Two executives walked into a chicken convention . . .
It’s not the setup to a joke but rather the foundation of an incredibly fruitful partnership. A few years ago, Michael Burrows, CEO of Maple Lodge Farms, a Brampton, Ont.-based processor of poultry products, met a contemporary from a similar company—not a direct competitor—at an industry conference. The pair got to talking and came to suspect they had a lot to learn from one another.
Soon after, Burrows invited a delegation from the European outfit to come to Maple Lodge headquarters for a three-day confab. The agenda: to discuss approaches to production output, metrics measurement, strategic planning and every other aspect of their respective businesses. The mandate: to be totally open with one another and share in the spirit of mutual improvement. The effort was so enlightening that, months later, a group of Maple Lodge reps flew across the Atlantic for a similar set of meetings with the European firm’s leadership team. “It’s a relationship built on total transparency,” says Burrows. “We help each other be the best we can be. The journey of shared learning has continued to this day.”
When Burrows told Peter Brown about the transcontinental mind-meld, Brown was impressed. “How many companies would be prepared to fully open themselves to be able to learn to get better?” reflects Brown, a partner at Deloitte Private and co-lead of the Canada’s Best Managed Companies program, of which Maple Lodge is a nine-time honouree. “There’s a natural fear a lot of companies have to do something like that because, first, doing so would cause them a lot of work and thinking; and second, they fear they’d come up short.” The arrangement, Brown reasons, shows a “tremendous amount of courage.”
The constant itch to do better, to be better, is a common trait among the 477 businesses—47 of them new winners—that earned the Canada’s Best Managed Companies title for 2019. In fact, this drive led to the smart strategic planning, excellent operations, engaged corporate cultures and robust financial performance required to earn the designation in the first place. “What amazes me about Best Managed Companies is that they are never, ever willing to be complacent,” says Lorrie King, a Deloitte Private partner who co-leads the program with Brown. “They never sit back. They’re always looking for ways to be even better.”
What exactly does “even better” look like? While no two businesses are exactly alike—and, indeed, Canada’s Best Managed Companies winners vary drastically by industry, size, location and age—a few common behaviours stand out:
They ask for advice
Among Best Managed winners, Maple Lodge is no outlier—this year’s cohort includes businesses with not only a pronounced openness to outside feedback, but codified processes for seeking it out. That can take the form of scheduled exchanges with other leading businesses, work with paid professional consultants and, increasingly, external advisory boards. These boards are small groups of trusted individuals with no personal or professional stake in the business who are brought on to issue unbiased, honest, constructive assessments to the C-suite. According to King, more and more Best Managed businesses—new and incumbent—are using advisory boards for help with everything from high-level strategy to granular, day-to-day glitches. And that’s a good thing, in her view: “It shows they’re not being insular, that they’re trying to get relevant external advice.”
They look to the world
The 2019 Best Managed winners search beyond their own backyards. In fact, you’ll find very few businesses whose market is exclusively local. While having global presence is not a requirement to be a winner, businesses that operate with a national or international scope tend to stand out, says Brown. Being exposed to different types and tiers of competitors can’t help but up a company’s game, he says: “I think it creates a virtuous circle that helps you get better and more focused—by definition, to compete.” That’s something even the most exemplary regional player will have a hard time replicating.
They revel in risk
Nearly every winner is well acquainted with risk-taking; there are stories—many of them recounted in the pages that follow—about investing in emerging technologies, entering new markets, embracing bold new systems (of management and otherwise) and, essentially, saying “no” to the status quo.
And they’re winning. Take Canada Drives, which has upended the way thousands of consumers buy cars in Canada—and, now, beyond. Or Gusto 54, a rare women-led company in the ruthlessly competitive, male-dominated restaurant business, which has succeeded with a bold approach to development. Or Index Exchange, which is very rapidly claiming territory in the constantly evolving, explosively expanding world of digital advertising with its cutting-edge technology. “This year’s winners are making bets around innovation and taking risks that their competitors are not, and we’re seeing them do it in a thoughtful and strategic way,” explains King. “They’re not just surviving amid disruption. They are thriving.”