Editor’s Note – Welcome to “Leaders Talk with Dave Hall” a series of interviews posted every third Wednesday of the month here on the DMG blog. The series features experienced business writer Dave Hall interviewing an incredible line-up of DMG clients, giving you an inside look on what makes them tick. The questions will surround their success, their experience in their sector and the type of characteristics that drive them to be leaders in our community.
For this month’s Leaders Talk – we take things to Maidstone, Ontario to talk to CEO/President of Thomas’ Utopia Brand – Bill Thomas.
What have been the main strategies which have enabled Thomas Canning to achieve continuous growth?
BT: Diversity has been the key for us in the same way it has been for companies in many other sectors. It’s very similar to the way we handle our crops. If you plant one field with one crop on a continuous basis, things can go well but if the opposite happens, you can end up with nothing. You have to spread the risk around. It’s also preferable to have a number of larger clients rather than dozens of smaller ones because they can be hard to administer.
How were you able to break into the Chinese and Nigerian markets?
BT: We decided to make a conscious effort to try to sell into the Chinese and Nigerian markets. With many companies selling into the U.S. and European markets we decided to look in the opposite direction. You also have to fully understand the market and culture in those two countries. Partnerships and agreements are mostly relationship-based rather than purely business-based. Deals are often settled by handshakes and those agreements will never be broken.
What tips can you offer companies trying to develop an international client base?
BT: Choose your markets sensibly and try not to be intimidated by size. Find your niche because you are not trying to take over the entire country. On one hand, large cities offer an enormous customer base but the competition is equally daunting. Do your research, try to establish a partnership and then start anyway you can just to get going.
How was Thomas Canning able to survive the recent recession which impacted so many other companies?
BT: Food products are largely recession proof and we weren’t hit as badly as many in other sectors. Climate rather than recession is our biggest challenge whether it’s too much rain or not enough. Wind and hail are also factors There are also environmental issues to take into consideration as well.
What are your strategies for attracting and retaining clients?
BT: You have to figure out where you fit in your customers’ markets. It has never been our intention to be a cheap brand and clients will pay for quality, especially Canadian quality, and they will pay for safe food. There have been issues with Chinese food quality, not only in North America but also in China, and we have developed a high level of trust in our products. You also have to find a way to differentiate yourself from your competitors.
What has been your most successful collaboration with another company?
BT: We develop those partnerships on a long-term basis and many are still growing. We have successful partnerships with many distributors in areas where we sell our products but it can take time for them to fully develop.
How have you been able to establish a corporate culture and strengthen your company’s brand?
BT: A large part of the credit for our brand goes to Douglas Marketing Group. They understand our business, they anticipate where we want to go and they have been very creative in helping us get there. There have been some very good collaborative efforts in strengthening our brand and they have done a very good job for us in that area.
How important is social media to your company?
BT: More than 70 per cent of the food sold in China is sold online so social media is extremely important. With small apartments, large families and limited storage, they often buy food on the day it is to be consumed. Social media helps us spread the word about our products.
How has technology changed the way you communicate with clients and customers?
BT: Almost everyone has a cell phone these days and in Nigeria, we are able to send out millions of text messages urging people to ‘Buy Utopia Tomatoes.’ Social media is a great tool for smaller business because you don’t have to spend millions of dollars making people aware of your products. People will pay for quality but they have to know about it.
What is your ideal way of spending a day off?
BT: I’ve been a yoga teacher for more than 20 years and while I don’t do as much of it as I used to for business reasons, it is still very close my heart. I find it very relaxing and it takes me away from the challenges and pressures of business.
What is your favourite vacation spot and why?
BT: Any spot you go to can be very special if you have an open mind. I’ve been blessed in the past few years through business to be able to visit many places around the world and I have enjoyed them all in different ways. I’m not much for sitting on a beach for more than two days – I like to be active.