The Hub Doug Grant—Rethinking the way food gets from farm to plate

Doug Grant—Rethinking the way food gets from farm to plate

Doug Grant: Master of Business Administration, 2008
Based in: North Vancouver, B.C. 

In late fall 2018, the fortunes of romaine lettuce took a hit as an E.coli outbreak sickened dozens across North America. A safety warning was issued the following month, but it took several weeks more to identify the single farm in California that was likely responsible. In theory, consumers could have still been awash in Caesar salads—if only we’d known the provenance of the problem lettuce.  

Doug Grant is one of a group of industry leaders working on making that theory a reality.

“Because they didn’t have traceability,” says Grant, “they stopped all romaine production, no matter where it came from. The amount of romaine lettuce that was either left to the fields or destroyed in transit is just a staggering amount of money.”

Grant is speaking as a board member of the Centre for Produce Safety, and co-chair of the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), a position he took 10 years ago, around the time he obtained his MBA from Athabasca University (AU) in 2008.

“I’m an introvert. I like to do things myself. But I realized that I can add much more value by involving other people and helping them develop their abilities.”

– Doug Grant, MBA '08

The goal, he says, is for every crate of produce to bear a bar code that traces it to its farm of origin, and for every supplier and major retailer to trace that code through their systems. In the event of an outbreak, they can then respond with precision and speed, saving both lives and millions of dollars. Most major suppliers have signed on, and many other retailers, led by Walmart, are starting to follow suit.  

Grant knows the benefits of traceability from another perspective; he is executive vice president and COO of The Oppenheimer Group, a produce giant that brings 50 million cartons of fresh produce each year from farms to market. Oppenheimer—within the industry it’s simply called Oppy—is B.C.’s oldest company, a 160-year-old family business that first introduced Granny Smith apples and kiwi fruit to North America. Today it represents growers across North and South America as well as small farms in B.C. That means ever more complex operations systems.  

Grant entered the business 23 years ago, when technology played a less central role. An IT specialist who had worked with the B.C. Automobile Association, he was charged with managing Oppenheimer’s computer systems. His job has expanded to encompass Oppy’s entire operations management, including cold storage and freight (70 to 80 storage units across North America, and 300 to 400 trucks a day making deliveries), as well as quality control, food safety and sustainability—as he puts it, “everything it takes to move the product from their farms all the way through the supply chains to the retail distribution centre.” 

Grant credits his MBA with preparing him for this phase of his career. He enrolled at AU while he was still overseeing IT at Oppy. The distance education approach allowed him to continue in a demanding job while logging some 30 hours a week on his coursework. The 2 in-residence stints, in Calgary, Alta., and Guadalajara, were invaluable, he says, essentially teaching him how to do business in Mexico. He now manages some 200 growers in South America as well as local Oppy staff there.  

Grant says his work at AU also shaped his management style in overseeing a team of 150, in a company consistently recognized for good management and a healthy corporate culture. “I’m an introvert,” he admits. “I like to do things myself. But I realized that I can add much more value by involving other people and helping them develop their abilities.” He found the program so useful he recommended it to a promising associate, Steve Roosdahl.  

Roosdahl’s MBA thesis at AU, on using third-party services, became a blueprint for a new strategy at Oppy, Grant notes. It’s clear Grant takes his mentoring duties seriously.  

Grant has seen the business evolve, shaped by the disruptive forces impacting so many other industries, namely automation, trade challenges, climate change, and an increasingly integrated global footprint.  

Product traceability—an interest of Grant’s since his early days at Oppy—matters more than ever. So does the technology to achieve it; today there are experiments in using blockchain rather than traditional e-commerce to track products more easily. Grant notes that transparency on products in transit through the supply chain also means better planning and procurement. But ultimately, he says, it’s about inspiring confidence, and trust. “Expect the world from us,” goes Oppy’s tagline, and when it comes to the food on their plates, consumers do.  

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  • September 1, 2019