Seven years after his retirement as CEO of Sobeys Inc., Bill McEwan reminisces about his cornucopian career and anticipates the horns of plenty yet to come
IT WAS 1973 and Bill McEwan was not quite 16 years old when the owner of Ferraro’s Super Valu, a family-held string of bodegas in his hometown of Trail, B.C., shoved a mop into his hand and told him to clean the men’s bathroom. He did and—although this was the first hour of his first job and he was dressed in a white shirt, snappy slacks and shiny black shoes—he loved it.
“The toilet always had to be as clean as the sales floor,” he recounts today from his condominium in downtown Toronto. “That was always the lesson for the new kid.”
Later, he learned how to pack groceries and stock shelves. He loved that too. It was, he says, “fascinating to see how all this stuff came together in different ways so regularly and so often. Ultimately, everything went out of the store in paper bags and into people’s cars. From the get-go, I got a real kick out of that. I still do.”
It’s safe to say that McEwan would rapturously narrate his latest adventures in the grocery trade had illness not forced him to retire, in 2012, as CEO of Stellarton, N.S.-based retail-food titan Sobeys Inc. Since then, the 2007 Atlantic Business Magazine Top 50 CEO Hall of Famer has led a life rather more sedate than the one that drove him to spend, by his account, as much as 80 per cent of his time away from home office, friends and family. The change of pace, after 12 years at the helm of Canada’s second-largest grocery chain (with annual revenues topping $24 billion, behind Loblaw Companies Limited’s $45 billion, in 2017), was necessary. Regrettable, yes, but necessary.
“That job took a toll,” says McEwan, who describes his condition as rare—though more inconvenient than debilitating. When I was in the business, I was a big believer in really being in the business. Most of my productive meetings were in cars, traveling between stores or in the stores themselves, walking past the displays, talking to employees and customers—getting to know how things really worked at the ground level. I just couldn’t keep it up. . .But, you know, I’m reasonably satisfied with the contribution I made at Sobeys.”
He should be. When brothers Donald and David were casting around, in 2000, for a CEO to run the food operation that bore their family name (vastly expanded in 1998 thanks to their stunning purchase of Ontario-based Oshawa Group, which instantly bloated annual revenues to $11 billion, from $3.5 billion), they chose McEwan, partly because his credentials were nearly matchless.
Since 1989, he had served as Coca Cola Canada’s marketing director of Home Market and Retail Marketing Services, before becoming the company’s vice president of Marketing Development. He then nabbed top jobs at the Canadian operations of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Company (A&P), eventually settling in as president and CEO of the U.S. Atlantic division.
More than a resumé fat with experience and promise, though, the Sobeys liked something else about McEwan. Call it a feeling, but this guy really seemed to love the grocery business. From the moment he grabbed the company’s reigns, he began to reinvent every aspect with cheerful, unbridled, almost childlike enthusiasm, integrating a vast and complex network of Canadian retail assets. In fiscal 2011, Sobeys Inc. posted net earnings of $370 million on revenues of nearly $16 billion.
Of course, McEwan can’t (and doesn’t) take sole credit for the growth. Still, he says, his happy instinct for hard work was actually born during his formative years at Ferraro’s.
“Jimmy Ferraro and his sisters owned the chain,” he says. “He taught me a lot, and not just how to properly clean a bathroom. He gave me the best practical education I could have possibly wanted. I’m convinced that I learned more during my 13 years there than I did in the combined 30 years that followed everywhere else. It may sound trite, but that’s when I fell in love with the business.”
True, he’s no longer the head honcho of a multinational food conglomerate, but he remains a voracious consumer of all news grocery-related (including that of Sobeys). And he’s the vice chairman of the supervisory board of Netherlands-based Ahold Delhaize, one of largest food retailers in the world (with 6,769 stores and 372,000 employees). There, he also functions as chair of the Remuneration Committee and as a member of the Sustainability and Innovation Committee.
What’s more, he and his wife, Donna—who was instrumental in helping him realize he needed to slow down a bit—have established the McEwan Family Foundation, a privately-endowed organization whose mandate is to “improve lives by helping hope happen”. Practically, this means helping small causes on a “community-by-community basis.” Says McEwan: “It’s worked out very well. We want this to survive for generations to come.”
Now, it is 2019 and the former Canadian retail-food superstar is no longer a 16 year-old mop boy. But, deep down, he’s still that passionate kid, never ashamed to admit how much he relishes a good lesson, a fine challenge and a fresh opportunity along the twisting road to some kind of bountiful.