When Great Culture Isn’t Good Enough

How Emma Horgan, the VP of HR, came from an ocean apart to join the industry-leading Maple Leaf Foods and build upon its legacy

Emma Horgan, Maple Leaf Foods
Emma Horgan, Maple Leaf Foods

New country? No problem. It takes a special kind of person who will uproot their life to immigrate to a country where they don’t know a soul—even moreso to a country where they had only visited once for a short business trip. In 2005, Emma Horgan did just this, leaving behind her home, family, and friends in the United Kingdom to tackle a new role in Toronto at Maple Leaf Foods, the company that acquired her previous employer.

Admittedly, it was a move the vice president of human resources characterizes as “exciting and terrifying,” but she says it came at a time in her life when she was ready for an adventure. It just so happened that the new HR role fit her career goals and aspirations. Maple Leaf is a major Canadian food processing company and one of Canada’s largest agribusinesses, owning poultry and hog farms across the country. When Horgan was inherited because of her company’s acquisition in 2001, Maple Leaf was in the midst of some major changes, and the role the she was moving into was evolving to include more responsibilities.

At nearly 90 years old, Maple Leaf has spent decades building public trust, making a name for itself, and creating brand recognition. According to Horgan, because of the beloved company’s long history, everything she and her team do must be rooted in maintaining the strength of the company’s reputation and brand. Direction comes from the top, she says, with a leadership team that truly values doing business the right way and creating value for customers and consumers.

From an HR perspective, it can be challenging to operate when you’re stepping into a  company culture that is already strong. What do you focus on? What do you shift? Where do you push? For Horgan, the Maple Leaf leadership values shape every aspect of the business, including HR and how it operates. The values are simple but important: do what’s right; deliver winning results; build collaborative teams; get things done in a fact-based, disciplined way; learn how to grow inwardly and outwardly; and dare to be transparent, passionate, and humble.

“These Values really do inform every aspect of the work that HR does. It’s our job to ensure that these values are imbedded in every decision we make.”

“These values really do inform every aspect of the work that HR does. Given that HR plays a big role in defining and upholding company culture, it’s our job to ensure that these values are imbedded in every decision we make,” Horgan says. “It’s also our job to educate employees on the values and Maple Leaf’s code of business conduct to make sure everyone operates within these guidelines. It’s a way of instilling these values into the company on a very core level.”

Businesses are hearing more and more about how the role of HR is moving away from what was once considered to be a purely administrative department that primarily handled payroll. Today, HR departments everywhere are pushing to be seen as strategic business partners. That’s not something Horgan has to concern herself with. Not because it’s not important to her, but because Maple Leaf’s HR department has had a seat at the leadership table for years. As a matter of fact, HR is represented on the leadership team at each and every one of the company’s manufacturing facilities. And the company’s CEO, Michael McCain is a visible champion of HR priorities, seeing culture as a competitive advantage.

“One of my biggest priorities is directly communicating key strategies and business initiatives, coming from the people element of the business,” Horgan says. “HR fulfills the business priorities outlined by the leadership team in its own unique way, which is putting the right people in the right roles.”

Horgan works closely with the leadership team in order to understand its people priorities. “Learning how to operate at the lowest cost while having the highest impact is challenging and it requires a lot of communication because that’s not a one-time conversation,” she says. “It’s a forever conversation.”

It continues to be an exciting time at Maple Leaf. Horgan says the focus is transitioning from a focus on network optimization to a period where the focus shifts to growth. “When you enter growth mode, some priorities have to shift,” Horgan says. “There are cultural considerations that require shifting your mindset because you have the need to focus on new talent initiatives. One of my goals is to advance our diversity and inclusion initiatives, which are tightly tied to our leadership values and to our growth agenda. Focusing on diversity and inclusion will take our culture to the next level and it has the the ability to powerfully change the company for the better.”