Cookies Without Borders

Voortman Cookies CEO Douglas MacFarlane discusses how thinking like a North American business—not just a Canadian one—signals success

Founded in 1948 by a Dutch immigrant, Ontario-based Voortman Cookies has weathered numerous economic downturns by holding fast to a pretty simple niche: making really good cookies for consumers all over North America. At the helm today is Douglas MacFarlane, the CEO who relishes the interchange of ideas with his executive team and whose most-repeated adage is that his best idea “is only half right.” Here, he speaks with Advantage about his thoughts on leadership, support, and being transnational.

Voortman serves consumers in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Would you share your approach to dealing with multiple markets?

Although Voortman is based in Ontario, we don’t consider ourselves a Canadian business. Rather, we’re a North American business. The United States and Canada: that’s our strategy.

One of the risks we face with multiple markets is overstating the distinction of a country as it relates to the consumer. For example, one perspective could be to say we specialize in serving the Canadian consumer, but that’s a flawed view of the marketplace.

Why is that view flawed?

Well, when discussing the United States and Canada, it’s easy to articulate meaningful cultural, political, and social distinctions. But when it comes to consumer and basic needs and wants around packaged goods, there’s as much distinction between Québec and British Columbia as between Ontario and Indiana.

There are enormous complexities between consumers within Canada and in the United States, which can be seen as you move through different regions. If the distinction is a political boundary, that’s flawed.

That’s what I would advise to executives: You need to understand the palate of consumers wherever they are. That’s your landscape.

Considering the complexities of Voortman’s consumer base, what is the company’s marketing strategy?

My marketing group is focused on servicing the consumer. There is no one Canadian consumer or American consumer. There are multiples—so we elect to view that geography as one landscape of consumers and pursue understanding distinctions across that geography.

Ultimately, we think of the product. It’s not defined by cultural, political, or social experiences—at the end of the day, it’s defined by the customer’s palate.

Did you know?

Voortman Cookies became the first Canadian food company to abolish trans fats in retail food products on April 5, 2004.

You’re clearly very passionate about your industry and how your work affects the market. How, then, would you describe your leadership strategy?

I focus on when to lead and when to support.

Every CEO leads two critical things: strategy and execution. Strategy sets the stage for everything we do—it informs all execution, empowers and focuses the organization, and allows us to make choices. Then you need to make sure the organization has sufficient resources to execute.

As CEO, how do you ensure that your organization has the sufficient resources to execute?

The executive team supports me in the determination of resource needs and allocation, but ultimately, the CEO owns that.

Once the strategy is set in terms of where we’re going to go, the execution is owned by the entire executive team—defining the specific initiatives we put in place to fulfill the strategy.

And that’s how it works in harmony—I support the team once we (as a team) have determined the specific initiatives. Ownership of execution is not an exclusive thing. I don’t own strategy and resources, but I lead it. I get the support of my executive team in making good choices.

You often say that your best idea “is only half right.” What do you mean by that?

I adopted that phrase about twenty years ago, and the more my career has progressed, the more that it resonates with me.

It’s common that as you advance through an organization you get a lot of affirmation, and one of the pitfalls of leadership is to believe that because you rise you are the smartest. The risk is to stop listening and start telling. Great leaders are leaders who go through osmosis in making good choices, who stay humble. When it comes to developing strategy, I lead that.

How does that play out in the office?

I propose ideas and a skeletal framework to provoke the group. Then I listen really hard, because somewhere in that room there is another idea that—along with mine—is a whole idea.

This goes back to making sure you have the right resources—you need to have the right people around you. I look for people who are very inclined to speak their mind, and similarly, I also look for people who are great listeners because that’s when you get great synergy.

My definition of high performance is that on any given day if you walk into the boardroom, it would take you a while to tell who the CEO is.

“There is no one Canadian consumer or American consumer. There are multiples—so we elect to view that geography as one landscape of consumers and pursue understanding distinctions across that geography.”

Given your high level of performance, what do you think the food and consumer packaged goods industries’ future will be?

It’s an exciting time in the food business. The consumer base is fragmenting dramatically. Relative to where the industry was fifteen, twenty years ago, there is a material proliferation of brands, whereas there used to be a proliferation of variety.

Many small- and mid-size companies are developing to service that fragmentation. You can see it in the grocery stores, particularly in the development of different channels of stores like Whole Foods.

The proliferation of brands is a reflection of a fragmentation of consumer needs, or an entrepreneurial effort to service more consumer needs. It takes great marketing to choose your spots because you can become intoxicated. You have to pick your spots.