Vivek Sood can thank former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin for setting him off on the life path that would ultimately lead to his recent selection as Atlantic Business Magazine’s 2020 CEO of the Year…
Well, not exactly, certainly not directly, and definitely no thanks necessary to Amin.
But Idi Amin Dada—the self-described “His Excellency, President for Life, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular,” who has been more accurately described by more detached observers as the “Butcher of Uganda,” the murderer of some 300,000 of his countrymen and one of the most bloodthirsty genocidal leaders in world history—did play a critical early role in Sood’s family’s life choices.
In 1969, when Vivek himself was barely one year old, those choices—which were less about choice and more about survival—brought him 10,000 km from his birthplace in sprawling Kampala, Uganda (population six million-ish), to tiny Stellarton, Nova Scotia (population 4,000-ish).
Thanks to that cataclysmic, almost galactic change of place and circumstance, Vivek was not only able to experience an ordinary enough Canadian childhood but also to have a childhood at all.
By the time he was in Grade 10, Vivek had landed his first part-time job, bagging groceries at his local Sobeys, which just happened to be Store No. 1—ground zero—for the Sobeys grocery store empire. Flash forward 37 years. Vivek Sood is now not only the executive vice president of related businesses for Sobeys, Canada’s second largest food retailer, but he is also the official liaison to president Michael Medline for the company’s Atlantic Canadian operations. Not to forget our “CEO of the Year.”
And, oh yes, he is also the chair of Sobeys’ Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Council, whose especially-important-in-these-days role is to “provide input, recommendations and champion current initiatives” to make Sobeys more diverse and more inclusive—a seemingly perfect match of person and purpose.
The Canadian immigrant story, as we would like it to be.
It’s a story that begins before Vivek’s memory of it.
Although Vivek’s parents, Mike and Usha, had been born in Kenya in Africa, their roots were South Asian from East India. Mike, a mechanical engineer, attended university in England; Usha had studied in India. Thanks to Mike’s job with East African Railways, the young family transferred African countries several times, including to Uganda where Vivek was born.
At the time, Idi Amin was not yet Uganda’s dictator, but he was its ruthless, all-powerful commander of the army. The Soods’ home happened to be located near Amin’s military compound. One day, a convoy from the compound simply forced Mike’s car off the road and kept on going. Angry, he went to the police to complain. “And that’s where things got bad fast,” his son explains. “The police didn’t want to raise the complaint. They basically said to him, ‘This will not end well for you, or us.’”
By that point, to complicate matters, “the writing was on the wall for all South Asians” in East Africa. British colonial rule was finally ending, and newly independent African nations had begun to take back the levers of control in their government and economy, “as they should have,” Vivek says now. The local Africans “had been not given any opportunities for years and years and years.”
As Kenya’s legendary first president, Jomo Kenyetta, and other African leaders legitimately sought “to build [an African] middle class and an upper class,” South Asians—people like Vivek’s parents, who’d often lived in Africa for generations and thought of it as home—“got caught in the middle because they had been the middle class there at the time.” East African Railways, for example, suddenly became keen to promote its Kenyan workers over those like Mike Sood, who were now perceived as outsiders. Within a few years, Amin himself would not only seize power in Uganda, but also order the expulsion of the country’s 60,000 Asians, expropriating their homes and businesses.
Mike and Usha “knew they had to leave, that the opportunity wouldn’t be for them in East Africa.” Seeking a future with greater opportunities for their two children, Vivek and four-year old Deepa, they initially considered England and India but eventually settled on Canada.
That’s because two of Mike’s older brothers, both doctors, had already relocated there as the result of yet another historical moment. In 1962, Saskatchewan doctors went on strike to protest the NDP government’s decision to become the first province in Canada to introduce Medicare. To provide care during the emergency, the provincial medical care insurance commission scrambled to import international physicians, including Sood’s brothers. After the dispute was settled, the brothers decided to stay on and settled in Calgary.
Come to Calgary, they told Mike. “There’s jobs everywhere. It won’t be a problem.” It was. When he had no luck quickly landing a job in Calgary—“We really did not have a lot when we came”—Vivek’s father cast his job search net more widely. He traveled to Montreal where he met with officials at Hawker-Siddeley, the huge British-based aircraft manufacturer that had recently branched out into making rail locomotives. As a British-trained engineer with experience in railways, Mike Sood was soon hired and dispatched to… the company’s railcar plant in nowhere-he’d-ever-heard-of Trenton, Nova Scotia. After he arrived on his own to start his new job, he understated to his wife: “It’s a very small place.”
The family joined him that fall. They initially lived in the Norfolk Hotel, which is now a seniors’ residence. “I think they thought, ‘We’ll get our start here. We will then probably go to where we have family.’” Instead, the family stayed on, bought a house in Stellarton, put down roots, and eventual made a satisfying life for themselves and their children.
Mike Sood, who can speak not only English but also Swahili and Punjabi, would eventually lead the international railcar sales team for Greenbrier, the U.S.-based company that took over TrentonWorks in the mid-1990s. He and Usha still live in Stellarton. So does Vivek’s sister Deepa, now a Sobeys assistant category manager. Vivek lived most of his life there as well, until finally settling in Halifax six years ago where his then-new position—senior vice president and general manager of Sobeys’ Lawtons Drugs chain—was based.
Vivek remembers a “very happy childhood,” and notes some of the friends he made in nursery school in Stellarton are still his friends today.
For the most part, the Soods, the only Indian family in all of Pictou County, were welcomed. Their first Christmas eve in Canada, one of his father’s fellow employees even showed up at their apartment door with gifts “because he was so concerned my parents wouldn’t know the traditions around Christmas, about Santa and the kids getting gifts. He didn’t want my sister going back to school in January and all the kids talking about the gifts they had received, and her feeling badly about not getting any.” He pauses. “I think that feeling of inclusion, of being included, was just so powerful. It left a lasting impression on our family and always will.”
Vivek participated in Cubs and Scouts and played quintessentially Canadian sports like hockey. “We were brought up to take on as much of the Canadian culture as we could, so we celebrated the major holidays. We spoke English in the house. And I’ll never forget this. Certain nights, we ate English food!” His parents “wanted us to be just like everyone else in the community.” Which was good—and bad. “I’ll also never forget that my parents spoke Punjabi at home and when we were out and about town. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to draw attention to us, or them.” And now? He allows that he’s never learned to speak Punjabi. “My parents probably regret that. I regret that.”
But he always understood—couldn’t help but understand—his family was the answer to the Sesame Street question: Which of these is not like the other?
Being the only could be lonely. When his mother’s parents came for a visit during the 1970s, he remembers they brought rumours about another family from Nairobi now living in Pugwash, a rural Nova Scotia community an hour and a half distant. “They didn’t have an address. They didn’t have a phone number. But I remember us getting in the car and driving to Pugwash and literally asking people if they knew this Indian family. They did! They found the house. And they knocked on the door. ‘Hello.’” It was the beginning of a from-home friendship, a connection.
But it was Vivek’s paternal grandfather, who came to Nova Scotia to visit every second summer, who really connected Vivek to his own heritage. “I remember he brought me comic books, which actually were based on Hindu stories and all the events that led to the growth of Hinduism and the foundation of Hinduism—but in comic books. He would sit down with us and tell us the stories.” Later his grandfather, a physician, also wrote a book about his own life, “which is just wonderful because we learned about that and his history.”
As keen as the Soods were for their children to become Canadian, Vivek recalls they also “talked a lot about their experience in Africa. I knew a lot about where they grew up, their experiences, and that kind of thing.”
Perhaps not surprising then that, when Vivek was recently asked on his nominee information form for the Top 50 CEO awards to identify an item on his “bucket list,” he answered: “I didn’t think I had a bucket list, but as I get older, I would like to see Africa, specifically East Africa.”
Vivek Sood remembers being “shattered.” It was 1992, and “my whole plan from Day 1 was to work for Sobeys.”
Day 1 had been an accident. He was just another teenager eager to earn pocket money. His mother, who was working at Scotiabank at the time, happened to know the local Sobeys manager as a regular bank customer. She told him her son was looking for a part-time job, so he suggested Vivek apply. “I went down and filled out my application. I started bagging groceries on the front end, getting three or four shifts a week.” Sobeys soon became a kind of second home. During university, he spent his summers working in the accounting office at Sobeys Stellarton headquarters and then, during the school year, would “work a few more hours, make a little bit of money” in the meat department of its Queen Street store in Halifax.
When he graduated with his commerce degree in 1992, he interviewed for a permanent job in Sobeys’ finance department. But the people he’d known from his summer employment were no longer there. “The guy who interviewed me just… the interview didn’t go well at all. And I left the interview thinking, ‘I don’t want to work there. I don’t want to work for this person. He was rude to me.” In the end, it didn’t matter. Vivek didn’t get the job.
But that begged the question: “What am I going to do?” He decided to return to school “try for a CA” designation, which led to a series of increasingly responsible jobs with the Bank of Nova Scotia and then a year working for the Nova Scotia government’s Life Sciences Industry Partnership, helping entrepreneurs commercialize technology.
Finally, in 2000, Sobeys came calling. Again. The company was in the middle of a dramatic transition from an established grocery chain in the country’s smallest region to a hoped-for place-of-power at the national food retailing table. Two years earlier, Sobeys had acquired the Ontario-based Oshawa Group, a grocery and food distribution operation twice its size, for $1.5 billion, nearly quadrupling its annual sales from $3 billion to $11 billion and instantly making it the second largest food company in Canada (though still only half as big as the industry’s number one, Loblaws). “The minnow had really swallowed the whale,” jokes Sood.
“I got a call saying, ‘Would you be interested in coming to Stellarton?’ We had just built a house in Bedford. We had just had our second child. We didn’t have any money. We were living pay cheque to pay cheque. And my wife was on maternity leave. So, I said, ‘Well, I’ll go talk to them.’”
This time, the interview process was very different. “Sobeys was doing a lot of aptitude testing. I loved that. I thought, ‘This is a fair process, as opposed to what I got years ago.” The company offered him a job, reasonably enough, in its finance department. Instead, he asked if he could try out merchandising. “I felt if I didn’t understand merchandising, I would never be a good finance person at Sobeys.” He understood something else too. “For the first time, I knew this is what I wanted for my career. I wanted to be there to the time I retired.”
The company agreed he would start in merchandising—as Sobeys Atlantic manager for tactical pricing—and he’s never looked back.
Although pricing was his primary bailiwick, Sood was also given a number of what he calls “stretch assignments,” including helping implement integration of the company’s SAP retail software system. Sood had concerns with the workings of the $89-million computerized inventory control system. Sobeys had acquired it a few years before to service a homogeneous regional supermarket chain but it was now being tasked to perform the same functions for 1,300 stores operating across the country under more than 20 different names. He shared his concerns with his immediate boss. “I was told to go—and here I was a manager—to see the CEO to tell him what I was thinking.” He did.
Two months later, in late November 2000, the SAP system crashed and stayed down for five days, a corporate lifetime in the middle of the annual Christmas sales rush. The company ultimately not only had to take a $90-million write-down but also replace the old system with one better suited to the newly national company’s needs.
Sood’s prescience did not go unnoticed. In 2001, he was asked to join the small staff at Empire, the holding company for the Sobey family’s grocery conglomerate as well as its myriad other ventures ranging from theatres to bowling alleys to car dealerships to oil and gas investments. “We had a $600-million investment portfolio.” Paul Sobey was the CEO, Frank the CFO. Sood also got to work with the company’s pension committee, giving him an up-close perspective on the committee’s chair, Donald Sobey, “a phenomenal person, a phenomenal business mind.”
Five years later, he shifted from Empire back to Sobeys, where he not only helped restructure the massive debt the company had incurred as a result of the acquisition of Oshawa, but also became involved in more acquisitions, including the 2007 USD $249-million acquisition of Thrifty Foods, a B.C.-based food retailer bought to help goose Sobeys western Canadian expansion.
Sood spent much of his time working directly on corporate strategy with Sobeys legendary CEO, Bill McEwan. “Bill exposed me to anything I wanted. I was fortunate enough to travel across the country with him, visiting stores, learning from his deep experience in retail…” He considers. “I got to see things living in Stellarton that I think some people my age didn’t get to see working on Bay Street,” Sood marvels. “I always felt very fortunate that I got that kind of career development and exposure and still got to live in a town of 5,000 people. I could walk to work, and even when I drove, it was a three-minute commute, and that’s if I didn’t get the one red light!”
In 2014, he moved again—to the operational side—this time not only to the position of senior vice president and general manager of the company-owned Lawtons Drugs, succeeding family member Rob Sobey, but also to its head office in Dartmouth in the same Penhorn Sobeys where he remembers being interviewed for a job back in 2000. A year later, he was charged with overseeing not only the Lawtons operation but also all the pharmacies in all the supermarkets that had come with Sobeys many acquisitions over the years.
In 2017, Empire’s new-broom president Michael Medline launched Project Sunrise, a massive three-year reorganization designed to consolidate the company’s crazy quilt of corporate acquisitions into a “mostly national, functionally driven structure, simplifying how the company works with vendors and leveraging its buying scale as a $24-billion company.” The goal: achieving $500 million in annualized savings by 2020. The plan succeeded even beyond its optimistic objective, generating $550 million in savings and nearly doubling Empire’s stock price in the lead-up to this spring’s coronavirus pandemic.
As part of that reorganization, Vivek Sood became Sobeys executive vice president for related business—overseeing everything from its pharmacies and liquor outlets, to its gas bars and convenience stores, to its Big-8 beverages and Pete’s Frootique specialty food stores—as well as serving as Medline’s chief designate on the company’s Atlantic home turf.
“It’s been fabulous,” he says of his latest Sobeys experience. “Michael is just a great leader, great mentor, wonderful person to work with, personally and professionally. I think he’s second to none in leadership skills, communication skills, strategic thinking skills.”
Which have become even more critical—as has Vivek Sood’s role.
In July, the company launched its second three-year plan, Project Horizon, whose goals include investing $700 million a year to increase market share and win the battle for Canadian grocery e-commerce. “When we were in the middle of Sunrise,” Medline told Postmedia, “we were thinking about Horizon and now we’re thinking about the next three years after that. It just never stops.”
That said, the world changes in unpredicted, unexpected ways. COVID-19… Black Lives Matter…
Which brings us back to Idi Amin, to racism, to immigration, to being the other, to being othered, to Black Lives Matter, to what do we do about all that now?
As a child, Vivek Sood learned how to cope with all of that from his father’s experience. “He always focused on the positive things,” his son says, but “he didn’t shy away from the negative. The reality was they had experienced racism their whole lives. That wasn’t just something that happened here. They had experienced it in England. They had experienced it in Africa… [But] he almost felt that was just the price that he was willing to pay to be in this great country.”
Vivek himself shared—shares—much of that gratitude. “Immigration has been so meaningful, not just for my immediate family, but for my extended family. In my cottage, I have the little flag I was given in 1973 when I got my Canadian citizenship. I remember our parents, the next summer, took us to Ottawa. They wanted us to go see the Parliament buildings. They always taught us about government and about civic responsibility.”
But part of that civic responsibility, Sood sees now, is making sure others don’t need to pay a price to be full citizens.
It is one of the reasons he was happy to be a panelist at the 2019 Atlantic Immigration Summit, “an outcome-oriented event series designed to engage people across sectors for a provocative dialogue and exchange on immigration” as a means to strengthen the region’s immigration system and make Atlantic Canada more inclusive. “I care about immigration and anything I can do to help with that,” Sood says.
That wasn’t always the case. “When I was young, I didn’t want to be in this position,” he allows of his current role as chair of the company’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Council. “I wanted to be like everybody else. I didn’t want to be bullied. I didn’t want to be picked on. I didn’t want to stand out… You didn’t ever want to put your hand up because you would draw attention to the fact that you weren’t like everybody else.”
Sobeys’ internal council is intended to create a culture shift within the company “by engaging your operational teams, your broader employee base” so everyone feels welcome to put their hand up. “We are in listening mode,” Sood tells me. There have been meetings attended by senior company executives, including Michael Medline and himself, “opportunities for our team to tell us: What are they experiencing? What are we not doing? Where are the gaps?” The sessions, he says, have been “quite moving. They’re quite raw. They’re quite emotional.”
Besides listening to its employees, the company is consulting with experts. “We’ve had a series of interviews with experts from all over North America,” he notes, adding he’s sat in on every one of them “because I wanted to hear what the experts say, because we had to learn what was the right thing to do.”
He is quick to point out that the Sobey family have also become increasingly involved in innovative efforts to change society beyond their traditional support for business education. This summer, for example, the Donald R. Sobey Foundation helped finance the establishment of the world’s first restorative justice lab at Dalhousie University’s law school. “We stand behind the family in building that centre,” says Sood, who is also quick to note the professor who occupies the new chair, internationally recognized expert Jennifer Llewellyn, is also from Pictou County. “Sometimes, we’re not aware of these internationally-respected people that we have right here in Halifax and who come from rural Nova Scotia. She’s just fabulous… I’ve had a couple of conversations with her already to say, ‘Okay. How do we become a restorative workplace in Sobeys? How do we bring those principles and practices into the workplace?’” He pauses. “We’re going to do something about this.”
Part of that something was signing on to this summer’s Black North Initiative in which Canadian CEOs not only acknowledged “the existence of anti-Black systemic racism and its impact on Canada’s 1,198,540 Black citizens and the need to create opportunities within our companies for Black people,” but also “committing to seven goals we believe will move Canada toward ending anti-Black systemic racism and creating opportunities for underrepresented groups,” and finally—and perhaps most importantly—creating “accountability systems within our companies, share our goals internally and externally, track our progress, and share regular updates with each other to catalog effective programs and measurement practices.”
Empire’s CEO Michael Medline not only signed the pledge but has also become a member of the board of the new organization. “I couldn’t have been more proud,” Sood says.
Sobeys itself, of course, has historically not been immune when it comes to discriminatory practices. In 2016, it had to apologize for racial profiling and compensate a Black woman after one of its managers falsely accused her of being a known shoplifter and after the company had briefly threatened to appeal a human rights decision criticizing its behaviour. The incident even sparked a brief boycott of the grocery chain by the African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia.
“We are at the beginning,” Sood is quick to admit. “We’ve had issues in the past at Sobeys. That’s a reality. And we’ve addressed them. I think we’ve been honest about that. And we have a lot more work to do. We haven’t solved all these issues, especially when it comes to anti-Black, anti-Indigenous [racism].”
That said, Vivek Sood is convinced the company is headed in the right direction, with buy-in from staff, from senior executives, from the Sobey family, from the board of directors. “We get calls [from board members saying], ‘We’re not being bold enough. We’re not being fast enough.’ We’re not going to take the safe route here. We’re going to move aggressively to do the right thing. We’re committed to that. Externally,” he admits, “people might not see it. But at the end of the day, we’re not doing it for public perception. We’re doing it because we want the company to be better. And it’s the right thing to do.”
As for Vivek Sood himself, Atlantic Business Magazine’s CEO of the Year, that “right thing” is also personal. “I’ve been so fortunate because I’ve been included. I’ve had opportunities. I’ve had good fortune. I really feel passionate that I have a role in making sure everybody has that opportunity.” •