Friday, October 3, 2014

Schneider family eating humble pie

The heirs of J.M. Schneider and his son, Norman, ought to break out the humble pie this Thanksgiving.

The Schneider family fought Canada Packers for generations, positioning itself as the good guys in terms of product quality and treatment of staff and hog farmers.

Compared with the highly competitive folks in Toronto who ran Canada Packers, the Schneider family had the rivalry pegged right.

And that rivalry is the reason why, when the heirs decided to sell the business, they refused to even consider offers from the McCain family that had taken control of what was Canada Packers and now is Maple Leaf Foods Inc.

In a couple of months, the flagship Schneider plant on Courtland Avenue in Kitchener will be shut down by Maple Leaf Foods. It bought the business from Smithfield Foods Inc. after the Schneider family deemed those Virginia bandits preferable to the die-hard executive team from Canada Packers.

It's a sad ending for a proud family, proud tradition and proud employees, many of them from families that worked at Courtland Avenue for three generations.

The Schneider reputation for quality was "besmirched," as the company said in a full-page ad it took out in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record to counter my revelations - via Freedom of Information releases in the United States - about shortcomings in the Courtland Avenue plant.

But it was self-inflicted besmirching. And the government food-safety-inspection reports were far from the only slippage in the company's proud claims for quality.

It followed the example of rivals, including Canada Packers, to pump more and more brine into its hams. It abandoned solid hams for composite ones - pieces stuck together to deceive consumers into believing they were the traditional Schneider-quality hams.

It was asleep at the switch as the Huber family, running under the Piller's Meats and Delicatessens banner, outflanked it with better quality processed meats.

I failed to invest enough to remain competitive in the slaughter of hogs and cattle and veal and simply closed those operations. It had nothing left that was worth selling. It did sell its poultry slaughter operation in St. Marys to Campbell's Soup.

And so the sad end to a classic rivalry in the Canadian meat business will come to an end in a few months.

And what's truly sad is that Maple Leaf is run by Michael McCain and a team that is ruthlessly sales focused. The entire corporate culture is at stark odds with the Schneider family of two and three generations ago.