Business and Operations
Geneviève Gagnon has built thriving artisanal granola business La Fourmi on her own terms
March 7, 2022 By Colleen Cross
Geneviève Gagnon has been tested many times and now knows there is no challenge she cannot handle. Gagnon has led La Fourmi Bionique Inc., the company she founded in 2004, with strength, compassion and a determination to work and live by her own values.
La Fourmi, as it was recently rebranded, is a Montreal-based company that makes granola cereals, mueslis and unique snacks using natural and organic ingredients mostly sourced in Quebec. Today, the company has about 20 employees and its products are distributed to prestigious hotels across Canada and in more than 2,000 points of sale in Quebec and France.
Gagnon owns 75 per cent of her company. The remaining shares are owned by businessman and silent shareholder Herschel Segal, who is known for Le Chateau and Davids Tea brands.
She describes her team as cereal designers. “We like to create a taste experience which is unconventional and do some blends that have never existed on the market. (In 2002) I was showing up with my Aphrodisiac granola with dark chocolate there were no products in North America with organic, Fair Trade, premium pieces of chocolate in them. We like to design these flavour profiles which are like no other, but at the same time, we also put a natural herb in every blend to create a signature blend. We wanted to make it feel like it was crafted with a lot of care and intention. A really sustaining full cereal containing ingredients like oat bran, flour, barley, rye and flax, roasted with honey. I have never swayed from the recipe I created in my kitchen 20 years ago.”
‘Fabulous’ granola recipe
Gagnon, who has a bachelor’s degree in public relations and psychology, worked in PR and events for high-profile companies. But she felt the work wasn’t what she was meant to do.
She started a business selling homemade granola, carrying out rigorous testing among friends and diners at a clandestine restaurant she ran in her apartment for about a year. People loved her custom-made, 100 per cent organic granola and that gave her confidence to develop a business plan.
“I had my own fabulous granola recipe that I decided to manufacture, but before that I looked at different types of products that I could be selling to retail. I would see all the challenges with doing fresh food or specific recipes or something that needed to be kept cold, and the structure around it was daunting. I finally found that with baking it could be shelf-stable, easy to pack and ship. It was meeting all of the criteria of the level of difficulty that I was ready to venture into.”
Her product met the most important criteria: it appealed to her as a consumer. “There was no artisanal granola on the retail front at the time. I thought, it takes me so long to make (my granola) and I would love to be able to pick it up at the store and have this type of quality and home-style taste,” she says.
Gagnon made the granola and managed the team on the floor for the first years before building a manufacturing facility. “I was making the product and teaching the others. We started on a shoestring – no love money. It’s a tough way to start it, but I’m still here to show that it’s possible. You can start with $2,000 and create multimillions.”
She was eight years into the business when she had her first child and the prospect of balancing work and motherhood was daunting. “I was looking for models around me. There was nobody giving birth and being the lead manager in their business without having their husband on board. But if you start seeing that’s a possibility, well, then you’ll consider it.”
Gagnon has defined success on her own terms. “My personal measures of success never matched the outside measures of success. What’s trendy is people going to get a lot of funding from venture capitalists and they pump a lot of money into their company. They have rapid growth and they put a lot of pressure on growing the business.”
“My goal was to be able to build a company that could give me a good living,” she says. “That was not easy to achieve – something that really jibes with my values and I feel good about what I do and what I contribute. Making sure my employees are well, and my company is healthy, it’s growing and we never compromise on the quality.”
Family life has always been a measure of success: “I was able to bear three children, I was able to keep up with the company even though my pregnancies did impact the business. I survived but that was the challenge – to get my children to feel there’s no compromise for them. Balancing that with my work – that’s success for me.”
Know your numbers!
Gagnon firmly believes a woman leading any size of business needs to know her numbers. “I think in baking, passion and mastery are super important. And people appreciate it. But you need to learn the accounting and I learned it. I forced myself to do the day-to-day data entry. I got coached by my accountant for a year for a certain number of hours. The fact that I knew my numbers, how to enter them and how to read the data, gave me much more control in making the right decisions to make the company more profitable. When people relinquish this control, they have very high risk, but also, you’re blind. You can’t really make enlightened decisions. You need to gain that knowledge. You just can’t be completely dependent on someone else to tell you how you should run your business.
Gagnon believes there is a better way to achieve success than to sacrifice family life and work unreasonable hours for pay that may not match the level of work and responsibility. “My father had a convenience store open 24 hours a day,” she recalls. “We could never go on vacation. He had it for 35 years, he didn’t make a lot of money and he got called at night if there was a holdup or if there was no change in the cash register. It wasn’t the model of entrepreneurship that I wanted.”
In Gagnon’s model, a strong team is key. “It’s important to have a support system set up at work so people can compensate for your absence or for the fact that you can’t be as present all the time because of your other responsibilities and to have people understand that and support that – not react to it or judge it. Make sure your partner is on board with the compromises that you’ll have to make as well and the contribution they need to bring to the family balance.”
“You have a different outlook on life when you’ve built the resilience and surmounted obstacles. You build the confidence that you can do that every time. I had difficult pregnancies. It made me vulnerable, it made me weak – and I was still showing up at work. That made me realize that I had to navigate and let go and trust and accept that things are not necessarily going to be done my way but that it was going to be OK. With every pregnancy that situation strengthened my confidence in my team.”
Among many awards and certifications, including a place in Canada’s Top Growing Companies and the Profit 500, La Fourmi recently earned B Corp and Woman Owned certification. In announcing the certifications, Gagnon drew attention to persistent sexist attitudes:
“I often get asked what my husband does for a living, under the assumption that he is actively helping me with my business. . . . It’s a persistent prejudice, but it’s true that a mom and entrepreneur independently managing her own business is quite rare to find. Very often, the husband or spouse is heavily involved or even a partner, especially when there are young children in the equation. However, it would never occur to me to ask an entrepreneur, regardless of their gender, what their spouse does for a living because it shouldn’t matter or have anything to do with their ability to run their business.
“Managing my business and its growth with my team, while going through three pregnancies, has been a huge challenge for me. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have the support of my husband on the family front and my employees supporting me with this personal decision, as much as any male entrepreneur would.”
As for the future, Gagnon says she has to “push myself out of “my plateau zone of comfort.” The company is venturing into English Canada with crisp, new branding on its packaging.
La Fourmi has invested in automated equipment on the production line that will enable them to put out more product with less effort. Gagnon is excited about the move, and slightly nervous: “If you’re processing a different way – and I’m very attached to our home-made style that looks very artisanal – there’s a risk when you integrate equipment that it will change the actual product. It’s a leap of faith you have to take.”
She may consider doing private label for other brands. “We’ve renounced that until now, but with this equipment it might create an opportunity.”
Her final words for bakers considering running their own business: “There’s no greater satisfaction. There’s nobody I know that regrets taking that route. People regret not taking that route.”
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