Century eggs, moon cakes, instant dan dan noodles—and organic canned tomatoes with a maple leaf label? Walking down a grocery aisle in China, it is hard not to be surprised by the “Made in Canada” label in a sea of Chinese characters and flavours. However, this unique positioning is precisely why Thomas Canning (Maidstone) Ltd., a tomato-canning manufacturer near Windsor, Ontario, is such a successful exporter.
In China, where food safety is foremost in the minds of consumers, Thomas Canning enjoys a unique advantage with its “Made in Canada” maple leaf stickers. “Canada sometimes forgets our unparalleled reputation in other parts of the world for clean air and water, unshakable quality, and thus, food safety,” explains company president Bill Thomas. “[Consumers in other countires] may not have heard of Thomas Canning or our Utopia Brand, but they sure have heard of Canada. ‘Made in Canada’ is a brand they appreciate and respect, and a brand for which consumers in China will pay a huge premium.”
Nearly a century ago, the tomato canning process was typically a family and community affair: small farmers would gather together to process a truckload of tomatoes and sell their products to Toronto or Montreal. Every part of the process—from picking to peeling to cooking to canning—was done by hand. In the 1960s and 1970s, as processes were automated, production became concentrated in fewer facilities. Thomas Canning, started by Thomas’ grandfather in the 1930s, was one such facility.
Now, most smaller tomato canners are private label producers—that is, they make the “no name” products on which larger companies (e.g., like Heinz or Compliments) affix their own labels. However, Thomas Canning has successfully moved away from the conventional fate of smaller tomato canning businesses. “The question,” Thomas asks, “is how to make a commodity product worth more?” With this consideration in mind, Thomas Canning’s Utopia Brand canned tomato products have recently launched an organic line. “It’s something that larger companies like Heinz simply don’t have the model to pursue,” Thomas explains. Consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for a cause as a part of a product—whether that cause is fair trade practices, environmentally friendly features, or additional health benefits.
At the same time, Thomas notes, “People in other parts of the world have entirely different concepts of food and eating. . . . I can’t transplant what I’m doing here and expect to be successful elsewhere; I must know the characteristics of the culture. I need to understand the way they consume food.” In China, for example, Thomas Canning found that translating labels into Mandarin was a mistake. The English and French labels, the maple leaf, and the unattractive customs sticker all combined to create an image of “foreign-ness” that Chinese consumers actually sought.
While exporting to a new locale often means crunching numbers and pouring dollars into market research, Thomas has a different tactic: going into grocery stores and actually talking to people. “You need to really understand the people and the culture to succeed,” he says. And there is no doubt Thomas Canning is succeeding. Just last year, the company was a finalist for an Export Ontario award. The Ontario government has also invested $3 million in Thomas Canning’s planned $25 million expansion into Nigeria. Like North America, Africa has a tomato-consuming culture, but there is currently no infrastructure for the processing industry, something Thomas hopes to change. “Africa can feed the whole world,” he says, meaning that the continent has ample human and agricultural resources. “Our task is not to give Africa handouts, but to empower the people for change.”
Thomas is an ardent proponent for changing the world through ethical business. In his words, “If governments or even well-meaning non-government organizations could solve the world’s problems through donations and foreign aid, it would have worked a long time ago. But where they fail, business can step in. Businesses have the responsibility to make a difference in many issues that we . . . struggle with every day. . . . There’s a growing sensibility of returning some of the profit back to the community, but of course, many of these [returns] are contributions that can’t be put on any financial statement.” One useful contribution is to create jobs in a part of the world where jobs are scarce; this is exactly where Thomas Canning hopes to start through its expansion in Nigeria.
“A person needs to feel like a useful, contributing individual in society. Every job is meaningful. There’s no job too small, too demeaning,” says Thomas, which is also why he believes that every country needs manufacturing. “It’s the core of most civilizations,” he explains. “Without the manufacturing sector, there’s nothing anyone else can do. Everything starts from the land.”
Visit Thomas Canning online.
Thomas Canning is a producer of canned tomato products that are certified organic, kosher, and vegan; organics are certified by Canadian, US and EU standards.
Headquarters: 26 South Talbot Rd R.R. 1, Maidstone, ON, N0R 1K0
- William (Bill) Thomas, CEO
Year established: 1935
Number of employees: 25+ 35-45 seasonal
Revenues: 5-10 million CAD
Line of business
Processing tomato products
NAICS: 311420 – Fruit and Vegetable Canning, Pickling and Drying
Canned tomatoes (whole, cubed, crushed, stewed, pureed), tomato juice, and ketchup, with low salt and organic options. Primarily sold under the Utopia label.
Exports: China (most important), Cuba; Trinidad and Tobago; United States: Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina; actively pursuing Nigeria
In 1933, William and Grace Thomas, along with their two sons and their respective wives, started a canning facility to process tomatoes grown in the region in a labour-intensive process. In the 1960s and 70s, new technology and mechanical methods allowed increased efficiency and production capacity. Now, Thomas Canning remains a family-owned business, and tomatoes are grown in Leamington, ON, Canada’s tomato capital.
- Heinz (recently closed in Leamington)
- Highbury Canco, a contractor for Heinz
- Weil’s Food Processing, Sunbright, ConAgra Foods
- But Thomas Canning is the only organic tomato processor in Canada.
- 2000, partnership with University of Guelph researching cross-section of agriculture Growers contracted in Essex, Kent and Lambton counties
- Canadian government investment to upgrade facility for exports, tripling current capacity and creating 40 new jobs at the facility and 20 more tomato grower contractors. This comes at a time when Heinz just closed their facilities in Leamington, jeopardizing 50 growers.
- Canadian politicians are supportive, but Thomas Canning says “we’re regulated to death
- Move towards organic, environmentally-friendly growing (from suppliers) and canning practices
- Differentiate away from commodity
- Made-in-Canada food has clout in Chinese market
- Can do low volumes, many products, in way that large competitors can’t
- Mature/declining industry? Still a commodity
- See recent developments – Nigeria exports
- Difficulty obtaining financing loans for developing country ventures – ex. sometimes 15-18% interest, most banks won’t loan
- Harsh regulatory environment
2011, entered Chinese market Future: expanding to Nigerian market (Festrut Group of Nigeria) with a 25M deal, producing at least 2.2M cases for African market, 3M Canadian govt investment .
- Merit award for marketing – Creativity International Awards, out of 1000s of entries
- Export Ontario finalist, for efforts in Nigeria, Trinidad&Tobago, China and U.S