Now more than ever, running a business is difficult.
With rising prices along every value chain in every industry, difficulties in sourcing raw materials and issues with freight and foreign exchange, businesses face more challenges than ever before.
Added to that, the world is entering its third year of the covid19 pandemic; a perfect storm that could stop a business in its tracks and leave consumers without vital products and services.
Businesses have to be flexible and innovative, and make tough decisions to ensure they stay afloat, as well as provide the best service and products for consumers.
One company that has been able to successfully navigate through these past two years is Vemco, which was named the manufacturer of the year 2021 by the Supermarket Association of Trinidad and Tobago (SATT). It's the second time it was honoured by the association which named the company the Premier Supplier in 2020.
Vemco has not only been able to maintain production and continue supporting its staff, but it has also been able to grow, increasing international exports and developing new product lines made in TT for TT.
Vemco CEO Christopher Alcazar told Business Day the key to its success could be summed up in one word – people. He said its innovations, resilience and growth was because of the dedication and hard work of the company’s 700 employees. He told Business Day for any business to succeed it has to focus on people.
People, people, people
“The most important part of our business is people,” Alcazar told Business Day. “Our people, and our culture of building and supporting our people, has been a huge focus for us over the past couple years, and that is what has gotten us through the last two unprecedented years. They are the ones coming up with innovations and ideas. They are the ones that are finding processes that would allow us to cut costs. They are the ones that are finding new suppliers and new ingredients. They are the ones that are helping this business be innovative.”
Alcazar said for 2021, Vemco met new challenges that prompted it to change how it did business in many different areas. It meant that each employee had to play their part and play it well. As a company with family at its core, it doubled down on efforts to protect staff, creating a safe working environment and helping them achieve their goals in the workplace and in life.
“We are trying to create a culture where people can be themselves, where people can share and voice their concerns, where people can give constructive criticisms, and we look at how we do things.”
“To me, they have to win – whether it is that they are able to achieve their financial objectives, whether they are able to move forward in terms of development and what they are doing with their lives, support their children, take care of their parents, whatever it may be. I can’t succeed without them being successful,” he said.
As a result, staff members have extended that culture of each one being their brother’s keeper, not just through their work ethic but in extending a helping hand especially during trying times.
Alcazar said in October 2018 when residents of Greenvale, La Horquetta experienced flooding the likes of which TT had never seen, it was that culture of focusing on people that prompted staff members to spring into action, putting together care packages for those affected in the flooding. He said it was because each member of staff played their role it was able to react so quickly.
Staff also sprang into action when KFC had to close its doors during the lockdowns.
“Our company’s staff got together and made a personal drive to raise funds to be able to get hampers to donate to Prestige Holdings people that we knew were hurting,” he said.
Essential workers, providing essential products
Alcazar said early on in the pandemic, Vemco knew it had a responsibility to continue providing essential products to the people of TT. Vemco, distributors of brands such as Blue Band butter and Kerrygold; and manufacturer of Swiss products, including peanut butter and ketchup, knew it was providing an essential service.
“We realised that we were essential to the market and the population keeping a level head,” he said. “We provide critical items that people need every day. If shelves went empty it would cause a major panic.”
In a Business Day interview, a year ago, Alcazar explained how Vemco, as part of the Agostini’s group of companies, and as partners to international companies like Pepsi and Kerrygold, was able to maintain production and persevere during the economic lull of 2020. Alcazar said then the advantage was that the global connections made it possible to monitor the impacts of the virus.
But as the world continued to struggle with the fallout, Vemco again had to depend on its people to keep products on the shelves in the last year.
“When we make something in our plant, I may need 100 ingredients to go into it. I cannot make that product without everything, even if it’s a pinch of a spice,” he said the company's El Socorro offices.
“From a supply chain aspect given what was going on globally what our production team was able to do from procurement and all the way through the process was nothing short of a miracle in terms of keeping that supply going.”
Through its supply chain and procurement teams, Vemco was able to seek out new suppliers, and increase its buffers for stock despite the volatile supply chain.
It had to make these adjustments three times last year, something Alcazar said is normally done annually.
“That is not something that you can do arbitrarily,” he said. “You can’t just wake up and say great, we need more stock. We had massive capital constraints and cash flow constraints that made it a challenge to manage these things.”
“What helped us was driving our exports and building our export markets. We got Cuba on board for 2020, we did some sales for Venezuela in 2021, and business in Panama was building up for us. We had some of that extra regional success that helped us earn foreign exchange to pay our bills.”
Alcazar also struck a deal with suppliers and manufacturers to make use of containers coming in with products for distribution in TT for Vemco’s exports, which allowed it to continue importing and exporting goods in a timely manner.
He added that facilities provided by Eximbank – one which supplied Vemco with foreign exchange for packaging material and another which provided funding to buy more stock and avoid shortages – also enabled them to supply essential products.
“Without those two facilities we would have not had the same success. We would have had more shortages in the market.”
Alcazar said other innovations and ideas such as the launch of its powdered milk, Super Cow, last year also worked toward reducing prices on the market at a time when the prices of food products were rising.
He added that continuing innovation in production and maintaining prices helped to maintain their commitment to a low price strategy, regardless of its impact on profits.
“We have been able to source powder on a cheaper basis as well as commit to that low price strategy. Now, Super Cow is at least 25 per cent cheaper than other powdered milk.”
“We have to be innovative and bring things at a balanced price. It is a great responsibility of all businesses to decide how much cost they can absorb, and how much costs they can carry on to the consumer. In a lot of cases, we have built a strong financially stable business that has a great business model that has empowered us to be able to be innovative, or take some of that burden.”
Keeping people together
Being people focused, Alcazar said the company also found a way to balance protecting its staff and respecting each staff member’s choices, especially when it came to vaccination. With more than 70 per cent of staff vaccinated, Alcazar said while the company continues to provide employees with information on the benefits of vaccination, it stood by those who did not want to get vaccinated.
“There was no silver bullet for the virus, including the vaccination. Even if we got to 100 per cent, we had to have all these (public health) measures in place, so that is what we are doing up to this day. We began to realise that a rift was forming between people who were vaccinated and those who were unvaccinated. We came to the decision that we had to keep our people together.”
Alcazar said the company was armed with a wealth of information and updates on covid19 and vaccines through its connections with major international companies like Pepsico Upfield, the manufacturers of Blue Band butter and other brands. He said the information was provided to all staff and he continues to speak to them himself about getting vaccinated.
“People would ask me certain questions and I would give them an opinion, and my interpretation of the information that I have gotten, and now and again they would bring up something that a news source reported, and I would tell them to check other news sites, and I would try to give them a balance of the information.”
“We started a pro vaccine campaign and entertaining questions. Those who wanted to speak to a doctor, we hired one and they talked to them one-on-one and in groups. People who didn’t want to go in a taxi to get vaccinated we hired shuttles to take them to vaccination sites, and so on. We really did a lot to help people to be able to access the vaccines. Then we took a solid stance that those who did not want to, we were not forcing them.”
Vemco still sought to protect unvaccinated workers by limiting those who had to go to external sites to vaccinated people. The company also provided free PCR tests for staff after they returned from their Christmas break.
“Part of that is so that we could all know our status. We are not picking up any positive cases thankfully, but it helps us feel that what we are doing, and the education that we are providing, is working. We tested 200 in the last two days and all the tests came back negative.”
SATT award a validation of staff’s efforts
Alcazar said the SATT award helps to validate the efforts that the staff put in over the past year and throughout the pandemic. He praised them for their commitment and dedication.
“We have spent a lot of time doing our very best to show our team that we care,” he said. “While we are a big business now, family is at our core and we treat our team members exactly the same as our family.”
"With all of the difficulties and challenges that we faced, to have our largest stakeholder in the trade recognise that we did it successfully is just a testament to that commitment and dedication, and the fact that everyone stepped up, brought their A-game and did what we needed to do."
Alcazar said the company will continue to make its people its highest priority to create an environment where everyone can thrive.
“The reason why I am on the frontlines with my team, day in and day out, is because my team is on the frontlines, day in and day out, and I feel I need to support them the same way they support me; and we talk about that a lot, about building a culture that creates mutually beneficial relationships.”