Top shelf leader

Arif Ahmed, CFO of BC organic and specialty food retailer Choices Markets, talks about thriving in a crowded marketplace and the importance of effective communication.

Q: The West Coast is practically the birthplace of the organic movement. How do you gain market share?
It’s a dangerous game if you’re simply trying to steal market share from other retailers. We have to look after our existing customers — make sure that we’re treating them well, serving them well and creating a really good experience for them. We started as a community grocer so we have to continue to be in the community supporting them. We do everything from fundraising barbecues to donating to local shelters.

Q: Choices Markets opened 26 years ago with one store. You now have 10, three of which opened in the past year. What role have you played in the expansion?
I’m the guy who sketches out the idea on the back of a napkin, but instead of a napkin, I’m using spreadsheets. Whenever there is an opportunity, I’m tasked with running the pro formas and doing some situational modelling to determine whether a project is viable. I’m involved all the way through the process. I even get to have a voice in store offerings, layout and design.

Q: You travel the world looking for new suppliers and products to stock your shelves. What do you look for when you visit companies?
I’m looking for good stories to tell every step of the way. From finding a good farm and good families, to looking at every aspect of manufacturing and every product, I need to find a product’s story and how to make the connection from farm to grocery shelf.

Q: How do you stay connected to such a large and far-reaching team?
I try to schedule weekly one-on-one sit-downs with my leadership team where I can find out what’s going on, give answers or provide guidance. I try not to email when I can pick up the phone, and I try not to pick up the phone when I can walk over. I also consider myself a translator. Chefs, truck drivers, IT managers and nutritionists speak different languages but everyone is trying to accomplish the same thing. I need to make sure everybody is speaking the same language so we all move in the same direction.

Arif Ahmed has worked with Choices Markets for 17 years. He started in the warehouse and moved to purchaser and salesman before pursuing his CPA and taking on the role of CFO.