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The Cream of the Crop: Leadership and Corporate Social Responsibility While Making Ice Cream

April 22, 2010

This is a David versus Goliath story, but one involving something as innocuous as ice cream. It’s a story about not only taking on the corporate titans in the field, but persevering, contributing to the community over several decades, and then maintaining operations and employment following a devastating incident.

For many years my wife, Sue, and I regularly bought Chapman’s Ice Cream for our (then) four young children. I didn’t know anything about the company except that it was a Canadian producer of ice cream. However, what I did know was that it was very good quality at affordable prices.

David and Penny Chapman started the company in 1973 (when I was completing high school) in the small village of Markdale, Ontario (two hours north of Toronto). At the time there were three large ice cream manufacturers serving North America. The Chapman’s purchased an existing tiny creamery for $69,000, living above it for seven years while they raised their children. In starting out they had only four employees and two trucks.

Today, Chapman’s is the largest Canadian-owned ice cream producer, employing over 300 people. It has a sizeable share of Canada’s $433 million ice cream market, competing with Nestle and Unilever. While many employers have left the Markdale area in recent years (e.g., footwear and furniture making), Chapman’s has remained loyal to the community. It has provided steady employment for over 35 years, plays a role in the community, pays bonuses to its employees, and continually creates new products to respond to its customers’ needs (e.g., nut-free ice cream and sorbet for diabetics).

So what’s the big deal, you might ask? This is all very nice. There are other good small to medium employers out there. Yes, except…

In September 2009, a welder’s torch ignited a fire in the tinder-dry 85,000 square floor factory, which included the initial creamery where the business started. The fire was so intense that surrounding homes and businesses had to be evacuated, and firefighters came from as far as 25 miles away.

The factory was subsequently torn down, and immediately the Chapman’s announced that a new 165,000 square foot plant would be constructed. This is underway. Through ingenuity, perseverance and the assistance of other businesses, Chapman’s has continued to produce ice cream, helped too by having a large inventory. Remarkably, they have kept employees on payroll and paid Christmas bonuses. The company does face industry market challenges, regarding ice cream consumption, and struggling to keep the new plant construction on schedule.

Chapman’s doesn’t have to remain in this rural part of Ontario near Georgian Bay; it could just as easily following the fire last fall moved closer to Toronto. However, the owners are committed to the community and their employees.

This story is somewhat similar to the one I last shared on Lincoln Electric, except one firm makes ice cream, the other welding equipment. One is American, the other Canadian. One has been in business 37 years, while the other since the late 1800s. One is located in Cleveland, part of the industrial Rustbelt, the other in a pretty rural setting. But one common theme runs through both Chapman’s and Lincoln Electric, and that is…

LEADERSHIP and STEWARDSHIP

Both companies have committed to their communities and employees, and expect the same in return. They didn’t cut and run when times got tough.

It’s unfortunate that more Canadian and American companies don’t practice the art of leading as stewards. Making a profit is essential to remaining in business. However, it is a very narrow and myopic view of the world to argue that this is the sole role of business. We live on a shrinking planet that is under growing pressures. What we need are more companies like Chapman’s and Lincoln Electric.
Updated June 8, 2011

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