Company: Summer Fresh Salads Inc.
Founder and president: Susan Niczowski
What does it take to go from zero to about $100 million in annual sales? Roasted Garlic Hummus, Brown Rice Edamame and Peri Peri Red Pepper feta cheese spread – to name a few of the ready-to-go salads, dips and appetizers made by Summer Fresh. Ms. Niczowski's passion for the business and a non-stop, 16 hours a day, seven days a week work ethic didn't hurt.
"We laugh about those early crazy hours and crazy times," says the 48 year old, who founded the family run company with her mother 21 years ago. "But it was all fun. When you'd get up in the morning, it felt like playing."
Armed with a BSc in chemistry from the University of Toronto, some experience as a microbiologist for Maple Leaf Foods, and a $100,000 RBC loan that had to be co-signed by her mother after her father turned her down, Ms. Niczowski began with 20 recipes created in her parents' kitchen. From there, it's been a rewarding – if somewhat hectic – road.
"You just keep chipping away," says Ms. Niczowski, who was savvy enough back in 1991 to recognize a gap in the market for fresh gourmet salads in supermarkets. "I never thought about making that first million. I just wanted to create great products for the everyday average consumer that were available at retail level."
Now with about 300 employees and two food processing facilities in Woodbridge, Ont., totaling 143,000 square feet, the company grew 12 per cent last year and it expects double-digit growth again in 2012.
Q: Why salads?
A: I've always enjoyed cooking and creating with vegetables and fruit. My father tells a story about me picking green tomatoes from our garden when I was four years old and then barbecuing them. I always had some sort of concoction going on. I love creating and tasting food.
Through the years we've added on to those first recipes. We have a research and development team so we're always brainstorming and putting things together.
Q: Why did you need a co-signer to get initial financing?
A: I was young and naive. When the account manager at the bank asked how much collateral I had, I said: 'Collateral? I don't have any collateral.' Everything I'd made up to that time went to shoes, purses and jewellery. I went to my mum and dad thinking my parents would say 'no problem,' but my dad said 'no.'
He told me later it killed him to say no but he didn't want me to think everything was going to be handed to me on a silver spoon. He wanted me to look elsewhere and to teach me a lesson about saving for a rainy day. But I did get the loan because I was able to convince my mother of this great business venture and to co-sign for me. My parents have always been very supportive of my sister and me since we were born and backed us up in everything we did.
Q: What was the first roadblock when you started?
A: Finding great team members to add on as we grew. Making products and keeping up with volume would be another. You really want to develop a great infrastructure so that products are made today as they will be next week and as they were last week. Quality and consistency is extremely important to me. I believe that stems from the bottom right up to the top.
I tell my people, if you wake up and say, 'Aw, I've got to go to Summer Fresh,' then do me a favour and don't walk through those doors. I want people to be passionate about the job that they do because you can feel it in the end product – whether it's a sales call, a developer making a product or somebody on the packing line. Everything should be done with passion.
Q: What family members are involved in the business?
A: My sister is VP of operations. My mum is still very much involved in the processing area. My father is a mechanical engineer who's retired but still puts in his two cents in terms of the design and flow of the operation. I'm extremely close to my sister who lives seven doors away. We vacation together, work together, live and breathe Summer Fresh day in and day out.
Q: What issues do you have with family and staff? They can never be one of the family.
A: We're a family run business, but at the same time we've got a great infrastructure in place. I know that in a lot of other family businesses, it's the family who really calls the shots, but we all have our own job description here. The VP of sales and marketing makes her decisions and our CFO makes his decisions. The family will put a word in but we really have an open minded organization.
We've always been very up front with the employees and make sure that they're rewarded accordingly. We don't have staff profit sharing but if the company does well, then everybody shares in the goodness of how we do. If we don't do well, they don't get bonuses.
Q: Have there been bad years?
A: Some interesting years. Sometimes you're growing at an extremely fast pace, and you get called in to a meeting to be told that, effective in six months, you're not going to be doing business with them. It has nothing to do with your quality or service level or who you are as an organization. It's just a decision that was made and there's no going back. That stumbled us.
If you've got $1-million in sales and you lose 10 per cent of your sales in six months, you're shocked. So you've got to be extremely creative and make up those sales pretty fast. But by being strong and having great employees, we've been able to keep our growth levels at the levels that we've been achieving. I'm very proud of our team.
Q: Was that connected to the economic downturn in 2008/2009?
A: Not at all. Obviously retail and food service were hit hard with the economy, but we've been able to create products to suit particular retailers, food service customers and, at the end of the day the consumers, with a price point that works for them.
Q: What's your strategy?
A: We really monitor the marketplace in both Canada and the U.S. We saw that consumers started to watch their spending in the auto industry area – that would be Windsor, Detroit, moving on into London, Ont. So we saw that stream of what was going on probably about 18 to 24 months ahead of time. When you monitor sales through scan data, you know when something is happening so you're able to react pretty quickly and not get caught.
Q: Where are your markets?
A: Our strength is Canada. We're a Canadian organization. We've probably got about 80 per cent of our sales in Canada and 20 per cent in the U.S. There's a huge opportunity for us in the U.S. It would be nice to see our products across the world, but we're in fresh refrigerated food and our business model as it is now doesn't work for us to ship into Europe, Asia or other continents. So right now we're focused in on North America.
Q: How do you manage your time?
A: It's difficult. I have an eight-and-a-half-year-old daughter. My baby – my daughter – is first and foremost, but up until I had my daughter, Summer Fresh was my baby. So when I gave birth, I wondered, 'how am I going to watch my baby and take care of this business as well?' You learn to juggle and hire great people to help. You learn to pick your battles. You can't be everything to everybody.
I'm a very hands-on mother. I love to spend time with her and get involved her school and activities. Having her at 40 was great for me because with the infrastructure we have in place at Summer Fresh, I'm able to leave early or take that extra day's vacation. But I think I work harder now than I ever have. A typical day would be getting up at five in the morning, going for a run, coming back, taking a shower, making breakfast for my daughter and dropping her off at school. I'm usually in the office about nine.
Q: What's the biggest risk you've ever taken with the business?
A: Trust in people. You have handshake agreements with customers, taking them for face value, and sometimes that doesn't pan out. But nine times out of 10, people come through. I still trust people on a handshake, the old fashioned way of doing business.
Q: What makes you happy?
A: I love going into a retail store and seeing a wall of Summer Fresh products or going to a party or a barbecue and seeing people who don't know who I am digging into our products. It's amazing.
Q: What advice do you have for others in your industry?
A: It's extremely competitive. Competition is good but you need to know what you're getting yourself into. It's not a nine to five job. It's not about bring the company to $X-million and then selling it off. It's about a lifestyle that you have to decide on for yourself. When I'm on vacation, I'll go into restaurants and stores to see what products are out there, who's the competition. You've really got to know your stuff in terms of your market and whether you're making the next salad or dip that's out there. To create a company starting with zero sales and take it to the next level, you've got to be living and breathing it all the time. You have to be extremely passionate about it.
Q: Do you want to see the company stay in the family?
A: We're the No. 1 brand in Canada for ready prepared salads and dips, so we're very proud of it. Do we want to see it continue as the No. 1 brand? Absolutely. Are my daughter or nieces ready to take it over? They're too young so I really can't say. If they have the right mindset, the right brains for it – then with pleasure. We'll see.
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