Never Leave Well Enough Alone

VP of HR Linda Barlow doesn’t settle for what works at Flanagan Foodservice, she looks for what works better

Most of us can count on our parents to offer guidance on how to approach everything from our careers to our relationships. Taking that advice to heart though is another thing altogether. Linda Barlow, the vice president of human resources for Flanagan Foodservice, disagrees with one of her father’s favourite sayings.

“An old saying my father always uses is, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ Barlow says. “My philosophy is ‘No one gets it right the first time. But together, through our collective experiences, we can come up with better and more efficient ways of doing things.”

Barlow entered HR because she always wanted to make an impact on people’s professional lives

Barlow has a background in the high-tech industry and one thing she took away from that job was the habit of remaining aware of the newest trends. “I try to stay current on the latest and greatest tricks of the trade in terms of programs and practices that have proven successful to other organizations,” Barlow says. “Then I take some of those learnings and apply them within our culture and environment at Flanagan. There’s no such thing as a cookie-cutter approach.”

Barlow’s HR practices revolve around helping her employees cultivate a similar attitude. “We continue to challenge and empower our people to ask themselves why they are doing things the way they do and if there is a better way to do them,” Barlow says. “Then we encourage them to come forward with suggested solutions for how we can enhance efficiencies.”

In order to accomplish this, Flanagan has instituted a formalized program with a dedicated team to review suggestions and determine if they’re viable options for the company. “Annually, we select one employee whose suggestion has had the biggest positive impact financially or operationally on the organization and we reward them generously and make a big to-do publicly within the organization,” Barlow says. “I believe we have created a culture here that really discourages fear of failure.”

The next piece of Barlow’s strategic plan to keep Flanagn competitive is continuing to engage its employees. “We are Canada’s largest independent food service distributor, but very small in comparison to some of the giant gorillas out there,” Barlow says. “They have deeper pockets, they have bigger advertising budgets, and they have more purchasing power.” So Flanagan decided to optimize its biggest asset: its employees.

“Where we can compete is on service and that’s where we make a difference,” Barlow says. “Our tagline is ‘The difference you deserve,’ and we try to live that every day.”

According to Barlow, its customers notice and appreciate the difference. “We strive to provide a level of customer-service excellence that our long-time and new customers have come to appreciate and value,” Barlow says. “Some of our larger competitors, because of their structure and the way they operate, don’t have the flexibility or the nimbleness to be able to service customers the same ways we can.”

One of Flanagan’s key advantages is giving its customers the option to place their orders in whatever method is most comfortable.

“They can place their food orders online, they can call in and talk to one of our awesome customer service people, or they can place their order face-to-face with their sales rep,” Barlow says. “We have a very diverse customer base in terms of how technologically savvy they are and we also have a lot of folks that are more old-school and like that face-to-face interaction.”

When it comes to achieving Flanagan’s goals, Barlow believes that the employees are the key ingredient. “Our goal is to maintain a solid and very loyal customer base and,” Barlow says, “equally important, a dedicated, highly engaged employee base.”

5 Questions with  Linda Barlow

What does innovation mean to your company?
It means always thinking beyond the box, as we like to say. So always looking for ways to improve processes and business practices, which will in turn improve how we do business with our customers and how easy we are to do business with.

How do you make sure you innovate on a day-to-day basis?
We continually invest in our people and support continuous learning for them. We also are regularly reviewing how we compensate, recognize, and reward people.

How has the notion of innovation changed over the past decade?
In the past, people associated innovation only with research-and-development-type environments. Today, innovation has really come to be recognized as something that involves organizational change. There are a lot of nontechnological innovations that have contributed.

How do you cultivate innovation within your workforce?
We’re constantly encouraging people to say what they think and explain why they think it might work. We give them a true audience to be able to share.

What do you think defines an innovative company in the 21st century?
Companies that look to their people for innovation are likely the ones that are most successful. It doesn’t matter what their role is in the company.