Transforming a Local Grocery Store to a Major Importer and Distributor: Teresa Spinelli

Most Successful 10 Women Leaders in Business, 2022

Teresa Spinelli, President of Italian Centre Shop Ltd., wasn’t always meant to run the grocery store run by her family. Teresa, who was born in Edmonton in 1961, grew up there, taking her first steps in the pasta aisle. She started working as a cashier at the business regularly when she was 13 years old, never knowing that one day she would become the company’s President. Family misfortune changed the course of Teresa’s life, “We were a traditional Italian family, and I had a brother, so automatically, because he was the boy, he was going to take the business.”

Using her vision to transform the company from a small local grocery shop to a significant importer and distributor, she increased revenues to $12 million in the first year of her presidency. With 4 locations (located in Edmonton and Calgary), more than 500 people, and revenues of more than 77 million today, the company has expanded by an astounding 8 times.

Below are highlights of the interview:

Tell us about your journey and what did you do before starting your professional career?

I literally grew up during my career! Took my first steps into the pasta aisle. In 1959, my father began importing Italian favourites for his friends and neighbours – a piece of the home country – this was the beginnings of what became the Italian Centre Shop(s) of today. That being said, I was never supposed to take over the family business – as a good Italian girl, I was expected to marry and have children—but with the unexpected death of my brother Pietro and the subsequent death of my father, I was thrust into the career of company President. Luckily for me, I had grown up working in the store and knew a lot of the business – and I surrounded myself with knowledgeable people I could trust.
Once I became the President, I envisioned changing the business from a local grocery store to a major importer and distributor, I grew the business to 12 million in sales in my first year. Today, the company has grown 9 times, with 5 stores (located in Edmonton, Sherwood Park, and Calgary), over 600 employees, and sales exceeding 100 million.

Tell us more about the company’s offerings.

European charm, delicious food, and a generous family heritage make the Italian Centre Shops special. The only place in Edmonton Sherwood Park & Calgary where you’ll find a treasure trove of groceries and delicacies of the best known Euorpean products. From Italian mortadella to Argentine Maté tea, Greek Taramasalata (fish paste) to Himalayan Lake Salt, Add to that, a famous European deli (largest deli in Western Canada) brimming with the widest selection of cheeses, meats and antipasti, the best-value fresh produce, our signature bakery and Spinelli’s Bar Italia for coffee and you have a European-style market where shopping is a joy. A ritual. A culinary experience; A destination; A place to meet friends, a place where staff and customers know each other by name and treat each other like family.

What are your major roles and responsibilities at the company?

With constant commitment to our company values of respect, growth, and loyalty, Italian Centre Shop (ICS) exists to connect the community through food and cultural experiences. Upholding the “the more you give, the more you get” legacy created by my father, I work to maintain family-like connections with staff and customers alike. What really sets our corporate culture apart is our team. We are a gathering place and we’re a community. Steering the company’s leadership to focus on relationship building and encouraging growth and development at all levels, “For me, it’s not about selling salami. For me, it’s about people. The reason I get up in the morning is because I want to grow people.” Italian Centre Shop is not just a grocery store: we are a cultural experience. I give everyone opportunities to grow and motivate themselves. I worked hard to develop the capacity to see people’s talent and allow them some room to grow.  I recognize the need to listen to staff because they do the job every day. I work to empower staff and take their suggestions seriously.

As a president of the company, have you established a clear vision that everybody can get behind? How should a company evolve to keep up with constant industry developments?

Having adopted the focus of PEOPLE FIRST, I and the Mastermind Leadership Team have developed “The ICS Way,” which is dedicated to gaining the perspectives of all our employees. Unlike a traditional organization where ideas come from senior management and eventually filter down, all employees are encouraged to take part in developing and presenting their thoughts in the form of proposals—instilling the concept that each employee has 2 jobs; the original position they are hired for, and to share their ideas to help us become even better.

The reinforcement and success of the ICS Way is evident in the development of multiple levels of training, both online and practical, and performance management coaching to enhance employee success and customer experience alike—an emphasis on holding colleagues and staff members capable and accountable at the forefront. The Human Resources Department maintains an open-door relationship with staff at all levels while also developing more learning and growth opportunities—many supervisory and managerial positions are filled with staff that have developed “through the ranks,” starting as grocery or deli clerks or cashiers and advancing through the company into supervisors, managers, and/or office staff.

What significant changes have happened in the sector in the past years, and which modern methods have disrupted it?

During the recent challenges retail stores faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, ICS is proud to have not laid off any staff, despite needing to close two integral departments—café and wholesale. Staff from those departments were repurposed, which added a considerable amount of morale to the stores as well as cross-training for many staff members. As a result of the challenges to the grocery service industry, and along with the surplus staff, ICS needed to rapidly develop a process for our customers to shop from home and collect their groceries in a safe way. Across several departments, we were able to create both an online and an over-the-phone option for our customers to make their grocery orders and compliment that process with 2 options of collection: either curbside pick-up or free delivery. As the pandemic restrictions wound down, we developed this process even further with the creation of a click ‘n collect e-commerce website – automating the ordering process for our customers and streamlining the rapidly developing process.

What has been the best recognition that you have received as a professional?

In 2013, I received the Paul Harris Fellowship Award from The Rotary Foundation of Rotary International. “Service above self” is the motto of this award founded in 1957 to encourage and show appreciation for substantial contributions. Given that Rotary is comprised of fellow volunteers and community-service-minded individuals, I found this recognition among those who also contribute to their communities in such large ways incredibly honoring – not to mention others who have previously received this distinction (US President Jimmy Carter, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, US astronaut James Lovell, UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, and polio vaccine developer Jonas Salk).

Where do you see yourself and the company in upcoming years?

Having recently completed a 2-day intensive strategic planning meeting with the store leadership and mastermind teams, ICS won’t be slowing down any time soon. The session yielded concrete plans to continue and expand our focus on our investment in our people, adapt and invest in new and innovative business practices, and grow our fan base. Plans for more training, store development, and promotion of our people will allow for easier staffing of new locations, possibly beyond Alberta’s borders!

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