The Real Willy Wonkas
by James Mullinger
Located at the Canadian-American border across from Calais, Maine, this beautiful little town (population about 4,500) is one of the best places to live in Canada you’ve possibly never heard of. The town is buzzing with culture and vibrancy: over 60 new businesses have opened since late 2014. The Maritime Edit’s Editorin- Chief maintains that it is one of the best towns in the world to
perform stand up-comedy in.
Almost every great staple of the chocolate industry stemmed from the Ganong family. The chocolate bar? They invented that (Arthur Ganong, to be specific) and started selling them in 1910. The heart-shaped chocolate box? They invented that too, originally as a Christmas gift. Only later did it become a Valentine’s Day item. They are perhaps best known for their unique creation, chicken bones (created in 1885 and a staple in Canadian homes still today). For international readers, this is dark chocolate surrounded by cinnamon-flavoured candy. It’s much better than it sounds, which speaks to the genius of the creation. What is lesser known, due to their humble nature, is how much
the family have contributed to the community and to local growth. St. Stephen Mayor, Allan MacEachern, tells The Maritime Edit: “For the last 145 years Ganong have been a huge contributor to economic development. Ganong also helps bring provincial, national and international recognition and visitors to St. Stephen. They are a contributor to almost every event and cause — Chocolate
Fest, International Homecoming Festival, Garcelon Civic Center. As a kid growing up in St. Stephen, my childhood days living less than a block away from the old candy factory were awesome. The smell of candy in the air and the sound of the steam whistle every morning and at noon were a part of my life. Now I am all grown up and mayor of Canada’s Chocolate Town.”
Still privately owned, Ganong have a location in Moncton, along with their main factory in St. Stephen and The Chocolate Museum (which is located in the original candy factory). The Maritime Edit’s Editor-in-Chief, James Mullinger, met with President and CEO Bryana Ganong and Vice President Nicholas Ganong to discover what it takes to stay at the top and why being world-class in a small place can be a challenge but a worthwhile one.
THE MARITIME EDIT: When you expanded and built the colossal
new facility almost three decades ago it must have been a huge
decision and something of a gamble.
NICHOLAS GANONG: If we hadn’t added this facility to make us more competitive we probably wouldn’t be here anymore.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Presumably it was at a time of growth and huge demand?
BRYANA GANONG: It was all about competitiveness. There was a lot of consolidation in the marketplace. The companies were getting bigger and bigger, and so our father had the foresight to say we need to do something differently in order to remain competitive. At that time we would have been a lot more focused on the branded (i.e., Ganong) business and not so much on this contract and private-label business [producing products for other chocolate
brands]. That would have been a very small percentage of our business at that time. We needed to have that scale to be able to compete and grow.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Was that the biggest growth period in the company’s history?
BRYANA: In the early 1900s when everything was hand dipped, we had a lot more employees. We currently have very old pieces of equipment but also state-of-the-art. This plant is like a tour through confectionary history. Some equipment has been working for over 100 years — with safety improvements obviously.
THE MARITIME EDIT: How much chocolate do you eat daily?
NICHOLAS: I normally have coffee for breakfast, then chocolate. Then my first meal of the day. Sometimes it’s caramels or candies— I mix it up. It’s part of the job. It’s sensory. It’s somebody’s job to evaluate the products from the night before, check they taste as they should.
THE MARITIME EDIT: So the dream job that every child dreams of — chocolate taster — does actually exist?
NICHOLAS: It sure does, yes.
BRYANA: Our great-grandfather ate two pounds of chocolate a day and great-uncle a pound of chocolate a day. I eat chocolate every day, but it’s more like a piece or two pieces. A bit more moderate than our founders. We would encourage moderation for sure. I have three kids and I certainly don’t want them to eat a pound of chocolate a day. I make sure that it’s balanced with an
active lifestyle. Back then my great-grandfather and great-uncle were portaging through the woods. They were burning off that chocolate paddling the canoe and fishing. Different lifestyles.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Have you adapted your recipes because of modern emphasis on healthy lifestyles?
BRYANA: We have made a move towards natural colours and flavours on many of our products, particularly Sunkist. There are traditional favourites that are an indulgence. But for some products we are looking for lower-sugar options or sugar alternatives. So really trying to drive change in the portfolio and attract
a new consumer as well. It’s not easy because of course we are up against the big guys.
THE MARITIME EDIT: What are the benefits of being a global brand that is based out of a smaller place? Both personally and professionally.
BRYANA: Living in the place that we do has huge benefits. The elementary school that my children go to I can see from my office window. I can still be friends with the friends I had when I was three years old. The outdoor lifestyle we have here is a huge benefit as well. For the company, our story and our commitment to community and the history really resonate with people. When you hear the stories about the connections with the products and the memories that they invoke, it really makes it special that we continue to manufacture our products here.
THE MARITIME EDIT: How do you keep that message out there?
BRYANA: I don’t know that we spend a lot of time thinking about it. And perhaps we take it for granted sometimes. We certainly try to talk about our
history and our traditions, and we do a lot of events to get out in front of
consumers and do sampling events and get their feedback. But it is always interesting when you see how surprised people are — 145 years and fifth
generation — and it’s the same family making the products in New Brunswick.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Are there any pitfalls to being in a smaller place?
BRYANA: Recruitment. We need to get to a certain size to be competitive and sustainable over the longer term so having a smaller population to hire from can be a challenge for us. So we are always working hard to retain our employees and ensure that we can recruit enough to sustain [the company]. Nick has been working hard to evolve our manufacturing to be less labour intensive. Not as a means to reduce positions but to ensure we can deliver.
Last year we were short 40 employees for much of the year.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Why is that? Is it really just a population issue?
BRYANA: It’s a long list of things. It’s pretty complex. We have always had a
high percentage of long-service employees. We have had multi-generations of other families — not just our own — working in the business. We have quite a number of employees who have been here for over 40 years. In 2005, 15 percent of our employees had 20-plus years of service. In 2017, that was down to 11.5 percent so we are seeing retirements, and the younger employees who join us seem to be more transitionary. They’re not looking to stay here longer term for the pensions and benefits. Some stay and some leave so it’s a challenge for us to understand how we retain an employee who may be
looking for different things. Pension may not be what they want so we have to adapt our employee-engagement activities.
THE MARITIME EDIT: So what do you think when you hear people complain that there aren’t enough jobs in New Brunswick when every big employer I speak to says they can’t get enough people to fill the positions they need to fill?
NICHOLAS: There is a bit of urbanization going on. People moving from
the northern communities to Moncton. We might have it tougher being in
a rural community when people want to move to cities with the number of
people we can draw on for positions. It is this common theme that you hear
across the Maritimes: there are so many more positions to fill than there are
people willing to fill them. My mandate is to try and find ways to modernize
and help with the work. We ask people to do work that is hard and repetitive
and shift work, which can be a challenge. Doing an inspection on 600 wraps
a minute is a really tough thing for a person to do. By developing technology that can do the repetitive and the strenuous jobs we can be more competitive, and people doing those jobs can move into more rewarding roles.
BRYANA: For us it is always that we need more employees than we can
hire from the local area, so we need to be able to continue to recruit from
abroad. It’s essential to supplement our employee base from abroad. We have hired more than 40 people locally in the region since April 1, and we are actively hiring abroad. And it takes a long time. But with the new Atlantic Immigration Pilot started last year, we participated in a recruitment trip and made a number of job offers to some individuals from the Ukraine and Romania. We have welcomed five families so far, and there are around 30 people who are in varying stages of the documentation process. We have had folks attend other job recruitment missions to the Philippines and Mexico and other places. We are looking for permanent employees, not temporary employees. The pilot is making the pathway to immigration much more straightforward, simpler and faster.
THE MARITIME EDIT: So 40 percent of the business here is the branded
Ganong products that we all know and love, and 60 percent is making
products for other companies? When did that come about, and how and why did that happen?
BRYANA: It started as a pretty opportunistic thing as there was a lot of consolidation in the industry about 20 years ago. Companies that were closing down facilities in the Canadian marketplace looking for a Canadian source for either Canada and the U.S. for their products. So that’s how the contract manufacturing began, and we started to produce for private labels as well. Over the years we have continued to work with those partners and grow that
side of the business, and we have taken on new pieces of business and expanded our facility to support them. We will always have growth plans for our branded business, looking for ways to grow that on an everyday basis, and evolve older brands into new relevant formats for new consumers in order to get our message out there and spread the word.
THE MARITIME EDIT: I am always fascinated with how people with huge responsibility juggle everything. How do you get everything done each day?
BRYANA: Not well some days. I have been in this role four years now, and it’s been an evolution for sure. We had to start by simplifying our branded business because we were trying to be all things to all people. We spent some time trying to simplify that side of our business and spend some time strengthening relationships, but it’s really just trying to take a step back and boil it down to some must wins. Are we spending our time doing the right things that will have the biggest impact on our business? There are always fires to put out; there are always challenges. And it’s easy to go down one path, and you have to put the brakes on and ask if we are spending our time on the right things. Which some days we are and some days we aren’t. We have a board of directors, which is not always common for family businesses, but our great-grandfather put the board in place in the 1960s, and he said it was to protect the family from itself. So we have always had a very strong, very diverse board that we report to on a quarterly basis. That discipline really is helpful to make sure that we are staying
on track from a strategy perspective. We present to them from each of our areas and get their feedback, and we as an executive team present our business plan to them. It’s been very valuable.
THE MARITIME EDIT: In life and business we should all have someone to answer to.
BRYANA: For us, we have grown up in the business and have worked in almost every department over the course of our careers so it’s really helpful to have someone from the outside come in and really question and challenge and push for us to do things differently and think about things differently. For a company that is over 140 years old, being open to change is essential. If we stay stuck saying, ‘No, this is how we have always done it,” it’s not going to be good in the long term.
NICHOLAS: They are very active and engaged too, and they bring in resources and experiences that we can draw on. They are very engaged in bringing different sophistication and a lot more experience in the Canadian retail trade that we can draw on.
THE MARITIME EDIT: It appeared to me that you were one of the first companies to go 100 percent gluten-free. Where did that decision come from?
BRYANA: Well, we actually discovered that we had always been gluten-free. It wasn’t anything that had been a challenge. Working with these large partners has really helped us evolve our food-safety programs. We’ve got very robust food-safety programs: we do full audits to ensure we are fully gluten-free. Peanut-free is very important to us, but having gluten-free and peanut-free areas does put some handcuffs on us for new business opportunities.
THE MARITIME EDIT: When did Ganong introduce peanut-free products?
BRYANA: Around 2007 we went after the peanut-free certification. We had to split the factory in two. Two separate cafeterias, two separate entrances, two separate parking lots, different uniforms. It wasn’t an easy thing to do.
NICHOLAS: The flow of employees through the plant had to change; we had to add restrooms. We needed to maintain positive air pressure so that the air wasn’t coming in from that side to the nut-free side. So there were a lot of considerations and complications.
BRYANA: It was around the time that schools implemented the peanut-free policy so if we wanted to stay in the fruit-snack business we really had to.
NICHOLAS: It was a competitive advantage for about two years, and then it became an industry norm. And that happened in Canada well before it happened in the U.S. It wasn’t part of the conversation in the U.S. You can actually still have peanuts in schools in the U.S.
THE MARITIME EDIT: How do you cope with the magnitude of what you do? The pressure of having the lives of over 300 people dependent on you staying in business.
BRYANA: (Laughing) Thanks for reminding me about that. It’s all about doing and not thinking for me. Are we spending our time on the right things and doing the things that help us and make us more competitive going forward? I think that going out into the community is important too. That’s something we
really encourage employees to do: go out and volunteer on local committees to promote that sense of community. To think of the weight of responsibility is a tough one sometimes.
NICHOLAS: It’s a unique environment in that you can run into the president of the company at the grocery store or at the breakfast program at the school or at soccer practise. It feels more like we are working with them rather than being responsible or them. And also because both of us worked with a lot of them on the line.
BRYANA: It’s a really competitive market we are working in so we really have to be smart. We don’t have a lot of resources so we tend to encourage people to get out and volunteer their time, and we do the same thing. Donate product for local fundraisers, not necessarily having big resources to make huge donations,
but doing our part in the community wherever we can.
THE MARITIME EDIT: What’s next?
BRYANA: Focusing on innovation is essential, and we have a long history of firsts over the company’s history but not so many recently. We have evolved some packaging formats, but how do we evolve the products? The jellybean pans — what else can we do with them? There’s an innovation meeting taking
place in the boardroom next door right now. Ask ourselves what we are seeing at industry shows — the better-for-you, the clean ingredients, the snacking formats — and what we are doing in those segments. What could we be doing today and tomorrow over the longer haul to make sure we are evolving the portfolio of products because assorted boxed chocolates is not a growing segment of the market? It’s a very traditional product that probably younger generations aren’t as interested in. I am not sure that my children are going to buy assorted boxed chocolates. They are most likely to buy something they can pick up and snack on. What can we do to ensure we have the technology to add new options to our portfolio that better appeal to new customers while ensuring we have traditional favourites that Canadians have enjoyed for generations? While continuing to have enough employees to grow and utilizing
those employees in a really valuable way in the facility? To adapt and modernize? We are pretty transparent.
This story originally appeared in [EDIT] magazine. To subscribe, please click here.