The chief executive officer of Saputo Inc. says unprecedented times call for unprecedented leadership.

“In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, there is now also civil unrest. This is where the leaders need to lead. You need to stand up,” Lino Saputo Jr. said in a phone interview with BNN Bloomberg Thursday.

On Tuesday, he was one of more than a hundred businesses leaders who signed a statement from the Business Council of Canada denouncing racism.

“It was a very easy thing for us to do. And we reminded our employees about our zero tolerance policy on racism.”

Saputo Jr., who took the reins at the Montreal-based dairy giant from his father in 2004, has been navigating a challenging business environment and striving to keep employees safe at Saputo’s facilities during the pandemic. 

Last month, York Region Public Health confirmed a 57-year old man who worked at a Saputo distribution centre in Vaughan, Ontario died of COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, we did have one fatality,” Saputo Jr. said. “For us, employee health and safety is the most important element, along with food safety.

'Dairy is not dead': Saputo CEO on industry growth and plant closures

Lino Saputo, Jr, the chief executive officer of Saputo Inc., said the dairy industry is growing, despite the company’s recent decision to close some of its Canadian plants. Saputo is being awarded Canada’s Outstanding CEO of the Year for the past year, and he joins BNN Bloomberg's Jon Erlichman to discuss the trials and tribulations of being at the helm of a global dairy empire.

He added that cases of employees testing positive for COVID-19 have “come in pockets.”

“We did have a pocket in Green Bay, Wisconsin and in South Gate, California. But our HR teams are on top of the situation. Communication has been key. We needed to get out early with protocols for testing and re-testing,” he said. “And we are doing it in sync with local authorities.”

While Saputo already had protocols in place to ensure worker health and safety, there have been a number of changes implemented, including how employees are received in the facilities and their distance from each other.

“We made changes in the lunch room and with how we pack our products. And, from time to time, we need to run a line at lower capacity.” 

Despite operating at lower capacity, Saputo Jr. said the company made a commitment not to cut jobs during the pandemic.

“We knew early on our employees were concerned about the well-being of their families, their vacation plans…they were thinking about so many things. We told them one of the concerns you should not have is your wage. And we will guarantee there will be no layoffs — irrespective of the length of this uncertainty. It’s just part of our culture.”

While that decision impacted the company’s financial performance in its fiscal fourth quarter, a strong balance sheet has helped Saputo weather the storm

The company’s revenue, meanwhile, rose 15 per cent to $3.72 billion during the three-month period ending March 31.

Saputo has seen parts of its business struggle during COVID-19, while other segments have grown.

“We saw a spike in retail sales and a dramatic drop in our food service sales, as some of our customers were going through financial difficulty” Saputo Jr. said.

“Restaurants that did not have takeout service or drive-thru windows were closed. And when a business like that is closed for an extended period of time, it cannot pay its bills.”

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