Apr 03, 2020

How independent grocer Sunterra Group has adapted to the new normal

Glen and Ray Price weigh in on the family-owned grocery brand’s efforts to adjust to a new reality while putting people first.

Amidst the far-reaching impacts cast by COVID-19, one truth has remained immutable: everyone needs access to healthy, affordable food. And with the necessary shuttering of restaurants, workplaces and schools, grocery stores and their employees have never been more critical to the daily lives of Canadians. This mantle doesn’t fall lightly on brothers Ray and Glen Price, President of Sunterra Group and President of Sunterra Market, respectively, as they guide their family-owned, nearly 1,000 person-strong team through a world in flux.

 

People come first

Speaking to the evolution of the situation, Ray doesn’t mince words. “It’s a lot of stress on staff and the teams that we work with. It’s a challenge for everybody and as leaders we try to understand their individual circumstance and support everyone the best we can. In this situation, it’s hard because there’s no specific endpoint and plans have to be dynamic.”

At the onset of the tumult, constant and consistent communication with staff became the priority. By conveying vital information daily, the Prices knew they could also lend support and steady their understandably uneasy employees. “Our focus immediately was taking care of our team and ensuring they’re feeling supported and continuing to provide job opportunities for them and ensure they feel safe,” explains Glen, emphasizing that by looking after their team first, they can better serve their communities.

 

Home is where the food is

Operating in both Calgary and Edmonton across eight unique stores, Sunterra Market, Sunterra’s retail grocery brand, has seen shifting sales figures as downtowns empty and suburban neighbourhoods swell with cloistered families. “People are working from home, so there are not many people left in Calgary and Edmonton in the city centres. The business has shifted to the suburban locations. We’ve seen a huge amount of volume increase across all food groups,” says Ray, who is quick to praise his staff for keeping shelves stocked and spirits high, while Glen acknowledges that it isn’t always easy. “There’s a lot more focus on non-perishable foods than perishable.”

Notably, the recent events have also served to accelerate Sunterra Market’s online shopping capabilities, as customers, heeding public health officials, look to reduce social contact or self-isolate completely. Accommodating either in-store pickup or delivery, Glen says they’ve worked hard to improve their digital tools and website functionality to adapt to this new consumer behaviour.

 

From farm to store to table

Unique among many independent grocers, Sunterra is strongly vertically integrated, with both farming and meat-processing operations supporting their retail grocery efforts. This rich agricultural background (Sunterra’s origins stretch back 70 years to the Price family farm in Acme, Alberta), has trained the organization to be adaptable to forces outside their control. “Our agricultural industry roots predisposes us to cope and adapt. Whether it’s cropping or livestock production. It’s inherent in our nature to be adaptable and change,” explains Ray. And this mindset is imbued company-wide. “Our teams tend to be ready to react to anything.”

 

Remember what’s important

Speaking to how Sunterra Group has evolved with the events of each new day, the Prices come back to three core tenets: collaboration, communication and care. Respecting the extraordinary scope of the pandemic, Glen and Ray have worked with their leadership teams to ensure people feel connected and supported, even if it’s as simple as telling someone how much they’re appreciated. “It’s important people know that agri-food is an essential industry, and we want to keep people working. It’s crucial that people know that they are important,” stresses Ray.

“People have continued to work and support each other,” adds Glen. “You see it in a really favourable way in our day-to-day business, but when something like this hits the impact is multi-dimensional for everyone — nobody in my generation has seen this. It’s personal, financial, as well as health-based. When you break it down to what’s most important in life — people being shaken on those fronts, they really do need a lot of support and they get that from the people they work around along with friends and family.”

 

Business in a new reality

Under these unprecedented circumstances, what advice do the Prices have for other business owners looking to outfit their business for uncertainty? While imparting that every business’s situation is unique, Ray encourages entrepreneurs to look to their support groups. “Learn from your peers and the people you respect. Family and business partners and business colleagues — lean on them.” The main thing, he contends, is to hire exceptional people. “They’re the ones who carry the ball. Listen to the staff. They have great innovative ideas, and they know the business better than most of us.”

For Glen, he recommends that, if you have newfound time on your hands, to take the opportunity to recast your business strategy in light of what may be a new reality. “I’ve heard from small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) entrepreneurs that they’re using this time as a way to strategize and take a bit of time to do long-term planning and review their strategies for when we return to normal.”