Agriculture has been a backbone of the Eastern Ontario economy for generations and today, food processing has an equally important role in the region’s economic landscape. A vast array of firms are growing, harvesting, processing and transforming agricultural products and byproducts into food and drink items that find their way into homes and businesses throughout the province, across the country and even around the world. Innovation is more than a buzzword for these food processors — they are as passionate about growing and evolving their businesses as they are about making sure they are operating as ecologically sensitive and ethically minded enterprises.
From expanding their product offerings to increasing the size of their operations and their workforces, these food processors are helping to put Eastern Ontario on the map as a dynamic region offering excellent employment opportunities in this thriving sector. The entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm shared by the seven individuals profiled here goes a long way to explaining the success they have achieved with their companies, some of which are relatively new startups while others are longstanding family businesses whose stewardship they have taken on.
operations manager at Olymel
With deep roots in the food processing industry for more than 100 years, Olymel is one of Canada’s fastest-growing, diversified agri-food businesses. The company’s busy Cornwall facility produces sliced bacon and bacon products for major national grocery store chains, restaurant groups and distributors in Canada and 65 countries around the world. Operations manager Dany Gagnon plays a pivotal role in charting strategic direction, planning the activities for this and several other plants, managing all aspects of production, including finance, quality assurance, health and safety.
Gagnon was initially drawn to the food processing sector due to the job security it offered, then began to appreciate the opportunities for advancement as he worked his way up from the production line to team leader, foreman and now senior management. Self-described as results-oriented, he enjoys the opportunity to apply the successes achieved in Cornwall to additional plants in Quebec, implementing workflow efficiencies, a more targeted vision, better structure and an enhanced workplace culture. Gagnon notes he has been proud of his role in executing improvements at Olymel Cornwall to increase the plant’s stature in the larger company. It’s now one other plants wish to emulate.
president of Burnbrae Farms
Margaret Hudson grew up on her family’s farm in Lyn, near Brockville, and was involved with the business from childhood. After earning a degree in business and environmental science, to which she later added an MBA, Hudson became president of Burnbrae Farms in 1990. This sixth generation family-owned-and-operated company is one of Canada’s leading egg farmers, with farms, grading stations and processing operations across the country. She shares in her family’s pride in propelling the business forward, maximizing their products’ nutrition and accessibility, increasing operating sustainability and expanding Burnbrae’s efforts in corporate social responsibility and philanthropy.
In addition to C-suite duties, Hudson sits on a number of boards that help shape Burnbrae’s work environment. She has championed many successful product launches that transformed the egg category and helped to more than double Burnbrae’s size by adding such products as nutritionally enhanced eggs, free run and organic eggs, packaged hardboiled eggs and a range of liquid and frozen egg products. In 2020, Hudson received the Golden Pencil Award for lifetime achievement, the highest honour in the grocery industry. As egg consumption in Canada continues to grow, she says Burnbrae will continue to pursue more innovations.
president and CEO of St. Francis Herb Farm
St. Francis Herb Farm is a leading Canadian-owned herbal company that’s been family-run for more than 30 years, focusing on working with nature to understand, nurture and extract healing compounds. Paul Rivett-Carnac has been involved in the business since his youth and served in positions of increasing responsibility in compliance, quality assurance and operations prior to assuming his current roles as president and CEO, allowing him to leverage his MBA from Carleton University. He drives corporate vision and strategy while working closely with the senior leadership team and a staff he respects and values highly. His passions are people development and continuous improvement, appropriate given the company’s mission to empower people on their wellness journey through education and effective plant-based medicine.
The business is experiencing significant growth and evolving its structure for better execution in inventory control, quality management, marketing and customer service. Recent investments in R&D are yielding dividends, strengthening St. Francis Herb Farm’s leadership position within herbal medicine in Canada by developing various dosage forms and optimizing extraction capabilities. The company’s new 33,000-square-foot facility in the Ottawa Valley will allow it to amalgamate operations and continue to grow, innovate and export.
CEO of Dairy Distillery
An engineer by training, eclectic entrepreneur Omid McDonald founded three successful companies prior to establishing Dairy Distillery in 2018. Inspired by a visit to a U.S. craft distillery, McDonald subsequently learned of waste in the dairy industry and figured out a way to transform milk sugars into top-quality vodka. The Almonte company’s flagship product, Vodkow, became an instant best-seller. As CEO, McDonald describes his role as that of a co-ordinator for the thriving company that has grown from three to 23 employees in two years.
His contribution to the company’s success stems from constantly thinking about ways to move forward. He made the decision to start producing hand sanitizer at the outset of the pandemic; since then, he has doubled the size of the distillery to allow the team to continue making hand sanitizer in addition to spirits. McDonald says his biggest business accomplishment has been consistently seeing things through to completion, noting that it’s easy to have an idea, but bringing a product to market is completely different. He’s previously done it with medical devices and two kinds of software and now he’s working on an even bigger application for dairy waste by transforming it into ethanol for fuel.
co-founder of Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co
Steve Beauchesne is the co-founder of Beau’s, a family-run organic Canadian craft brewery in Vankleek Hill. In 2016, Beau’s started an employee-share program through which 135 of 150 employees own a small share of the company.
Since 2006, Beau’s has won more than 125 national and international awards for beer-making, sustainability and more. Armed with a bachelor of commerce degree plus experience as a business planner, Beauchesne says the idea of starting a company was irresistible to him, an ardent craft beer lover and home brewer. As CEO, he’s the company’s visionary and cheerleader, making sure the team has the resources to get the job done. He loves making a positive impact; to that end, Beau’s has raised more than $2 million for charities, communities and the arts and has been instrumental in helping other breweries get started, including one in Rwanda. Two recent accomplishments include launching Canada’s only certified organic carbon-neutral beer and being named as “Best for the World” by B Corp (having previously become certified as Canada’s first B Corp brewery). Beau’s has been named the official brewer of Porter Airlines and it’ll soon launch a new brew for Porter in addition to other new beers.
director-general of St-Albert Cheese
Founded in 1894, St-Albert Cheese is one of the oldest co-operatives in Canada and is owned by dozens of Eastern Ontario dairy producer families. In 2013, the co-op was completely destroyed by fire, but the company successfully rebounded by building a new and larger factory, which has enabled St-Albert to gradually increase production capacity. St-Albert Cheese is one of Prescott-Russell’s largest employers and continues to play a vital role in the community. Director general Eric Lafontaine has been with the company for 25 years, having started in the accounting department, then progressing onto roles of increasing responsibility before assuming his current position in 2013, just 34 days before the aforementioned fire.
Having been raised in the region, Lafontaine describes the co-op as always holding a very special place in people’s lives, which in turn fuels his passion for his job. One of his focus areas is working on new projects to grow the business, while also helping employees be more successful and maintaining a workplace with an excellent, often jovial, atmosphere where team spirit flourishes. St-Albert continues to refine its cheese-making operation to make it more efficient and to produce a broader range of products, including its award-winning aged cheddars.
co-founder and owner of Karlo Estates
From childhood aspirations of becoming an artist to a successful career in advertising, Sherry Karlo’s tenacity and esthetic sensibilities have always served her well. As co-founder, owner and vintner of Prince Edward County’s Karlo Estates winery, she leverages those talents, plus years of accumulated business, branding and wine experience. She works with the winemakers to curate and develop the products that form Karlo’s portfolio, currently at 24 wines structured to suit many tastes and price points.
While her vineyard time is limited to busy seasons such as spring pruning and the fall harvest, Karlo relishes the meditative quality of those tasks — a contrast to working with the financial team, budgeting for future investments and executing the company’s 25-year plan. She saved the winery from financial ruin after her co-founder winemaker, CEO and husband Richard Karlo, died from cancer, resulting in a spoiled 2014 vintage. Then, in 2020, with the advent of COVID, she had to pivot to virtual tastings and an outdoor tasting area with live music. Those moves are two accomplishments of which she is justifiably proud. She also instigated creating the world’s first vegan-certified wine, and Karlo’s green philosophy will be an integral part of the planned development of an inn and event space.