It’s a rare privilege when you get to talk to someone who loves their work as much as Bill McEwan.
Two and a half weeks after unspecified health issues – described as grave, but not devastating – forced McEwan, 56, to walk away from his role as CEO of Sobeys, his emotional attachment to the Stellarton-based company is as strong as ever.
Speaking by phone from the farmhouse in Meaford, Ontario that is his new home, looking out at his “45-acre front lawn” (it’s been farmed by a guy named Dave Smith for the past 30 years), McEwan can’t help but use personal pronouns when talking about Sobeys. “We,” he says, referring to the national food retailer’s future. “Our,” he asserts, talking about market positioning.
“I miss it,” he confesses of his 12 years as Sobeys’ CEO, “even in the short time I’ve been away. I miss it terribly.”
“How could I not?” he asks emphatically. Again, more quietly this time: “How could I not?” < McEwan was first introduced to his dream job back in 2000 when David Sobey cold-called the then A&P executive to see if he was interested in the position. “Asking me if I’d like the job is like asking an astronaut if he’d like to go to the moon,” says McEwan of the singular confluence of challenge and opportunity that Sobeys offered. It was a pivotal time for the organization. Sobeys had just acquired the Oshawa Group, CEO Doug Stewart was about to retire, and the company was looking for a leader who could help them evolve from a strong regional entity into a competitive national player. McEwan – a career retailer with both frontline and corporate experience who had lived and worked in every region of the country – was thought to be ideal. If hindsight is 20/20, then McEwan was an almost clairvoyant choice. That’s how good he was – growing sales from $9.2 billion to $16.4 billion (that’s 5.5 per cent compounded annual growth) and increasing net earnings from $91 million to $301 million. Bill made it look easy. It wasn’t. Achieving those kinds of numbers while pulling together the disparate threads of a coast-to-coast company with 95,000 employees isn’t a part-time job. During the 144 months he carried the CEO weight on his shoulders, McEwan logged hundreds of thousands of miles criss-crossing the country. It was necessary, he says, because “we” needed strong management teams in each of the operating regions: West, Central, Quebec and Atlantic. “Management on the ground recognizes who their competitor is, what the customer is looking for, what the regional and local products are, how that needs to get priced based on various cost components – which are very different across the country. We had to have different approaches to management, by cultural and geographic necessity.” Differences aside, there was one thing that remained constant and united all Sobeys stores from Golden, B.C. to Mount Pearl, N.L.: strategy. And the strategy which McEwan had early convinced the Sobeys leadership team to adopt and support, a strategy that was doubted and disdained outside the company, was a strategy which was (and is) the diametric opposite of Sobeys’ domestic and Arkansas-based competitors. Instead of following the path of general merchandise, rather than mixing hammers and nails with tomato soup and crackers, Sobeys adopted the unorthodox practice of focusing on food. As time has shown, it worked. McEwan doesn’t foresee any significant changes in Sobey’s go-forward strategy – but that’s not because of any attempt on his part to influence how Marc Poulin should lead or what direction he should take. “Marc Poulin is a highly skilled, highly capable retailer,” says McEwan of his successor. “He’s a bright CEO who may want to modify the course because he’s in charge. I’m not going to get in the way of leadership leading, any more than I would have wanted anyone to get in the way of what I had to do.” Still, while he doesn’t have any overt advice for his successor, mischievous McEwan did – jokingly – leave two letters behind for Poulin. One of them is to be opened when the new CEO faces his first crisis. When he does, says McEwan, (spoiler alert!) he’ll find that the letter will read: “Blame everything on your predecessor.” The second letter? “If and when he gets into his second crisis, he’ll open it and it’ll say, ‘Sit down and write two letters.’”