Oshawa Group, a national giant three times its size. The results were the same.
It takes time for the culture and values of a family and the company that bears its name to catch the imagination of the people who join the enterprise, whether they come through the front door of the head office in Stellarton or join after an acquisition of another food business. But Sobeys is willing to take the time.
A company that is 110 years old knows about patience and tenacity. It doesn’t sacrifice the promise of tomorrow on the altar of today. That commitment creates a stability that makes it sustainable for employees, customers, its producers and its communities.
When Sobeys bought Jack Calbeck’s seven-store chain in southern Ontario, Jack said, “For three generations my family has operated a business based on the same philosophy as Sobeys: treat people the way you would like to be treated.”
Sobeys understands that their customers are respected and well served when their employees are treated the same way.
In 1953, Frank Sobey walked into the New Glasgow store to find manager and long-time employee Cis Ryan.
“Cis, we’re going to have a pension plan. The best pension plan this country has ever seen. I want your name on the top of the sheet,” he told her. A few months later, Sobeys had an employee pension plan.
“I was always interested in seeing our employees have something to look forward to in their retirement. These are the people who built our business. They deserve a share in the profits,” Frank said.
Donald said his father would be proud to know that ethic is alive and well today in Sobeys stores flying a variety of banners from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
FROM COAST TO COAST
In 1907, J.W. Sobey left his job helping to build the Allan coal mine to start a meat delivery business and later open a small store. It was a bold move at the time. His son, Frank, displayed the same quality when he opened a second store, and later a cash-and-carry outlet, the first in the region.
The same drive and determination that made J.W. a success and Frank grow the business is still alive and well. Decades later, the third and fourth generations spearheaded the acquisition of the Oshawa group, Thrifty Foods, Safeway and other great companies. Now it’s the fifth generation’s turn, and the same principles endure. The company is looking to the future with confidence. Innovation, specialization and local selection are challenges the new leadership at Sobeys embraces.
J.W. Sobey’s great-great grandkids, generation five, understand the legacy. They know what built the company and they are ready to put those same traditions to work in the new, ever-changing environment of the food industry.
They anticipate changes in stores and customer preferences and respond accordingly. A growing demand for affordable, abundant South Asian food, for instance, resulted in a new concept: Chalo! FreshCo., where a wall of rice delights the shoppers who fill the aisles.
The fifth generation understands the value of offering local products, just as J.W. Sobey did 110 years ago. This commitment sees employees – vendor hunters – hitting the road, searching for farmers’ stands and local markets to taste everything from salad dressings to chocolate to bring the best to store shelves.
They search for quality partners that exemplify Sobeys’ core values. Thrifty Foods, for example, brought a heightened environmental awareness and a sense of environmental responsibility to the company. Thrifty partnered with B.C. Hydro to bring power-smart initiatives to its stores and built the first carbon-neutral grocery store in Canada in Coquitlam. The company plants 1,776 trees in provincial parks to balance carbon generated by the store.
Customer first, loyalty to employees, integrity, serve the community – that’s the road map and it hasn’t changed. At Sobeys, we don’t just point customers in the right direction, we take them there. And they have followed, in the millions, for 110 years.
In many ways, Sobeys’ story is unique in the 150-year history of Canada yet the growth of Sobeys mirrors the building of our nation.
Like Canada, Sobeys spread from east to west until both stretched across a continent. The company grew from one Nova Scotia store with a handful of employees to a company that reaches coast to coast. Sobeys, its franchisees and affiliates now employ more than 125,000 people.
Canada grew from three British colonies to 10 provinces and three territories; from about 3.6 million people to 40 million citizens. It is a history that can only be told while paying homage to the immigrants who helped make it happen. One in five Canadian citizens can trace their roots back through Pier 21, back to the brick walls that now bear the names of Sobeys’ employees and the Sobey family.
The story of Canada – and by extension, the story of Sobeys – is a remarkable story of growth, tenacity and perseverance.
“I never thought the business would get so big,” Frank Sobey said to his son David more than 30 years ago. Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier would likely say the same of the nation.