“With the economy in the U. S. coming off, we don’t see that as necessarily a disadvantage for us. That’s because people tend to eat more at home when the economy is bad.”
– LARRY MCINTOSH, CEO, PEAK OF THE MARKET
When Larry McIntosh joined Peak of the Market as its general manager 15 years ago this month, he’d just turned down another job offer – with a tobacco company.
“I couldn’t have had the same passion for that kind of business,” he said in a recent interview at the company’s office in Winnipeg’s St. James Industrial Park.
Then he adds: “Vegetables are good for you. And it’s homegrown.”
Now as CEO and president of Manitoba’s vegetable-marketing board, he has been saying so ever since, with a pitch that’s earned the company far more than a popular media image of a guy promoting its product using a carrot for a microphone.
Peak of the Market’s annual sales have vaulted from $22 million just a few years ago to around $60 million in the last two. The firm has gained huge brand recognition and market share, today selling vegetables from B. C. to Quebec in Canada, as well as to substantial export markets throughout the U. S. and offshore.
Despite increasing transport costs and a high dollar hampering other types of exports, Peak achieved its highest-ever sales and shipping volumes only recently. In the last two years, shipping volumes jumped by over 90 per cent. Sales have grown by over 80 per cent. Last year the firm sold more pounds of vegetables than at any other time during its 66-year history.
“We’ve found some markets that give (growers) a reasonable return most years and they’ve grown a little bit more,” he said. “It’s not like we tripled overnight or anything. That didn’t happen. It’s been a steady going up every year as we’ve found markets that make sense.”
Peak’s achievements haven’t gone unnoticed.
Peak of the Market has been awarded national distinction three years in a row by the National Post as one of Canada’s 50 best-managed companies. In 2007 Peak won the first Canada Brand Award presented by Agriculture Canada in Montreal during an inaugural Canadian Agri-Food Export Gala.
Last November, McIntosh accepted another prestigious award on behalf of his company – a Canadian Agri-Food Award of Excellence as one of Canada’s top agri-food exporters.
The federal government annually presents six awards to individuals, companies and organizations for various outstanding achievements in the ag sector. Peak’s prize was for being one of Canada’s fastest-growing produce exporters, as well as for exceptional service domestically and internationally, to both ordinary consumers and business clients.
“A real honour,” said McIntosh, adding: “These awards really say a lot to my co-workers, and our growers, as to what we’ve done over the years.”
Peak’s 40 farmers, with some 11,000 acres (including potato acreage) in vegetable production produce over 120 types of vegetables, from root crops such as carrots and potatoes to summer crops such as kale and asparagus.
Familiar as Peak’s brand is, many Manitobans may not realize this is a company now pushing 70 years old (it turns 67 this month.)
Back in 1942, market gardeners, who were then producing and selling vegetables as independent growers for a Winnipeg market, felt they could boost both product quality and production capacity with orderly marketing.
“At the time growers were going to the lowest price and cutting quality in order to be competitive,” says McIntosh. “A few growers got together and said, ‘Instead of fighting each other and lowering the quality, let’s work together.’”
The result was a grower-owned supply and marketing company that’s served Manitoba vegetable growers ever since. It was known as the Manitoba Vegetable Commission for a time.
Vegetable-marketing boards are found elsewhere in Canada, but none handle the diversity of commodities that Peak does. Nor do they do the kind of intensive marketing. Peak is unique in North America for advertising fresh vegetables.
That’s positioned the company very well for the “buy local” movement,
McIntosh noted. “We’ve been talking about that in our advertising and everything we do for at least the last 12 years,” he said.
However, the “buy local” trend didn’t significantly boost sales, he adds. “It’s difficult to have a significant increase when we already have a high market share (in Manitoba).”
Peak also affixes “Proudly Canadian” to its product, distinguishing it from imports elsewhere in the country.
Peak of the Market has expanded into the organic market in the past five years, now selling cooking onions and three kinds of potatoes under the label “Truly Organic.” Sales in that category have risen 20 per cent every year as growers convert more land for organic production, McIntosh notes. The bulk of Peak’s organic sales are outside Manitoba.
Yet for all its successes in export markets, home turf remains extremely important, says McIntosh. Too many companies take their market share at home for granted – but Peak doesn’t, he stresses. “We don’t want to do that. There’s been times when our market in Manitoba pays less than, say, Los Angeles, but we’ve always supplied Manitoba first. We don’t ever want to lose focus on that.”
That’s what’s behind Peak’s substantial support to local food banks.
“All our community support we do here is really just to thank the community,” he adds.
To date, the company has donated over a million pounds of fresh vegetables to Winnipeg Harvest and continues ongoing food drives.
As 2009 and an economic slowdown begin, growers do worry that consumers, particularly Americans, will buy fewer vegetables. With a stable acreage base in Manitoba, a year of oversupply would put huge pressure on price.
But McIntosh said uncertain times can result in people buying more fresh vegetables, not less. “With the economy in the U. S. coming off, we don’t see that as necessarily a disadvantage for us,” he said. “That’s because people tend to eat more at home when the economy is bad. They tend to go back to the basics, which are carrots, potatoes, onions.”
For that and other reasons, he’s optimistic as the new year begins. “We’ve got a good crop in storage. There’s high demand for the product. The pricing is not too bad. I think it’s going to be a very positive year for the growers.”