A woman's perspective on the grocery business
Sydney-Anne Porter wins Influential Women in Business award
Q: I understand that you’re in business with a couple of family members. Can you talk about that a bit?
A: I have two terrific sons, two beautiful and supportive daughters-in-law who work at home, and four fabulous grandchildren. I love working with my sons. Networking with other retailers and vendors has always been a great source for education, and those same peers often relate how blessed I am because our family is able to work together. I will always respect that blessing.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your history?
A: Prior to the recession, the Columbia Valley enjoyed a huge boom for several years. Often we had to work long, crazy hours because we couldn’t get enough staff, at least not enough good staff, and that was the situation for most local businesses. Construction was going crazy—we’re Calgary cottage country—and we enjoyed excellent growth until the recession hit. Then people started losing money on their investments and the Calgarians were buying fewer second homes in our area. The American dollar dropped, and many people started buying in the U.S.A. First we saw construction workers and their families leaving, and then to make matters worse, our Radium sawmill shut down. We saw close to 200 people laid off, and the trickle effect from the layoffs was immense.
Q: How has the recession affected you?
A: The recession was a big concern until we realized it was a gift, an opportunity for my sons to learn how to be excellent retailers. When I first started in retail you had to be creative, you had to shop smart and you had to work hard to build your business. Because of the shortage of staff when I came to the valley, we had to work hard just to manage the business that was coming in our doors. Over the last three years we have worked hard in a different way. I believe that because of the recession my sons have become exceptional retailers. They’ve learned how to buy well, how to attract good employees to grow our business and much more. We saw a slump for a couple of years, but now I’m proud to say that our business is growing and we’re on an upward trend.
Q: How have you managed to increase business?
A: We are one of two grocers in Invermere. There’s a Sobey’s located at the entrance to downtown, so many tourists tend to shop there. Our philosophy has always been to serve our local people, including our local Albertans, and do the best job possible for them. We do our best to keep them happy, because they are our year-round customers. We distribute weekly flyers, run a variety of promotional features and in-store specials and we are diligent with purchasing well so we can keep our regular pricing competitive. My youngest son, Greg, likes to say we offer big city selection with small town service.
When it became evident people were looking for alternative choices, we decided to grow in that direction. About ten years ago I began adding natural and organic products to our selection. I thought our selection was good, but my oldest son, Eric, has taken it even further. These days gluten sensitivity is almost like an epidemic, and the demand for gluten-free products is increasing. We are ready for it, and people are happy to discover we carry a large variety of these products.
There’s not a lot of gratification in selling meat and potatoes. We do it and we are proud of our quality, but when customers come in and say they need food for a specific medical condition, and we have the specialty foods they need, they are really grateful, and we get really excellent feedback. It’s very rewarding to provide for people’s needs.
Q: Was it difficult to step aside and make room for your sons to take over?
A: A few years ago I was asked to speak at a convention about bringing your children into your business. During the panel discussion I mentioned that initially I was almost disappointed because after working so hard to move into what used to be a male-oriented business, I had two sons to bring into the business and no daughter. When I had that thought, I realized there was a gift in that. After working hard and plowing my own way through, I was able to teach two young, bright and innovative young men how to do business with more heart and compassion.
I see women as nurturers. Going into business as a woman, in earlier times I felt a big part of the difference was being a nurturer. I think over time we have seen women grow and develop in business and we now recognize that nurturing characteristic as a strength. For myself, I’m happy to say I see evidence that I have passed along some of those nurturing aspects to my sons, and they are applying them in the way they do business.
Delegation got much easier once I started working part-time and and recognized stepping away was empowering my sons. I realized they were ready to take over with confidence and I was ready to let them. Maintaining the department schedules keeps me in touch and I do a lot of consulting because as I always tell my sons, there is no point to learning the same lesson twice.
Q: Can you talk a bit more about being a woman in the business world?
A: It took a long time for me to be recognized as a businesswoman. Going to trade shows, the vendors tended to ignore women, assuming they were wives of the decision-makers. My ex-business partner was also a woman, and when we would approach a booth to talk seriously about purchasing new products or equipment for the store many reps would hand us samples for our treat bags and barely glance our way. After a while, we learned to make it known that we were serious buyers.
Several years ago we had a different experience at a trade show when we were looking for a new oven. The vendor asked us to return the next day so he could serve us food prepared in the oven we were interested in. We arrived in time for lunch, let him know we enjoyed his offerings, and then the vendor asked me if I thought I could talk my boss into buying the equipment! Well, it said right on our name tags that we were business owners, but he hadn’t bothered to check. He made an assumption that because we were women we had no buying power. We had a little chat about the issue, and it was a good learning experience for him and for us. Yes, we still bought the oven. I believe women are less apt to hold grudges and find it easier to move forward.
Q: Can you summarize your business philosophy?
A: It’s pretty well the same as my life philosophy: Look for the gift in everything. Many years ago, my business partner and I were struggling with a tragedy and I came across something in a Cranbrook paper which inspired and assisted us. The line I remember read “Things do not happen to you, they happen for you.” So when my house burned down five years ago, I coached my family—and myself—to look for the gift, and we found many. My family had recently joined me in the valley and they were grateful to realize we are part of a strong, supportive and incredibly generous community. Always looking for the gift keeps us strong, keeps us going. When you look for the gift you will always find one. In fact, sometimes you will find several.
Inspired by a magazine cover showing a grocery retailer wearing shorts and an apron with the headline Dare to be Different, we quickly adopted the idea and it became my motto. One of the first changes we made was to allow staff to wear their own clothes—with a store apron to identify them as staff—instead of a uniform. The policy change allowed them to express their individuality. My kids would say it’s part of what we do to express how we are different from an average grocery store. Luckily, we don’t have to answer to a head office!
Q: Now that you have some time available, what are you doing with yourself?
I’m learning to golf and I took up skiing and skating this past winter. I’m learning how to play again. I’m also following a lifelong dream to write. For years I didn’t need extracurricular hobbies because there was nothing I liked better than playing at my store. After many intense years I began to feel very tired and noticed I was no longer enjoying being there every day I recognized it was time for me to step back. If you don’t go to work every day feeling joy in your heart, it’s time to pass the baton. I’m so glad that my boys were in line to receive it.
AG Valley Foods is a family-run business owned by Sydney-Anne Porter for 14 years.
Porter and her sons are dedicated to taking good care of their year-round customers.
The store carries an increasing number of specialty lines for people with dietary restrictions.