What’s in store?

What’s in store?

That would be Paul Sobey. A great-grandson of the founder of what is now Canada’s second largest supermarket chain, Paul trained as a chartered accountant, worked briefly in Toronto and then returned home to Nova Scotia in 1982 to join Empire, the family holding company.

In 1998, Empire’s board named him president and CEO. That, not coincidentally, was also the year Sobeys dramatically declared its presence in Canada’s no-longer-regional-fiefdom grocery world by swallowing three-times-its-size, Toronto-based Oshawa Group for $1.5 billion, solidifying its new place as a national grocery competitor. (It’s worth noting that that merger did not roll out as smoothly as hoped either, but more on that later.)

Even as Sobeys was coming to terms with that corporate coming-of-age acquisition, Paul had begun sniffing around for other potential deals. In 2005, he lost out to Sobeys’ smaller rival, Quebec-based Metro, in a bidding war for A&P’s Canadian assets. That made the company’s next steps even more critical.

Two years later — during Sobeys 100th anniversary — Empire strategically took Sobeys private and began selling off its non-grocery-related assets in order to provide cash to fill the company’s ammunition coffers for what appeared to be last-grocer-standing battles to come. By then, Canada’s once staid food industry was in a roiling state of competitive, grow-or-die turmoil. Non-grocery retailers like discount giant Walmart Canada and Costco had already muscled in on traditional supermarket turf by adding miles of their own grocery aisles. In 2011, Target Corporation, the giant U.S. discount chain — which had also begun to devote an increasing percentage of its American shelf space to fresh produce and grocery products — would announce it had acquired more than 200 Canadian Zellers locations and would spend $1 billion to set up full-service-including-grocery shopping in Canada too. To counter that expected assault, Sobeys and its chief competitors, Metro and Loblaws, the country’s dominant supermarket chain, covetously targeted their own smaller grocery store rivals, simply hoping to maintain their own place in the food industry pecking order.

One of the companies they were all targeting was western-based Canada Safeway, the last big grocery store chain in play. With its 213 grocery stores, 199 in-store pharmacies, 62 gas stations, 10 liquor stores, four distribution centres and a dozen manufacturing facilities, Safeway would have been a prize for any of them. For Sobeys, it was more than that. Sixty per cent of Safeway’s business came from the key western cities of Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary and Alberta; western Canada, especially prosperous, oil-fired Alberta, was a weak link in the Sobeys’ national retail chain.

Given that Sobeys was not the only suitor for Canada Safeway — media reports at the time suggested Metro and Loblaws were also circling — Paul Sobey and his team conducted negotiations with Safeway executives in such secrecy they had their own bland code name (“London”), and executives met in nondescript hotels in cities where neither company was well known. The secrecy paid off. So too did Empire’s decision to build up its war chest by selling off its non-grocery assets. Sobeys was not only able to pay a premium to acquire Safeway but it was also able to sweeten the deal for Safeway’s American parent by making it a cash deal.

Late on the afternoon of June 12, 2013, a beaming Paul Sobey announced what he described as an “historic and transformational” $5.8-billion deal to acquire Canada Safeway, a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity that instantly goosed Sobeys national market share from 13 to 18 per cent, made it number one by market share in western Canada and cemented its second place spot in the national supermarket sweepstakes, still trailing Loblaws but now comfortably ahead of Metro and the rest.

Paul Sobey wasn’t the only one who thought he’d made a very good deal. Barry Schwartz, a portfolio manager with Baskin Financial, which owned more than 100,000 shares in Empire, told Reuters it was a “game-changing deal for Empire.” Michael Van Aelst, an analyst at TD Securities, called it the “strategic coup of the year.”

At the time, Sylvain Charlebois would have agreed. “It looked like an act of brilliance,” he told me recently. Charlebois, a food retails and agriculture expert, would have known. Now the dean of the faculty of management at Dalhousie University where he is also, concurrently, a professor in the agriculture department, Charlebois had co-founded Guelph University’s food institute, authored four books on global food systems and writes a blog called “Food Professor” for Canadian Grocer Magazine.

On paper, he says, the deal gave Sobeys “a huge advantage.” The chain not only finally became truly national but, “most critically,” Sobeys became powerful enough to quit United Grocers Inc. — a procurement organization for the nation’s smaller grocers, including Metro — and begin to negotiate its own, more competitive terms with its suppliers. The acquisition, Charlebois says, “left Metro in its dust.”

Except, of course, it didn’t. Charlebois chuckles. By not winning Safeway, he says today, Metro now appears to have “made the best deal it never made.”

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