100 and counting: An interview with Wallace & Carey CEO Pat Carey

The Calgary-based company celebrates a milestone birthday by giving back.
Michelle Warren smiles
Pat Carey
Pat Carey usually spends hundreds of days on the road each year, connecting in-person with this team. The pandemic changed how he communicates, but the connections remain.

In 1921, Bob Wallace incorporated a general store, laying the foundation for Wallace & Carey, a national leader in distribution and logistics. As the Calgary-based company marks an incredible 100 years, CEO Pat Carey reflects on the unique nature of family business, empowering teammates, navigating the pandemic, the future of convenience and why engaging in 100 Acts of Kindness is the perfect celebration for the times we’re in.

You’re the third generation Carey to lead the business. What does celebrating 100 mean to you, personally?

PC: There is a lot of nostalgia, especially when you start to look at how many family businesses actually make it. But I look at it as a testament to our team and the teammates that we've worked with over that period of time. Maybe the Carey family was in an ownership position, but the credit goes to the teammates over that 100 years. And we always say, our process isn't unique, it's how we execute that makes us unique. I look back at all the relationships we've built and the families we support and work with and I get more excited about that impact on the business itself. And, we've had a lot of fun along the way, and we've supported each other. So that's where we like to focus. I was always raised not to get caught up in the need to pass it to the next generation. You don't want to fall in love with business, you want to fall in love with the people you work with and that's what we've done.

As an outsider looking in, you can't help but be struck by the sense of community. How do you cultivate that sense of belonging and camaraderie?

PC: What Grandpa and Dad focused on, and I tried to uphold, is each branch is unique, but we're all part of one team. What we're going through now in COVID, yes, B.C. and Manitoba and Saskatchewan and Ontario are unique in their traits, geography and personality, but we are one Canada. What I was taught is to focus on the team over the individual branch. As my brothers and sisters and I used to say, we could have ‘Only as a team’ tattooed on our backside, because Dad said that at work, but he’d also use it at home. Different branches have different needs, but when you’re one team, you're sharing best practices, you're challenging each other, you’re trying to do better. We spent a lot of time on culture—we have a people services department, not an HR department, that focuses on people, rather than the process. And that says a lot.

What challenges has the pandemic brought to maintaining that sense of unity and to the business as a whole?

PC: It puts the responsibility on leaders within each branch and our managers within each department. I've not traveled at all since the pandemic, which pales in comparison to my usual hundreds of days a year on the road. It’s been great for my community and my family, but I've struggled with not being in the branches and with the team. That said, our people rose to the occasion and got us through with flying colours. Without senior management on the road, we've empowered teammates to look after each other and they’ve picked up the slack and then some.

Tell me about 100 Acts of Kindness.

PC: We've always liked to celebrate milestones as a team by getting partners and spouses and kids all together to enjoy those moments. COVID makes that difficult, but it’s also forced us to find different ways to give back to that community that's helped us for 100 years. The team came up with Acts of Kindness.

What have you done so far?

PC: We have a site with a thermometer that tracks how many acts have happened and we share photos. We did a cleanup day; we had donuts showing up on someone’s car with a thank you note. We did Pink Day, Humboldt Broncos Day and we packed lunches for the drivers servicing the frontlines. Carey the Beaver, our company mascot, had fun handing out chocolate bars to teammates. And then we had some people leaving sticky notes on the bathroom mirror that said: ‘Be you, everybody else is taken’ or ‘you're awesome.’ Things that pick people up. These are all things that teammates have created, and it’s been fun to watch. When one person does something, a person in another province sees it and gets in the spirit. What a competition to have—how to be more kind to our community.

It’s a great chapter in the Wallace and Carey legacy. From wars to depressions and recessions, your company has experienced a lot in 100 years. How did you draw on the past to navigate this pandemic?

PC: We learned to communicate quickly and empower our teammates. From March 15, 2020, our team met every single day for 236 days. Our president, Dan Elrod, and our management team were all pushing the same message: It’s not whether your decision-making is right or wrong, it’s that you’re aligned with the company values and if your moral compass is pointing in the right direction, we trust you to make the best decisions for our teammates and for our customers. We wanted teammates to feel confident in making quick decisions, because we needed to in those early moments. And, because our teammates have always felt empowered, it made our job that much easier.

How are you a different business now than you were pre-pandemic?

PC: We call it a pivot, but, when I think back to some of the stories Grandpa talked about, and Dad in the early years, really, we've been pivoting for 100 years. We started as one product and one retailer. Today, we're in multiple industries with multiple retail customers, as we continue to build our network and our supply chain across the country. Instead of being a convenience store solution, we're now in six or seven different industries providing that competitive advantage, which is our distribution capability.


Top to bottom: On the road in 1985; celebrating 75; Pat Carey and family; 100 Acts of Kindness in action with gifts for essential workers and a community clean-up; EA Ruth Keon embraces #CareyKindness on #TeammateTuesday; inside a distribution centre

What are you observing in convenience at the moment?

PC: Our industry needs to be very proud. The leaders within our industry do a great job educating and telling the market that we're in every community and the products that we bring to market have changed significantly. You used to go to a convenience store for the bare necessities: Now, there’s take-home grocery, foodservice, health and beauty… the list is endless. All our customers have access to multiple distributions per week to make sure that it's the freshest sandwich on the shelf—the convenience store is as fresh as any grocery store or bakery.

What will shape the business in the next 12 to 24 months?

PC: The need for strong partners at every point of the supply chain is more prevalent now than ever. Every time the manufacturer, the retailer and the distributor come together, we're more successful. The focus will be on maximizing the service to the retailer to bring more consumers into our channel, as we provide competitive goods. No industry can replicate the amount of retail points that we have across the country, but there are still multiple trucks going to a store, whether it's DSD [direct store delivery] or wholesale, and that’s not necessarily efficient. From an environmental perspective—taking vehicles off the road—and giving that retailer one point of contact for the same products, reducing touchpoints to the lowest denominator gives us an ability to control costs, while maximizing safety through the supply chain and bringing our consumer a better price, better quality and better selection.

Do you see a lot of consolidation on the horizon?

PC: Consolidation comes in many forms. Obviously, there's been significant mergers and acquisitions on the retail side, but there's still lots of opportunity for the independent retailer to serve their local community, as well as opportunities for the bigger retailers to support local manufacturers. Where the consolidation will happen is, how do we get that local beverage or the local snack from rural Canada to the consumer at retail? The local solution in Ontario, is different than the local solution in B.C. That's where you're going to have distribution and manufacturing and retail working together so we can satisfy Michelle's tastes where you are and Pat's tastes where I am.

What's the biggest challenge that lies ahead?

PC: Growing up in business, I was taught to be present with your teammates as much as possible. COVID has changed that. How do we engage with our teams and share and empower them to accomplish the vision we've set out? It won’t be face-to-face, that’s for sure. We're working very hard to find ways to empower our teammates to chase that vision. We've always said that if we have a clear goal post, our teammates will get us there quicker than anybody else.

 What is your leadership style?

PC: Leadership is a buzzword that everybody uses, but we all do it differently. You’ve got to be your own leader. You can't try to be someone else.  If you're not authentic, people see through that very quickly. I think honesty and transparency is the best way to be a leader.

What’s unique about leading a family business?

PC: We always tell our teammates that working in a family business is very different than a corporation. A family business can have its challenges, but the relationships we've built over those 100 years is what wins the day. Yes, we've got to make money and move forward, but we often make decisions for our teammates versus necessarily the bottom line. It’s funny, Dad didn’t make it easy for me to join the family business. He wanted me to be sure—he believed, and I do too, that it has to be the next generation’s decision whether to join, there can’t be any pressure. 

Why did you want in?

PC: I enjoy the industry and the people we touch. I remember Grandpa's stories about everything you buy having been on a truck. Maybe it’s not the sexiest business, but it's tried, tested and true. Ten years ago, we were a last mile distribution company. Today, we can say that we're a fully integrated supply chain solution. The transformation of the company, the challenges and how we compete with some of the big guys, that’s what gets me excited.


Originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Convenience Store News Canada

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