Jana Sobey’s devotion to family, food and community

The Sobeys Inc. vice-president talks about the dynamic trends in her industry, from e-commerce to buying local

Jana Sobey is vice-president of merchandising, community format, Thrifty Foods and Field for Sobeys Inc. She recently received a 2019 Star Women in Grocery Award.

Jana Sobey
Jana Sobey

How did you feel about winning the award and what did it mean to you?

Sobey: It felt really good. I was actually quite surprised, to be quite honest. So being recognized was obviously a great honour, particularly when I saw the other candidates and the other award winners as well. I was certainly in great company.

And I’m certainly proud of some of the other women within our company who also were awarded. I was one of four within Sobeys.

I’ve been working within the company full-time for over 15 years. But I’ve spent a lifetime within the company as well, just learning at the heels of my father and in my part-time job. It just felt like a really proud moment for all of the hard work and effort that myself and my teams have put forward to be recognized in such a way. Honestly, I was humbled and honoured at the end of the day.

Can you explain that family connection?

Sobey: I am a fourth generation in the business. My great-grandfather started the business in 1907 in a little town called Stellarton, N.S. A little coal mining town. He didn’t want to work the coal mines. He basically bought lambs and pigs from local farmers, butchered them and then sold them on his meat wagon door to door.

The first store opened in 1912 and then we started to be successful and one store turned into multiple and then we started acquiring companies across the country, which gave us a national footprint eventually.

My grandfather worked in the business. My father worked in the business. My brother works in the business. Cousins, uncles. It’s been pervasive since the time I was born, really.

The grocery industry is highly competitive. What does a grocery store have to do to be effective and compete?

Sobey: I think it all bubbles down to the customer in-store experience at the end of the day. More so now than I think ever before with so much choice amongst competitors and so much choice of channels as well.

Obviously bricks and mortar is not the only way that people get their food and their supplies today. So making our stores one that our customers can relate to, connect to, be emotionally connected to, and we serve them an experience well beyond just the food that’s heading into their baskets.

It’s really our aspirational goal and objective and what we think we’ll continue to set us apart in the future. It comes down to that store experience.

What are some of the key trends you see that are going to shape the industry?

Sobey:  Clearly e-commerce has been shaping the industry for the last few years and will continue to shape it. How we compete in that channel – it’s not if, it’s how – we have to do that particularly better than anybody else.

And I think to some degree when it comes to e-commerce, the customer experience when I was talking about the bricks and mortar will continue to play a huge piece of the puzzle in terms of us winning the shoppers whether it’s in-store or e-commerce.

What does that service element look like, delivery, bringing the groceries inside, and what does that interaction with the delivery person look like for the customer? I think that will be a big play in the future.

And clearly just the product assortment and offer is going to continue to evolve. So organics, wellness, all of those types of product lines, will continue to be hugely important.

One area that I’ve been leading in the company for the last two years is our local movement as well. Yes, we’re a big national player, but if the assortment isn’t right-sized for the market and doesn’t represent the products that our customers are looking for, not just their preferences of regional tastes, but represent those local suppliers and that support of local community.

I believe that will continue to be a growing trend – localization of assortment.

What is it about the industry you enjoy the most – beyond the family connection?

Sobey: So many pieces. When I think about what we do as a company, I wear it with a lot of pride and immense responsibility. When you actually think about it, our company is feeding 20 per cent of Canadians when you look at the size of our business and the footprint. That’s really compelling to me – to offer customers safe, affordable, great food to feed their families and nurture their own families. I love the idea of our family – not just the Sobey family but the greater Sobey family, all of my colleagues and I – are nurturing other Canadian families.

And the other aspect I think is incredibly important is just the people side of our business. We have 125,000 employees or franchise affiliates from coast to coast and you multiply that by the number of customers coming through our doors and it really is at the end of the day a people and a relationship business. That gets me excited.

One of my favourite roles was being a store manager and managing the thousands of customers coming through the door, the hundreds of vendors coming to my back door, the hundred-plus employees who were coming and going from the store at any given time. All of that sort of beehive of activity in relationships I found extremely rewarding and compelling at the end of the day. I definitely think it’s the people and the relationships.

Being able at the local level now to allow an easier path for some of our local suppliers and our local food entrepreneurs to get into our doors has been extremely rewarding as well. To see that family-nurturing-family concept evolve from a business perspective where if the product’s right and we can get it onto the shelves, and the customers are responding. We’ve been able to grow and scale with some of our entrepreneurs as well, which clearly this is a nice cyclical effect of strengthening the economic community. And strong communities make strong grocery stores.

Jana Sobey was interviewed by Mario Toneguzzi, Troy Media business reporter based in Calgary.

© Troy Media

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