Yves Potvin is founder of Gardein, a plant protein-based food maker in British Columbia.
Why did you first start thinking about exporting as part of your business?
The key to growth is to export. In Canada, Loblaws controls a big percentage of the market; there are only three or four players. If you are not exporting, you have a very limited market.
What was your first export sale and how did the opportunity come about?
Our first big foray into the U.S. was in 2009 when the chef we were working with was invited to be a guest on the Oprah show. Ahead of the show, we went to stores telling them we were going to be on the show. We got into Ralphs and right away had 1,500 stores. That was our breakthrough for distribution.
How many countries are you exporting to and where is your biggest market?
Our biggest export market is the U.S. In Canada we are privileged to have a population 10 times our size on our border. We also export to Germany, the Caribbean, the Middle East, South America and Australia.
EDC resources to help you export
What advice do you have for companies that want to export?
You really need to understand the regulations. You also need to be able to interpret the regulations – if you make a mistake regarding, for example, an ingredient that falls under NAFTA, it can cost you a lot of money.
What characteristics do exporters need to succeed?
You have to persevere. I remember visiting one of the biggest U.S. chains and the buyer telling me: “Morningstar, Boca, your brand [Gardein], it’s all the same.” A year later I went back to him with figures showing grocery chains that stocked Gardein saw a 25 per cent increase in their frozen meatless/healthy section. The buyer had experienced a 12 per cent decline in that section in his store. Sharing the information made it easy for him to make the decision that he needed Gardein in his frozen section.
What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about export and trade?
To compete in markets like the U.S. you have to innovate. Somebody once told me, you can’t fight a battle with a giant, you need to find the space between the toes of the giant. Big companies don’t innovate, that’s why they buy other companies. My advice is you must go and see what’s available there [U.S.] and then come up with something different, because the buyer won’t buy if it’s already there. If the buyer can choose between a Canadian product and a U.S. product, why would they choose the Canadian product? Recently someone came to me and said: “I have this soy ice cream.” I said: “But you’re one of 20 in the market. Yeah, I know it’s good, I know you think it’s better, but the buyer doesn’t care, he already has 10 soy ice creams.” If you are a “me-too product” you have no chance in the U.S. You need to educate yourself, go to trade shows, and surround yourself with the right people.
Could you tell us about one of the right people who have influenced Gardein’s growth?
I met chef Tal Ronnen at a trade show. He was looking for a product like ours. We formed an alliance and Tal visited cordon bleu schools across Canada and the U.S. to teach other chefs how to use the plant protein. He also wrote The Conscious Cook that features Gardein products in many of the recipes. Because he had worked for Oprah, and the Oprah phenomenon was so strong, when he appeared on the show and mentioned Gardein, it was a major breakthrough for us.