Leading into the Sunset


Compass Group Canada’s long-time leader talks recessions, revenues and retirement

For almost 15 years, Jack MacDonald has been at the helm of Canada’s industrial foodservice giant, Compass Group Canada. He feeds students, hospital and long-term care patients, workers on some of the country’s most remote job sites, inmates and fine-dining foodies at Toronto’s C5, and he hasn’t just gotten by. When he signed on the dotted line in 1996, the company had annual sales of $67 million — 10 years later, that’s up over $1.1 billion. Now, as the consummate leader contemplates his retirement, we catch up with Jack MacDonald to talk leadership.

F&H: Given the size of your company and the variety of services in many different markets, how do you provide leadership from the top, down through so many levels and business interests?
I’d like to think that if I leave a legacy here, it’s our company’s ability to attract and retain great leaders. Our business is broad, so we have to have great people heading each sector. So long as people know what’s expected of them, it’s not hard to work through the challenges. I also spent some 200 days in the field last year, so I’m very visible out there.

F&H: Did you make any changes to your leadership structure or strategy during the downturn?
We didn’t do anything drastic, and I’m happy to say we didn’t lay anyone off. Now, there were some job losses as sectors closed their foodservice operations, but there were no mass-layoffs to try and make-up our numbers on the backs of our people. We’re very proactive in terms of our costs, and we’re always into the books on our cost model.

F&H: In the midst of a global recession, how much of your decision making is reactive and how much of it is proactive?
Well, you’re always going to be somewhat reactive. If clients say they’re closing their operations, or tell you they’re slashing their foodservice budgets, you have to deal with it. However, we’ve built a business that’s almost recession-proof. When the job market is tough, people stay in school or go back to school, and we’re still in the hospital sector as well. The key is to not rely too heavily on any one sector.

F&H: HR policies need to demand best practices at all times. How does your company work towards creating and nurturing the internal leaders it needs to succeed?
Our number 1 asset is our people. We’re not a company that’s investing a lot of capital in bricks and mortar, so we put a top priority on sourcing, hiring, training and retaining talent. We have a president’s council, which is made up of people we consider to be the Top 40 in the company, and those individuals have the opportunity to receive more training and attend seminars and meetings. You have to earn your way back onto the council every year, and I’m happy to say about 60 per cent of those who’ve entered the council have been promoted.  

F&H: Compass is spread out over a huge area, with contracts in some remote parts of the country. How do you effectively manage all of those far-flung components?
We empower our people to make decisions, but we also make sure we have all the resources available to them that they need. That includes having the right local people in place to help. We maintain more regional offices across the country than most of our competitors, because someone having an issue in the West might not always want to call Toronto for an answer. I’ve also spent the past 35 years travelling around the world learning best practices. We bring those ideas back to Canada, and we execute them better than when we found them.

F&H: You’ve recently announced that you are retiring in October. How does succession planning play a role in a successful leader’s overall plan?
Succession planning is extremely important. Moving forward, our company needs someone who will bring different ideas and skills to the job. I’ve been in the position since 1996, and I have a certain style, but the worst thing to do would be to assume what was good today or yesterday will be good tomorrow. I think we’ve found the right person who has the ability to address areas in the business that were not my strength.

Illustrated by Jason Edmiston

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