Cobs Bread keeps it all in the family

Communication key in running businesses in two countries

Plenty of discussion and debate is good for the family and even better for the family business - especially as that business attempts to grow into new countries and cultures.

That's the view of Cobs Bread vice-president Aaron Gillespie, son of the Australian company's founders and one of the senior executives that has established a strong foothold for the company in Canada.

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"My experience in the family business has been good ... there have been some minor disagreements and frustrations, but like anything the more you communicate the less the problems seem to happen," said Gillespie, who was in Victoria Thursday to tell the Cobs story at a Canadian Association for Family Enterprise dinner.

Gillespie is based in Vancouver where Cobs has its head office.

The company is a separate division of Australia-based Baker's Delight, founded by Roger and Lesley Gillespie in 1980.

Aaron Gillespie said communication between divisions, senior executives and family has kept the company operating smoothly.

"We have frequent meetings to discuss our business assets and determine what to do with them and to look at new opportunities ... and we keep management roles within the management structure of the business," he said.

"I talk to my parents with regard to the management of Cobs Bread every two weeks [along] with my colleague John Gilson and, hopefully, it's less relevant that they are my parents and it's more about the fact they are my boss."

Communication, succession plans, conflict resolution and determining roles in a family enterprise were among the points Gillespie touched on during his presentation.

"Family enterprise represents something like 80 per cent of business in Canada ... and all experience similar challenges," he said. "When managed properly, the family environment can be a benefit.

When not managed properly, it can cause turmoil in the family and turmoil in the business."

For the most part, it's been pretty smooth sailing for Cobs since Baker's Delight decided to expand to Canada in 2003. The name was considered too similar to a bakery equipment supplier in Ontario, so it was changed to Cobs.

In 10 years, Cobs has grown to 73 locations in B.C., Alberta and Ontario, 51 of which are franchised. There are six locations in Victoria. The company plans to eventually expand into Saskatchewan and Manitoba and possibly into Ottawa.

Under the umbrella of Baker's Delight Holdings, there are more than 700 bakeries in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

The expansion to Canada is testament to the similarities between this country and Australia, said Gillespie, noting socially, economically and in terms of the market there were strong parallels.

"Rents were similar, price of ingredients was similar, access and cost of labour were similar and there was a recognition that a lot of fresh bakeries had been put out of work over the years by the supermarkets," he said.

But at the same time, Gillespie noted there are also differences in the two markets.

"We have to make sure we are marketing ourselves to what the Canadian consumer wants," he said, adding their combination of an inviting environment, commitment to high-quality service and a superior product seems to have worked in Canada.

Gillespie chose to come to Canada for the chance to work overseas and get a chance to spread his wings out from under the shadow cast by his parents. Sister Elise, now also a vice-president, joined him in Canada shortly after and joined the Cobs team. They represent the fifth generation of Gille-spies in the bread business.

Gillespie said the family's involvement - there are also cousins with franchises in Australia - is part of the company's culture and what makes the business successful.

That is why they talk regularly about succession plans.

"We are developed well with that but we need to talk more about it. Dad is in his 60s and mum is about to turn 60, they are in the part of their careers when they want to wind down so these are the serious questions we have to ask ourselves and come up with solutions for very quickly," he said.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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