by Bruce Cole
Amaranth Whole Foods Market in Calgary, AB. had many reasons to celebrate this year, its 20th anniversary. Thriving and growing in the competitive Calgary marketplace is cause enough to pause and reflect on all that has been accomplished over the past two decades.
However, for owner and founder Ken Klatt, his focus is very much on the future. And many changes and systems he has implemented have been based on the goal of keeping Amaranth healthy and growing for a long, long time.
“I feel the industry is moving very fast, and there are new players coming in all the time. We are seeing growth of online sales competition, as well as the speed that new products move into our market and then get picked up in the mainstream. To meet these challenges, we have had to introduce several major initiatives. We’ve taken steps to simplify and raise the level of documentation for our processes so employees can transition to new responsibilities with a shorter learning time. Also, we are moving away from our in-house developed and maintained POS to a third party system. Strategy-wise, we are looking to answer the question of what changes do we need to make today to remain relevant? Who is our future customer and what unique roll can we fulfill?”
Concerns of this nature were not on Ken’s mind when he founded Amaranth in 1995. An accountant by trade, he recalls the events that attracted him to the natural health industry, and eventually drew him in full-time. “Two events in my life led me down this path. The first was environment-related. I was one of a small group of Calgarians who valued the benefits of recycling paper and glass. We worked individually in our own communities to host monthly recycling drives at our community centres. As our success grew, we joined forces and reached out to business partners – a local mall, the city of Calgary, Nova Corporation – and initiated recycling drives at a shopping centre in northwest Calgary.
“The second was my getting involved with a local health food co-op. I began shopping at the Earth Harvest Co-op after tasting some organic apples. Befriending staff on my weekly shopping trips led to several terms as a director for the co-op. At that time, it seemed like the industry was living in the past and that by presenting a more inviting shopping experience, we would encourage more people to buy these healthy products. I had the concept of increasing this market by creating a demand for organics rather than marching in the street and telling farmers what to grow.”
In 2015, Amaranth is a big player in the Alberta natural health industry. Three of its four stores are located in metropolitan Calgary, giving the company high exposure to the more than 1.2 million people who call Alberta’s largest city home. The fourth location is in St. Albert, on the northwest outskirts of Edmonton.
Ken attributes much of his success to his ability to finding staff members that can make things happen. “I would love to know why such talented, creative and dedicated individuals choose to join our team. Believe me, for the most part they find me. Many of them have been shoppers in Amaranth. In my interview process, I am mostly looking for lifestyle alignment, believing that staff who live the lifestyle would relate more to our core customer base.”
Adding quality people who fit the Amaranth hiring criteria has led to the store developing its own personality, explained Ken. “I hear this referred to as a culture. I am sure that being part of this very supportive caring culture would be a major reason that key staff has chosen to stay on our team. There is also the personal satisfaction knowing they are helping others. It is incredibly fulfilling to teach someone about how making one simple change in their diet can have very positive long term effects.”
Ken says industry knowledge – while always welcome – is not the biggest priority when hiring. “We find that as staff - who may not be as familiar with the industry - spend time with us, they become more aware of healthy living from being surrounded by team members who are educators, as well as providing sincere support for those making the move toward healthy and conscious living. We have upped our game in the last two to three years. We have many more intentional staff programs. A big focus on attracting staff who have a longer-term perspective, combined with our recent record of expansion, we have enough momentum going that we can look to more formal training programs, with the intention of developing and promoting staff from within.”
Amaranth retail operations manager Neil Godsman says it is more than one thing that attracts staff. “It's a combination of our employees' values matching Amaranth's own in many regards, which are reflected in the vendors we choose to carry, and also giving our employees autonomy to use their best judgment whenever possible. This sparks motivation on two fronts which keeps staff engaged through any bumps in the road that occur at any job.”
Neil is part of Ken’s three-person senior management, which includes Philip Wong, mmanager of corporate merchandising/marketing and expansion and Nikki Thirukkumaran, the corporate operations manager.
“You can always find Neil in a store or running around between stores,” says Ken. “Philip is deeply involved in marketing and new store development and has recently taken on a new focus of category management.”
As operations manager, Nikki runs all the behind-the-scenes administration with her team.
“At the management level, Brian McDonald and Laurie-Ann Irvine are our purchasers – they buy the majority of the items in the stores,” explained Ken. “We have quite an enthusiastic group of in-store managers who are coming in with fresh ideas and energy.
“We always have very mixed emotions when one of our highly committed and talented individuals decides to depart. It is sad to lose someone who we feel so close to, but we celebrate that their time with us has been a learning and rewarding experience which has prepared them to take a step forward. Recently this has happened to our long time wellness buyer, Amanda Rajsigl. The position was seamlessly filled by Laurie-Ann, which boosted my confidence in our new program of managing our human resource pool for both growth and the currently reality of increased employee mobility.”
More recently, Ken has increased his use of outside experts. “We need to seek out professional advice to expand our perspective. Building a support system that includes long term relationships with top notch professionals, which have traveled over time with your business, has proved to be very beneficial. I feel the use of this type of resource is imperative, more today, than ever before.”
Another aspect of his business that is continually evolving is marketing. “Our marketing approach has changed in the past couple of years. We used to work more on-hands with experiences and event marketing, like presentations, community talks, cooking classes, creating community events, etc. With multiple locations in one city, our focus has shifted to how we can affect all areas of the city at once rather than a single event in one corner of the city. We have started a blog, become more active on our Facebook page and our advertisements have been adjusted as well to be more educational. Health food store items may be more readily available at conventional outlets now, but the respect for these items and the knowledge about them is not always there.”
An important step in Amaranth’s success occurred 10 years ago, when the company joined the Health First Network (HFN), a group of independent health food stores with membership stretching from coast to coast. “We have benefited from both the marketing support and the information that flows from individuals who face the same daily challenges as we do,” explained Ken. “The main reason I was encouraged to join was I felt I needed more input on best practices for success in the health food industry and felt that the information-sharing and connections with fellow non-competing health food retailers would provide this. Over the years, I have highly valued the information exchange with other members. I learned a ton being a HFN director and felt privileged to work with Dave Freeman, who has been a huge influence on how I approach the business. I am thinking it would take an exceptional individual to continue in this industry without some sort of external support system like HFN.”
Up to this point, Ken feels Amaranth’s success has been based on it being ahead of the curve in the area of natural health and believes that role was filled, with the store being a unique place where customers who were seeking health knowledge and products could go. “To continue to enjoy similar success will require us to continue to provide a unique customer experience.”
Ken says in the earlier days, sometimes a big heart was enough to allow you to stay in business. Those days are long-gone. “Our entrance into this industry was based upon passion, which historically I feel worked well for us. Today, we need to be exceptional at execution. We can use our smaller size as a competitive advantage, as it allows us to be nimble, responsive and efficient.”
Although he has no intention of departing from a healthy lifestyle, Ken says that business succession plans are now falling into place. “I believe a common challenge facing many seasoned health food store owners is succession planning. I have worked at this process for over a year and have made many changes, from getting my compliance reporting in order, simplifying my business processes, to slowly removing myself from the operational decisions of the store.
“I married later in life and my children are still too young to be considered as possible successors. My plan includes the creation and the development of what has turned out to be a very competent and energetic executive team. I am confident that this team will allow a smooth succession from my dream job to my next journey in life.”
Since inception, Ken’s favourite activity has been customer facing. The succession planning process is starting to give him equal satisfaction. “I am enjoying this experience, as these changes are allowing me to learn much more about myself – I would even say this is refreshing. In many ways, it is less stressful as my decreased operational role allows me the opportunity to pick what tasks I attack each day.” Ken’s next major strategic undertaking will be finalizing the details of the change in ownership. “I understand it is a process which I am getting more patient with. I am prepared to allow things to roll out.”
The final chapter of Ken’s journey as a health food retail owner has yet to be written. Until that time arrives, he plans to enjoy building, planning and revelling in the successes he and his team enjoy on a daily basis. And maybe he will take a few moments to savour the accomplishments of the past 20 years, in the building of a vital and flourishing business. •
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