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Company founders Will and Grace Thomas

Thomas Canning (Maidstone) Ltd.

Every business faces obstacles, but there are some that only family businesses can appreciate. In this new series 50 years, we scour the country in search of family businesses that have stood the test of time and ask them to share the keys to their success.

During the Great Depression, Will and Grace Thomas, like many others, were struggling to provide for their family. So they and their two boys started growing, picking and processing tomatoes on their Windsor-area farm that they sold in Toronto, along with tomatoes grown by other local farmers.

As economic times and employment opportunities improved, many other growers moved to the city and pursued other jobs. But the Thomases stayed the course and today Thomas Canning (Maidstone) Ltd. is still operating on the family farm in Maidstone, Ont., run by the third generation, Bill and Robert Thomas, with plans to expand the operation with a new state-of-the-art production plant.

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The area, with a climate moderated by the Great Lakes, a long growing season and humid summers, is ideal for tomato production. Thomas products include its Utopia canned tomatoes, juices and cocktails, pastes and sauces.

"I grew up in the business and I remember when it was very manual. We planted, we picked, we peeled, we processed," recalls the company's CEO, Bill. "As a kid, I thought about being a fireman or cowboy, but I ended up doing what I already did." He studied physics and food science at the University of Guelph while his brother became an engineer before they returned to the family business to join their father Wilbur (who worked there until his death at 84) and uncle Grant.

Mechanical innovations driven by the demand for airplanes and vehicles for the war effort, as well as the burgeoning local automotive industry following World War II, created machines that eased some of the manual labour requirements and the introduction of fertilizers increased crop yields, Mr. Thomas recalls.

Thomas Canning doesn't grow its own tomatoes anymore, but buys from growers from several surrounding areas, to minimize the risk of a poor yield. "With diversity in soil and geography, maybe Grower A would be affected by heavy rains or drought, but not Grower B," explains Bill. "And different soil types handle certain conditions better than others."

Working with four family wasn't always easy, says Bill.

"My dad, uncle, brother and me would be in the same room and often have differences of opinion and argue," Bill says. "There are moments when you are working from ego and just want be the smart one in the room, but you have to let go of that."

If you can do that, it says a lot about your evolution, says Bill. "You have to look at the picture holistically and realize your commitment is to your employers and customers, it's not all about you. You have to get up in the morning and determine what it is you can do with others to make a success for other people."

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Bill says he and his brother have different roles in the company. He has the education in food science and does a lot of the business development, while his engineer brother is good at designing and building systems and looking for ways to create efficiencies.

Since they have been at the helm of Thomas Canning, the business has gone international, selling products in the United States, China and Nigeria. The Utopia products are also sold in major supermarkets and specialty grocery stores across Canada.

"We started selling outside of Canada five years ago and to China three years ago," says Bill. "Ontario and the federal government have a number of programs supportive of export and if you are really going to grow a Canadian business (like ours), you have to look at export opportunities and get connected with trade missions and embassies in order to help finance small businesses. You can't do that yourself."

Bill soon learned they'd have to adapt their products for different markets. For example, flavours such as basil, thyme and oregano are foreign in China where garlic, onion, ginger and mushroom are common, so the company had to change flavours for that market. As well, most Chinese don't have can openers, so cans have to be opened with pull-up tabs.

The company has also launched a line of Utopia organic tomato products. Even though the market is still relatively small in North America, a growing number of consumers are embracing the organic food movement. The U.S. is the largest organic market, with growing opportunities domestically, in China and Africa.

"We're competing against the world, as we're now a global community, not a community that has a captive audience," says Bill. "I felt we had to look for niche markets like organics and think globally."

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While many large companies have tried organics before, most have failed because it's difficult for them to produce small volumes as their factories are designed for large production, he says, while it's easier for smaller plants like theirs.

Taking the Thomas/Utopia products into global markets has been the biggest challenge in the company's history, says Bill, as it takes a time to forge those relationships and spending money before any sales are made.

With its new global customers, Thomas Canning is looking to expand and has a $3-million commitment from the Ontario government to help build a new state-of-the-art processing facility that will create 40 full-time jobs and help to support local farmers left without a livelihood after the Leamington Heinz factory closed. (Currently, Thomas Canning employs 20 to 25 people full-time and up to 60 seasonally).

"We can't do it overnight and we can't do it alone," says Bill. "We need government support, we need bank support, we need community support. When you combine the expertise from other industries, such as robotics and computerization and see how it could be applied to agriculture, it's pretty exciting."

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