Seventy-five years and counting – since 1993 Cordon Bleu-Tomasso has served up high quality cuisine in the most convenient formats. Despite its success with canned and frozen food formats, the Canadian enterprise prefers to focus on where it’s headed instead of where it has been. Dan Harvey describes the corporate objectives that drive the ambitious company’s continued growth and expansion.
A testament to its longevity and productivity, Cordon Bleu-Tomasso celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2008. Survival and ongoing success is attributable to several significant factors. Foremost is the alchemy achieved in product development: The Quebec, Canada-based company places home-style cooking into canned and frozen formats. The magic is hallmarked by authenticity and quality.
Second, the company takes a realistic and practical attitude to its strong market position. While it has strived for and achieved leadership, it doesn’t allow itself the luxury of considering itself a leader, as nothing can be taken for granted. Leadership, the company believes, is not a clearly definable endpoint; rather, it’s an everelusive prize in a never-ending race, indicates Rene Ouimet, chairman and chief executive officer of the family operated Cordon Bleu-Tomasso. “That’s why we constantly apply pressure to ourselves to always grow and improve,” he says.
Third, the company understands that success revolves around building strong relationships with
partners, which entails a comprehensive understanding of customer needs in relation to ongoing market evolution. “Along with product development, we place customer relationships at the forefront,” indicates Ouimet. “Food companies come and go, and many have offered good products, but you won’t last for 75 years unless you combine the two. To that end, we constantly acquire the new capabilities necessary to maintaining a high industry position.”
Fourth is a strong sense of mission related to a well-developed strategic plan that integrates all the aforementioned factors. In the broadest sense, the company’s plan entails continued expansion through product innovation and pursuit of new partnerships. Specific objectives include growing the business through geographic expansion and niche product innovation, increasing commitment to the U.S. market with dedicated resources (people and facilities) and targeting acquisitions to extend geographic reach, access new customer channels and provide new production capabilities. Further, the strategic plan includes continual investment in Q&A and R&D capabilities to meet and exceed customer and consumer demands.
With these objectives always within sight, the company intends to meet its stated mission to be the leading North American supplier of niche quality innovative entrees and meal components with differentiated branded and private label offerings.
YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW
The company already has advanced these values and reaped the rewards. The privately held Cordon Bleu-Tomasso (a division of J. Rene Ouimet Holding Inc.) has 250 employees and boasts revenues of $117 million. Its branded and privately labeled products are sold in Canada and the United States.
The company’s roots date back to 1933, when J.-René Ouimet, a farmer’s son, borrowed $20,000 to create La Maison J.- René Ouimet Limited. “He established the business as a food distributor that covered Ontario and Quebec,” says Rene Ouimet, one of the next-generation principals that carry on a proud family tradition.
As such, the founder soon developed a strong distribution network and large clientele for prepared foods and European cheese. Also, during this early period, J.-René Ouimet Limited served as exclusive distributor for Cordon Bleu Limited, a company founded by two brothers who commercialized their beloved mother’s delicious meat pâtés. Eventually, in 1946, Ouimet gained control of Cordon Bleu, an acquisition that steered the company into the manufactured canned goods arena. Finally, in 1963, J.-René Ouimet Limited merged with Cordon Bleu Limited. J.-René Ouimet kept control of his company until 1963 when he turned over his company’s shares to his three children, J.-Robert, Suzanne and Francine.
In 1979, the company embarked into an era of growth and expansion when it acquired three brands: Paris Pâté, Esta, and Clark brands. In 1989, it acquired Tomasso, a company created in 1934 by Giovanina di Tomasso, who hailed from the famous Piazza Tomasso restaurant in Montreal. Tomasso specialized in frozen Italian meals. The acquisition propelled the company into the 1990s as well as into the frozen-tray food business. In 2000, in response to growing demand and increased business, the company moved operations to a new facility in Baie D’Urfé, Quebec.
Currently, 54 percent of the Cordon Bleu-Tomasso business is private label, while 46 percent is branded. Canned products represent 45 percent of the business, while frozen food represents 55 percent. “All canned and frozen food products are developed with our dedicated R&D team, which is well attuned to customer and consumer preferences,” says Ouimet. “We provide the highest quality standards and service levels at the right price.”
Currently, the company offers products under several brand names. Canned brands and products include Cordon Blue (meatballs, gravy, sauces); Clark (beans, stews, chilis); Paris Pate (sandwich and canapé spreads, flakes and cretons); Esta (barbecue, hot chicken, poutine and hamburger steak sauces), and Menu Sense (beef casserole with garden vegetables, meatballs, and chicken fricassee jardinière).
Frozen brands and products include Tomasso (meat lasagna, meat sauce, grilled vegetables lasagna, Valencia paella, poblano risotto with grilled chicken, Bolognese gnocchi); Buona Cucina (lasagna), and Gusto Italia (meat and vegetable lasagnas).
As part of its strategic plan to move ever forward, the company is developing innovations in branded and private label categories that address health and wellness as well as the increasing interest in ethnic food. “We’re now moving more into products that have Hispanic, Asian and Indian flavors to differentiate and add more value to existing products,” explains Ouimet. “In particular, we feel the Hispanic category is a major growth area, especially in the United States.”
Cordon Bleu-Tomasso produces its products in three manufacturing facilities, two located in Canada and one in the United States, in the Boston area. To demonstrate the value of R&D, Ouimet reports that about 17 percent of the company’s annual sales come from products generated in the past 12 to 18 months. Further, because of the company’s size, which is relatively small compared to competitors, the company can turn around and launch new products that meet customer demands much more rapidly.
CHALLENGED BY TRENDS
Of course some elements can’t be covered by a strategic plan, no matter how well it may be developed. These include contemporary and future trends and unforeseen challenges that can waylay the best-laid plans unless addressed through contingency actions. In recent years, the Cordon Bleu-Tomasso company purpose has been threatened by confounding factors such as the recent increase in raw materials. “That has had a significant impact on our business, as it relates to our ability to purchase such materials and, at the same time, maintain our pricing level,” explains Ouimet.
In addition, companies such as Cordon Bleu-Tomasso face the consolidation of a customer base that results from the acquisition and integration of major chains. “From our perspective, the only way to remain more competitive is to try and build more scale,” says Ouimet.
That means becoming bigger to provide a one-stop shop for its customers (which includes major chains such as Pathmark and Cosco), as well as to offer new formats and more product categories and to become more efficient. “Every year, we benchmark ourselves against the top-three food companies in the world, in terms of their margins,” says Ouimet. “Our management teams try and meet the adjusted targets through restructuring and reorganization and by eliminating the non-value activities that decrease efficiency. You can’t stay in business for 75 years without maintaining that kind of constant focus.”
The company also tries to meet the underdeveloped private label markets in both the United States and Canada. “That’s a growing market and it adds a lot of value for consumers,” comments Ouimet. “So we leverage our Canadian experience into the U.S. market. Currently, we are the largest private label manufacturer in Canada, and we’re exporting that expertise into the United States.”
But getting back to factors that a company can better control, Cordon Bleu-Tomasso adheres to the highest levels of quality thanks, in very large part, to its involvement in the HACCP program.
The program – its name is an acronym for Hazard, Analysis, Critical, Control, Point – places great emphasis on the control of each crucial step for production of healthy food. Essentially, it helps prevent problems before they reveal themselves in any finished product. Quality standards established by the program enable the company to export products to the United States, Mexico and Australia.
Further, the HACCP certification underscores the company’s commitment to community responsibility. In partnership with its customers, Cordon Bleu-Tomasso has launched several initiatives dedicated to social and environmental responsibility in order to improve the environment for future generations.
“Also, more close to home, we focus on and invest in the welfare of the people who work for us,” says Ouimet. “A lot of what we do is centered on their well being. We feel that a dedicated investment into our people and the community in which we thrive is a key factor for our success, and it provides the basis for future growth.”
Speaking of the future, Ouimet reveals that Cordon Bleu-Tomasso is entering into another wave of acquisitions. “This will broaden the portfolio of the capabilities we already offer to our customers.”
Most importantly, all efforts filter down to the consumer, who stands to benefit the most. When all is said and done – when all the strategic plans and corporate objectives have been discussed and implemented – the bottom line is the hand that reaches out for Cordon Blue-Tomasso on the store shelves and places products into the grocery cart.
Cordon Bleu is doing everything right to guide the hand that feeds its growth.