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Adding a little spice to the world

by Wayne Newton

spicing up the world

To say Western is adding taste to the world is an understatement.

Just ask Keith Gibbons and Angela Francolini, each Western University graduates and each playing a leadership role with McCormick, the international food flavouring company which has its Canadian headquarters in London, Ont., where it employs 600 people in two facilities.

Gibbons, BA’76 (Mathematics), is a chartered accountant, who parlayed a career working for London Life in South Korea into roles with McCormick in Asia and Australia and for the past three years as president and chief executive officer of McCormick Canada.

Francolini, HBA ’86, is a former McCormick Canada president and CEO, who now travels the world as the company’s vice-president of international marketing and innovation, a pivotal role in growing McCormick’s consumer business worldwide.

Known largely by consumers for its lines of spices including Club House, McCormick is a category leader in North America and a significant player in the food flavouring industry worldwide.

“We define our business more broadly (than spices),” Gibbons said. “We think of ourselves as a flavour company.”

Even the company’s annual report is flavoured. This year, it carries a blackberry and clove scent.

Aside from Club House spices to flavour various dishes, McCormick acquired Billy Bee honey in 2008, a universal flavour enhancer/sweetener. In addition to standard bottled spice, the company carries a line of recipe mixes: pouches of gravy mix or Hollandaise sauce or shepherd’s pie recipes mixes, hamburger seasonings, etc.

Offering flavouring solutions means keeping current with trends in consumer tastes and lifestyles and responding to a growing demand for different types of flavours from India, Korea and various regions of Asia to meet the demands of both new Canadians and those whose cupboards have always been well-stocked with Club House and McCormick spices.

“Growing up, I was out on a limb if we had Italian. Now it’s Chinese and it’s all different types of Asian spices: it’s Indian and it’s Filipino, it’s Korean. Just with the demographic changes we’ve had in Canada, in particular not only do you have an opportunity as a flavour company to sell to those new Canadians flavours and seasonings they’re used to from their home country, you also have the opportunity to sell to mainstream Canadians.

“We’ve just seen that accelerating with new Canadians combined with baby boomers having a desire to experiment, trying different types of flavours.”

It also cuts both ways. While the world inspires new flavouring products for Canadians, products developed and introduced here are big sellers internationally, chief among them the iconic Montreal steak spice and the La Grille barbecue seasonings line.

It’s not just in household kitchens where McCormick helps with dinner. A research facility in Mississauga works with the restaurant industry – companies such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken – to develop flavourings for new products. As well, McCormick provides flavouring solutions for food companies such as cereal giant Kellogg’s.

Perhaps no one has a better pulse on worldwide flavouring trends than Francolini, whose strategic role with McCormick keeps her on the road (or in the air) most of the year. During the past four years, she’s been to 55 countries including once flying to Australia five times in 12 months.

“Countries that have used spices for centuries such as India are migrating to packaged herbs and spices for reasons of safety and quality, and so our business there is very robust. Our business in China is growing exponentially. Our business in Russia and Poland is very important to us.

“Emerging markets are now 14 per cent of our volume and expected to be 20 per cent very soon. Over the next 10- to 20-year period, emerging markets are going to be larger than developed markets in terms of their consumption of consumer packaged goods and in particular our products. With that comes tremendous opportunity for us. We’re well poised. We’ve been in China for over 20 years.”

The daughter of Italian immigrants who spoke Italian before English, and who was the first in her family to earn a university degree, Francolini credits Western and Ivey with laying the foundation for her success in international business.

“I know President Amit Chakma is a big believer in bringing international students to Western and I am 100 per cent in support of that. The reason I feel so strongly about that is that it affords our Canadian students an opportunity to build a network globally that will be a lifelong network and will benefit them in ways that really are hard to imagine when you first step on campus, but it’s truly powerful.

“The other thing is it teaches our Canadian students how to compete on a global stage among the best intellectual capital the world has to offer and how to get that firsthand experience of working collaboratively where the class is representative of the world and not just Canada. I think that’s extraordinarily important.”

Francolini’s ties to Western remain strong. Her husband, Tony Francolini, teaches at both Brescia and King’s. Her mother-in-law, Joan Francolini, begins a four-year term as chancellor of Brescia in July. Ditto for Gibbons, who arrived at Western a little leery of the big city after growing up as the son of a business owner in the small Northern Ontario mining town of South Porcupine.

He has served on the board of Huron University College and all four of his children attended either Huron or King’s. Gibbons also met his wife, Cathy, while both were Western students.

“Coming from South Porcupine to Western, that was a colossal change for me. Probably in terms of all the transitions I’ve made both personally and professionally, that’s the most significant that’s ever happened to me. That’s where I started experiencing such different cultures, different nationalities, different foods, different perspectives.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2013 edition of Alumni Gazette
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