Sweeten your everyday!

Mentors in the Making

If you can laugh with the universe, you will get on well with Greg Palmer.

“I will never forget—and I think about this far too often—that I had my university graduation on June 1, and June 2 I was in the Costco parking lot pushing carts. I remember taking a Snapchat for my friends that said, ‘Greg Palmer, BSc., Cart Pusher,’” the Procurement Director—Root Vegetables, for Loblaw Companies Ltd shares as we laugh together. I hope he has this picture framed at his desk. It is the perfect summary of Greg: Take a leap of faith and find the fun when the drop is further than expected.

“Talk about the universe having a sense of humor and having to match it!” Greg agrees—a mantra for the industry at large. On a whim of a recommendation, Greg had given up a seven-year seniority as a cashier at another grocery company for the seasonal opportunity at Costco. While he found himself immediately back at entry level, it turns out he was exactly where he was supposed to be.

Not only did Costco offer Greg a versatile management training program with the opportunity to experience every department, it ultimately placed him on the produce path. Now, nearly seven years later, I met Greg when he won the Canadian Produce Marketing Association’s Young Professional Award in early 2023. How could I not ask him to join our hall of Mentors in the Making?

“Being so fortunate and having so many mentors, I want to grow by helping other people grow. I think we all look better when we all do better. I sought very good mentors who care, and I showed them that I care,” Greg says of how he won the title.

It’s a rule he was introduced to early in his career at Costco, when his first coach, Stephane Desrochers, helped Greg through his first buying gig from the ground up.

“Knowing you’re only as good as your word; to go as far as you want so long as you don’t step on other people to get there; and to have fun no matter what, that’s Steph’s voice I’m hearing. I learned to have a blast every day while getting a hectic workday done, and it has led me to so many great people,” Greg says.

“Being so fortunate and having so many mentors, I want to grow by helping other people grow. I think we all look better when we all do better. I sought very good mentors who care, and I showed them that I care.”

Greg Palmer, Procurement Director–Root Vegetables, Loblaw Companies Ltd

One of those unequivocal meet-cutes is Oleen Smethurst, Vice President for Loblaw International, whom Greg has continued to work for and learn from across multiple roles.

“I truly admire Oleen, who invites me into greater industry conversations and introduces me to lots of industry executives. She is the epitome of a teacher and coach, giving regular and consistent feedback. There is no ego tied up; instead, she sets me up to meet with suppliers and executives, to learn in situations I may not even see a connection to begin with,” Greg explains. “I am so blessed to have such a consonant retail professional who tells things as it is and really wants us to grow through open and honest conversation.”

Greg’s point reminds me of advice from Researcher and Consultant Brené Brown: Clarity is kindness—especially true in a business as temporally demanding as fresh produce.

“Oleen also creates opportunities for me to get into meetings I often feel I’m underqualified for,” Greg laughs. “I am frequently unsure and she not only encourages and brings me in, but she’s also letting me ask questions and open a dialogue some leaders might think their junior has no place doing.”

This, in turn, raises Greg’s confidence, his awareness, and, ultimately, his level in navigating the categories he buys for. It’s a talent mirrored on the supply-side by another mentor, Hugh Bowman, Chief Executive Officer of Global Citrus Group.

“Hugh and I have worked closely since I joined produce. He is always there for me, taking the time to explain complex situations and coach me through tough situations. Oleen said, ‘If you have questions, Hugh’s a great person to talk to,’ and he became a sounding board really quickly. He gave me so much industry knowledge across so many categories,” Greg shares. “Hugh runs his company and also assists with so many other projects but will sit on the phone with me for 45 minutes. All I have to do is tell Hugh I have questions, and he will take the time and go through it with me from start to finish.”

“I am frequently unsure and she not only encourages and brings me in, but she’s also letting me ask questions and open a dialogue some leaders might think their junior has no place doing.”

Yet, as Greg and I both observe, Hugh is often zipping from one continent to another putting the “global” in the company’s brand. The solution? Greg has found wisdom by popping his head over the cubicle wall to connect with Patrick Gauthier, Discount Produce, Category Director at Loblaw Companies.

“Patrick is a peer mentor, which I think is really important for us as an industry to talk more about,” Greg points out. “The running joke for this article has been, ‘Greg, I have to write something nice about you that’s going to be there forever? Come on.’”

In addition to a parallel sense of humor, Patrick and Greg have always had parallel titles. Now, they have the added benefit of different departments, with the former now in merchandising and the latter in procurement.

“It’s a really great feeling. I have a sounding board for everything that happens in my day-to-day, and so does he—I can be up against a nerve-wracking presentation, and Pat can give open and honest feedback really quickly. From a heavy project to the need to vent and ensure you don’t bring work stress home, it is so important to have that peer support and mentorship,” Greg emphasizes. “Everything he learns and encounters he wants to share with me, and vice versa. It makes us both better at the end of the day because we’re much stronger together.”

Passion, strength, and a willingness to question are the ingredients to Greg’s magic mentor recipe, whether it is the person next to you or an event speaker that strikes a chord.

“People are more apt to give you the time of day when you show you care about the work you’re doing. Find people who get you excited when they talk about the industry. If you both see the world in similar ways, that’s great, but on the opposite side of the spectrum is finding somebody who challenges you. Who forces you to see things from a completely different angle. By doing that, you’re going to make sure that you’re well-rounded and you don’t get hit from left field. The common thing I have found is that feeling of excitement—if they make you care, follow up with them. Pursue the relationship. It’s worth it,” Greg promises.

As we complete another year, it’s the perfect time to set resolutions and commit to cultivating those connections. For my part, I am grateful to count Greg as a new mentor in the making.The Snack Endstop

The Mentors

Here is what they have to say about Greg...

Oleen Smethurst,

Vice President, Loblaw International, Loblaw Companies Ltd

"Working with Greg has been an absolute pleasure. He has such a great personality and willingness to learn! Greg goes above and beyond to make sure his immediate team is trained and given every opportunity to succeed, has a very good rapport with his vendor community, and creates relationships based on transparency and respect while being ‘tough but fair.’ Greg is always seeking to learn more about the industry and categories outside his current portfolio—he wants to gain as much industry knowledge as possible. He has great drive as well as a great sense of humor, which is an asset in our world of produce!"

Hugh Bowman,

Chief Executive Officer, Global Citrus Group Inc.

"It’s been a pleasure working with Greg and watching him further develop both personally and professionally. What struck me as unique the first time I met him—outside his great sense of humor—was the number of questions and comments he presented on both the category and individual products he was buying. I had the opportunity to travel with him as part of a vendor group to analyze seed trials, varieties, greenhouses, and farms from around the world. During these travels, his education on corresponding categories continued to grow. I watched as seed companies engaged him on feedback with pre-commercial varieties looking for retail perspective; this not only included flavor and eating quality, but if the variety could be grown and managed by the farm, the required seasonal time for the grower to learn the life cycle and intricacies of the item, and if the yield would make sense financially for both the farm and retailer. This learning and analysis has helped Greg develop his categories to their full potential while balancing the supply-side and changing retail landscape.

Greg’s integrity, honest feedback, transparency, and communication have pushed suppliers to be better at what they do. His food safety and packaging background combined with his continued farm knowledge makes him the best in class. As he continues his career, I am looking forward to watching his further development and where he will take his retail categories."

Patrick Gauthier,

Discount Produce, Category Director, Loblaw Companies Ltd

"Greg and I hit it off right away—we have similar ways of doing things, but with different skill sets that complement each other. He took the department by storm when he joined our team and it was refreshing to see him come in. One of Greg’s best skills is getting the best out of people—he has definitely done that for me, and I’m better for knowing him. We are on two different sides of the business now, which, if anything, is better at bringing new perspectives and helping us to further map different sides of this journey. We are great at sharing information between the two, bouncing ideas off each other, and consistently having someone to bring a fresh perspective. It is easy to look up when it comes to advice and mentorship, especially when trying to get to where they are, but there is so much value found in the person next to you."