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Diversifying to Thrive with Canada’s Top Food & Beverage CEOs


sToday’s culinary landscape includes changing demographics, concerns around sustainability, new technology, amazing disruptions and product innovation.

We sat down with three of today’s beverage and foodservice leaders—Managing Director Canada and Canadian Brands at Beam Suntory, Neale Graham; Executive Vice President and President of Starbucks Canada, Michael Conway; and Kyle Norrington, President of Labatt Breweries of Canada. Each of these leaders will be speaking on one of the CEO Panels at RC Show 2020.

How are these key players diversifying to thrive in the years ahead?

The beverage industry is more saturated than ever, it is flooded with choice for the consumer which poses a challenge to industry leaders. How do companies genuinely distinguish themselves? Something as simple as a product’s history may sway a consumer—in the case of Beam Suntory, Neale Graham points out that they emphasize their long-standing history as an established beverage brand and use this as their point of difference. “We are really proud of our unique East-Meets-West competitive advantage. This powerful advantage manifests itself in our bold ambitions, in Suntory’s support for our strategic priorities and in our long-term perspective.  We feel these things—along with the richness of heritage of our brands—are what separate us from the competition.”

Kyle Norrington, Labatt

At Labatt, Kyle Norrington points out that they have various products, each has its target audience and each brand is highly tailored. Take Stella Artois: it “helps us connect better to beer lovers and food lovers in the meal occasion. Roughly 40 per cent of all alcohol occasions are meal related. So, there’s a big opportunity for us to place our brand there.” And Labatt also plays a big role in the craft brewery market that appeals to a specific type of consumer “seeking a unique craft beer experience.”

And while distinguishing oneself from the competition plays a big role in a company, looking to the future is a key strategy for top brands. Beam Suntory believes that innovation is key, and recently brought in a new chief innovation officer, Olga Osminkina-Jones to sharpen their focus on developing short- and long-term innovation pipeline and creating new growth platforms.

They have big plans for their products over the next ten years. “I can say that I’m excited about the present and future of our Canadian whisky and rye products, especially as they continue to experience growth on a global level, including within key markets like Australia.  It’s important we keep pace with consumer trends and demands, which vary from market to market.” 

Labatt are “focusing on innovation and on issues that matter to our consumers, such as health and wellness, premiumization, and sustainability.” They are anticipating what the consumers will want, including a low calorie option in their Michelob Light beer which happens to be the fastest growing beer in the United States (by share) as “consumers seek better for you alternatives that fit their lifestyles.”  And they also offer products such as BABE Wine and Mike’s Zero Sugar Sparkling Water to meet evolving consumer needs. 

Innovation is especially key as we think about how consumer habits are changing with new cohorts rising in buying power. In the case of Starbucks Canada, they have taken a different approach to what their future will look like by always considering the needs of the consumer.

Michael Conway, Starbucks

According to Michael Conway, “sometimes our customers are moving through their busy days and don’t have time to stop and sit.  The express store format is one of the most streamlined experiences in the company’s portfolio, designed for serving customers high-quality Starbucks products with speed. We strive to be seamlessly integrated into our customers’ routine so that they have options for connection wherever they are.”

What future?

The industry must rise to the challenge of protecting the environment and addressing the impact of climate change. 

Starbucks has taken the lead, including the elimination of single-use cups, straws, and bolstering or facilitating recycling options in stores. “We were one of the first to offer discounts to customers who bring in reusable mugs, and we were an early pioneer in the offer of a cup sleeve to reduce waste caused by double-cupping. We provide and fund in-store recycling and have items processed at a separate facility to ensure items that can be recycled are recycled.  We also introduced recyclable straw-less lids and are working to eliminate plastic straws globally by 2020,” says Conway.

Starbucks Canada has taken the next step by investing in the NextGen Cup Challenge, which funds the development of a fully compostable paper cup; they’ll be piloting a prototype of a greener cup in Vancouver later this year. Starbucks Canada also recently signed on as a principal member of the World Wildlife Fund’s ReSource: Plastic to inspire action across sectors and supply chains program.

Neale Graham, Beam Suntory

At Suntory, Graham discusses Growing for Good, a program he says “includes commitments to protect water and the environment, through programs like our Natural Water Sanctuaries and improving water efficiency in our operations. In 2019, we launched Together for Good, an annual global day of service, and saw nearly 2,000 employees volunteer from our sites around the world, including here in Canada where more than 130 employees from Vancouver to Montreal participated in shoreline cleanups.”

Labatt’s president is proud to boast about some of their products like Budweiser, which is on track to being brewed using 100 per cent sustainable energy.

RC Show provides a platform for learning and innovation. As Graham puts it, “the restaurant industry is at the front edge of consumption for our category, and the show is fertile ground for learning.”

Hear these leaders speak at RC Show 2020 on March 2: Starbucks’ Michael Conway on the ‘Views from the top: Restaurant CEO panel‘, ’Beam Suntory’s Neale Graham on the ‘Bar CEO Panel’ and Kyle Norrington of Labatt on the ‘Beer CEO Panel.’

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