Glenn Cooke is CEO of Cooke Aquaculture and The Cooke Family Group of Companies based in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick. This interview was conducted by Rick Goossen, Chairman, ELO Group as part of the ELO Forum Toronto Online held on November 23, 2020. This is the fourth of a series of four blog posts.
RG: ELO was founded with a core value of the importance of entrepreneurial leadership. What is the nature of the entrepreneurial spirit at Cooke?
GC: I consider myself a true entrepreneur more than I consider myself a CEO. We've always driven that down through our management team and through our employee base. A lot of our innovation comes from within our company. We see ideas and concepts and we're open to listen.
One thing we've always found effective is that we need to give our management teams the ability to lead and produce. When they're leading and producing a lot of innovation flows up through the ground of the company and brings new ideas whether it’s new technologies or a better way of doing things or some concept that we need to invest in and build out. So that's been important to us.
RG: You have alluded to the COVID-19 pandemic, but maybe since we're seemingly still in the middle of things, if you could just describe how that has impacted some of your operations and how you've navigated that situation.
GC: We thought we were fairly well protected as a company because we have global operations. Geographically we're very diverse. So the chances of something hitting one operation in the country versus another country were slim, but obviously with the pandemic we've got an across the board issue. As this started going, we were saying, ‘okay God, just protect all our people.’ Then we had COVID cases roll through the organization. You sit there and think, ‘why did it happen?’ It's challenging for us because as a company, because we had a huge percentage of our product in the food service industry, and as we know globally, whether it's Europe or Asia or the US, the whole food service side has been affected greatly.
So we've had to retool ourselves to go from 50% retail driven, to more like 75 or 80% retail driven. That's a whole new concept we had to do and we are still rolling out. I would say on the front of the pandemic, just because we understand disease and everything else in the crops in everything we do, we saw what was going on in Asia and we acted quickly. We put pandemic procedures on. We instituted safety protection for employees. We were way ahead on using masks. We made sure all employees in our plants wore masks as soon as this started out back in February. We put plexiglass partitions in the plants to make sure employees were not exposing one another.
We wanted to put the safety of our employees first but still be able to operate our facilities. In our global offices, we started working from home, but our plants can't work from home and our people feeding fish can't work from home, so we had to make sure we put the procedures and things in place to keep the safety of those employees paramount. They were our frontline people.
I know all the doctors and nurses in the world have been hugely affected by COVID and what they have done is incredible, but our front-line people were our plant people, our truck drivers, our people that had to work every day because they couldn't go sit home on a computer. So, we had to make sure their safety is paramount and we had to switch how we sold and marketed products. It was a challenging period just trying to ramp up to that and the effect of keeping your employees safe but still being able to operate. We needed to switch gears into retail.
But our team understood that they were frontline people, so they knew they had to pull it off. They did do that. Our management teams and the people underneath them such as our salespeople were quick to start making the switch to retail. That was one of the major, challenging, stressful periods in my life, running a business—because we've never been as big as we are—and doing so in a global pandemic. It was an interesting and challenging time.
RG: Would you say that the entrepreneurial spirit and innovative approach was critical to responding or that it put you in a better position than you otherwise would have been?
GC: I think so. We certainly were quick to act. Our corporate culture has always allowed us to react quickly and to change as necessary. We put pandemic committees in place very early on. We are a global company, so travel, for instance, was impacted. I normally spend close to a couple hundred days a year on the road. All of a sudden, I can't do that. So we had to pull back on travel and it was challenging. A lot of our back-office operation, such as IT, insurance, etc. happens from our head office and all those people couldn't go back and forth.
RG: Since our ELO Forums are for Christian marketplace and entrepreneurial leaders, I'm wondering if you have any closing comment or thought in terms of encouraging Christians who are in the marketplace?
GC: Regarding marketplace Christians who are out there trying to be entrepreneurial, I know what you are feeling and the stress you're going through. Sometimes you can feel very alone because sometimes the pastor or whoever else, maybe doesn't understand your situation exactly. You are on the right track. Stay faithful, stay true and God will find a way through those issues or those problems.
I encourage you to give back to your communities, give back to your employees, give back to your people and grow your business. I'm not saying don’t grow your business. In the end, you have a true ministry to go out there and win the world. I always say win the world at any cost. And if we're really, truly to that point and we can gear our businesses and gear our lives and careers to that I think you make a significant difference in the world.
RG: That's a great note on which to end to encourage people. It's a great story but it sounds like the growth and the story is just starting.
GC: We're still growing. As long as the heart is still beating, we can keep right on growing.
RG: People are living longer these days so you may be barely halfway through your career.
GC: That's right, and you know we have a lot of private individuals in New Brunswick, that have built significant companies, and they're still running the businesses at very old ages, so hopefully I can be one of those.