McCain Foods | Culture and Commitment

Making a large company feel small

If you want to learn about what it takes to be resilient, try building a business around potatoes. There are many serious threats to growing potatoes, including pests, diseases, and bad weather – an increasing norm we’re seeing as a result of climate change.

As the world’s largest manufacturer of frozen potato products and a global leader in appetizers and snacks, McCain Foods has turned managing crop volatility into a core competency.

“One year you might have a fantastic crop and business is a lot easier,” says Alison DeMille, McCain’s Chief Human Resources Officer. “In other years, there may be a major crop disruption due to poor weather conditions, which means resiliency is required by our farmer partners and McCain employees to ensure our customers and consumers receive the quantity and quality they expect of our products.”

In 2018, farmers in the UK lost a quarter of their crop due to record-breaking drought, only to be beset by too much rain the following year. Potato yields shrank to their lowest levels in 40 years.

This is why McCain’s family roots and values are so important. McCain was founded in 1957 in Florenceville, New Brunswick, Canada by four brothers, who all shared an entrepreneurial spirit and a dedication to keep the ‘family feeling’ no matter how big it became, and to always work together and remain resilient when times were tough.

“When we work and grow together, we succeed together”

Today, the business employs 22,000 people, operates 51 production facilities on six continents and collaborates with 3,500 farmers globally. McCain has 200 employees at its headquarters in Toronto, Canada. The rest are located across the 160 countries McCain operates in around the world. Across these regions, teams report into one of 555 directors who all work together to ensure the company’s global reach remains productive. McCain is also careful not to impose too many organizational structures, systems, and processes to support workflows while preserving the family culture.

“We’re proud to be a family-owned company. It’s what makes us different from other global companies out there. We take care of our business and treat our employees, farmers, customers and communities like family. Why? Because we know that when we work and grow together, we succeed together.” DeMille says

It’s an approach that proved its worth during the COVID-19 pandemic throughout 2020. Most of the company’s employees were deemed essential, due to their work in food production. But McCain’s business was impacted because of its focus on the food service industry, and selling products to restaurants in particular.

One of the first things the company did to relieve employee uncertainty when COVID-19 first hit was host video calls where employees could raise any concerns and get their questions answered. They also planned virtual activities for teams to participate in. On one call, a psychologist spent the session talking about mental health and wellbeing. Teams became very creative in supporting one another, such as virtual yoga and mindfulness training sessions. These interactions were complemented by regular pulse surveys which allowed employees to provide a critique of the company’s response to the COVID-19 crisis and propose recommended changes and improvement suggestions.

“We kind of just leaned right into it,” DeMille says. “And people really opened up. They wanted to bring their whole selves to work and so we strived to provide the flexibility and support they needed to succeed.’’

The company’s collaborative culture is also supported by its unique approach to hiring. Two of the main traits McCain looks for in new additions are humility and authenticity.

“Our people want to see other people succeed here,” DeMille says. “We also spend a great deal of time investing in our leaders to make sure they’re not just great at general business but that they’re also good at developing great people.”

McCain also cares deeply about the communities in which they operate. Nearly all 49 plants worldwide are located in rural communities which is why the company is so committed to the long-term development, education and support of farmers and families in these local areas.

In India, McCain collaborated with non-profits to help empower women in four rural villages close to its plant in the Baliyasan area. The effort, called Project Shakti, teaches the women vocational and entrepreneurial skills. Another program in Argentina, called Sembrado Futuro, provides funding for technical training and socioemotional skills development for youth that are about to enter the workforce.

"Our goal is to challenge each of our locations around the world to develop their own community-based programs," DeMille says. "We like to think of it as organic inspiration. It's important to protect our communities and build a more sustainable world for the next generation."

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