Like clockwork every May there are big headlines and even bigger press releases from the winners when Deloitte Canada releases its list of the country’s best managed companies.
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Deloitte’s accolade has to be earned. It takes more than a healthy bottom line. Businesses have to be robust, and resilient.
To sort the winners from the “also-rans,” Deloitte’s judges rank businesses on core criteria across four pillars: strategy, capabilities and innovation, culture and commitment, and governance and financials.
Predictably too, there will be a few—but not a staggering number—of agribusinesses on the list.
How to win
Each of the pillars contributes to making a business successful, but the consensus is emerging that the most crucial may be culture and commitment, which ultimately comes down to people.
The surprise may be how true this is in the ag sector too. How a company treats its employees, its customers and its community certainly helps explain the repeat Best Managed wins of the two ag businesses Country Guide spoke with.
These companies see culture and commitment as the engine of a profitable and progressive business. They also see it as foundational for all the other pillars.
Calgary-based GrainsConnect was formed six years ago and made the Canada’s Best Managed Companies list in 2021 and again this year. President Warren Stow says part of the reason is the company’s strong focus on people and culture.
“We have the luxury of being a relatively new business,” Stow says. “We were able to hire for culture … When you have a purpose that people can get behind, and you’re focused on bringing value to family farms in Western Canada, you keep people engaged.”
Crucial to the company’s HR philosophy are key performance indicators tied to the GrainsConnect ethos. Yes, the details differ based on the position, but, says Stow, “everybody has them.”
“There are things we do to drive that behaviour, by leading by example but also by motivating through things that work for the employees,” Stow says. “We reward good behavior and reward people for being clear on what the mission is. It all doesn’t just happen, and you don’t always get it right, but you hope that you set a culture where 90 per cent of the people are doing the right things, and the ones that aren’t, you can correct .”
The rewards aren’t just about money. GrainsConnect supports community charities, it hosts employee barbecues and it’s flexible when employees need family time.
The company uses internal indicators to improve performance and results, but also some external ones too, like an annual Net Promoter Score survey to assess company loyalty.
Says Stow: “It gives us an opportunity to see through our customers’ lens and strive to do better.”
Knowing their work is valued
Manitoba-based HyLife has been on the Canada’s Best Managed Companies list for the past 18 years, and its president and CEO, Grant Lazaruk, says that’s because its top priorities always circle back to its mission, which is to take care of its employees, customers and communities.
“These three components are at the core of everything we do and every decision we make,” Lazaruk says. “We must ensure our team feels valued and empowered to produce a premium pork product.”
HyLife has come up with overlapping ways to do that, including some unique employee training, education and advancement programs. It recently launched a program called We Care, where the company engages employees through a group of employee ambassadors.
“The goal is to listen to suggestions and ideas and to find positive solutions,” Lazaruk says. “A dedicated and skilled workforce helps our team take care of our customers.”
Developing leaders from within
Importantly, HyLife also grows leadership from within. Not only do employees get opportunities to rise through the company, the company also benefits from the skills those employees acquire along the way.
The company also provides many opportunities to develop and enhance its teams through programs such as HyLife University, performance coaching, Kaizen (continuous improvement) events and the HyLife Masters program.
HyLife also identifies candidates for its Masters Program where they receive skills training, collaborate on special projects, and also benefit senior leadership mentorship as they advance.
Individuals from different areas of the company are recommended for the HyLife Masters program by the managers of various departments, and the executive management team (EMT) makes the final selection. There is diverse representation from different departments and locations, because the company has offices around the world.
Once the group is identified, a sponsor, usually a human resources manager, leads the group and gives it a project to complete.
“Usually, it is something that is pivotal to the company,” says Kevin Geisheimer, HyLife’s senior manager of marketing and communications, who went through the HyLife Masters program in 2020.
Geisheimer’s team was tasked with assessing the company’s corporate sustainability efforts, which involved him in touring the work environments of other team members and deepening his knowledge of the company as a whole. But he also did more.
“Working with dynamic people who are really talented was a great experience,” Geisheimer says. “You learn more about yourself but also how you work alongside other individuals to accomplish a task that is outside of your realm. It instilled confidence in myself and my abilities and helped stretch me into different areas that I didn’t know about, which has helped me become a better leader today.”
The HyLife Masters program is designed to help grow and develop leaders internally. Most participants are now directors within HyLife and some have been with the company for 20 years.
“It’s cool to see that internal development,” Geisheimer says. “The HyLife Masters program gives people growth opportunity within the company.”
Geisheimer says it’s the kind of internal leadership program that any farm operation could emulate, because a lot of it is based on learning all the various jobs inside the business and how they connect with each other and are vital to the whole operation — which is as much a feature of today’s farms as of any other business.
“We had a person on our team that was a production manager, and I run the marketing department and work with our customers, so when they see what our customers expect from our product, it gives the production people context,” he says. “It completes the loop and allows you to understand why. It gives you a fuller picture and helps you then understand your job and how it fits into the big picture better.”
Commitment to community
Like GrainsConnect, HyLife is also active in the communities where it operates and where its employees and customers live.
“Our commitment to community is a privilege and social responsibility,” Lazaruk says. “We value the places we live and work and are always looking for ways to ensure we give back meaningfully. As a company, we prioritize fostering an environment where our team is encouraged and inspired to live our values.”
The company has worked on a number of initiatives over the years such as supporting local food banks and hosting community events such as the annual HyLife Back Forty festival in Neepawa, Man. In September 2022, the company held Fun Days appreciation events where employees came together in key communities.
Since 2011, thanks to Fun Days, nearly $1.4 million has been gifted to local non-profits, including in the past year more than $170,000 to charities such as Safe Families Steinbach and the Killarney Food Bank.
“Our employees, including executive leaders, volunteer their time to take part, make connections and spend time with our neighbors,” Lazaruk says.
Without effective communications none of these programs or initiatives would work, especially in a company that has many locations, including remote barns and feed mills, that need to stay connected and informed. HyLife has employed technology to help by investing in an internal communications platform called Beekeeper that plays a vital role in keeping everyone engaged and up to speed with company news and events.
“With more than 4,500 employees from many nationalities and countries, we are building a digital community to bridge our teams’ information gaps,” Lazaruk says. “Currently, more than 85 percent of our workforce is engaged on the Beekeeper app.”
Such initiatives make for a strong Deloitte bid, but they also make for good business, the company says.
“We aim to demonstrate these root beliefs daily,” Lazaruk says. “They stand for who we are, what we do and how we do it.”