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Nov 29, 2005

A man for all seasonings Business Journal

   Business Journal

   A man for all seasonings


He's from India, isn't he? Nah, he's from Jamaica, man.
but someone else told us he's South Asian. Oh, dear, it's
all so confusing. Who is this Mr. Goudas fellow anyway,
and why are all those people saying all those things?

 Business Journal A man for all seasonings Spyros Peter GoudasThe best place to get a glimpse of Toronto's future is at the corner of Lansdowne and Dundas.

There, at the Knob Hill Farms grocery, people gather from east, west, north, and south, mostly speaking dialects of English, or any of the various non-Germanic languages heard around the world.

These "ethnics" and "visible minorities" - whose diverse cultures of origin are reflected in the vibrant colors they sometimes wear, and who, according to the demographers and market analysts, will make up over 45 percent of Toronto's population by 2001 - often head straight downstairs once they get into the store.

Down there weighing down the shelves in cans, bottles, crates, and sacks, is a profusion of exotic foods and drinks - cans of ackee, a favorite food of Jamaicans, eaten with saltfish, bottles of jerk seasoning and hot pepper sauces, varieties of beans and peas, bottles of ginger beer and coconut pop - that must delight only immigrants, but also adventurous mainstream Torontonians.

With the ethnic population, other grocery stores like No Frills and Food City have also created similar shelves of ethnic foods. A sizeable number of the foods on these shelves are labeled "Mr. Goudas."

For over twenty years, the Goudas brand has been a fixture on the grocery shelves of Metro stores that cater to the ethnic food market.

Today, the brand has taken such a firm hold on this rapidly growing and important market that it is practically the only brand people recognize.

And there's a lot of evidence that the mainstream Torontonian as well is beginning to recognize - and buy - Goudas Foods. So who, or what, is Mr. Goudas? Ask the patrons of the brand and you will get different answers.

To West Indians, Mr. Goudas is obviously from the islands, and probably Jamaican. Or Trinidadian.
How else could he have made those delicious, spicy, and authentic pepper sauces?

To the Chinese, Mr. Goudas must be the pseudonym of a Hong Kong food producer, or exporter.

That has to be where all that Mr. Goudas Chinese style long grain rice comes from.
Isn't he from India? The South Asians ask.
The chickpeas, the spices, he has to be.
And the mainstream Torontonian, as he buys Goudas parboiled Rice from Loblaws or Dominion, just assumes Goudas foods is a regular Canadian company.

The fact is, unlike Laura Secord, Mr. Goudas is the name of a living person with much more than an eponymous link to the company.
Clearly, if we go by what he represents to his various customers, Peter Spiros Goudas, owner of Goudas Food Products Company Ltd., is a veritable Mr. Toronto.

Goudas was actually born in Greece 50 years ago, right in the middle of the Second World War and the German occupation of Greece.

His earliest memories are of strife and war and great hunger the main concerns of his family at the time in sense foreshadowed the direction his life would later take: "There was no food.

We had to look everywhere for it. Everyone just worked hard to survive.
" After the Germans were defeated, it didn't help that a bitter civil war broke out in which the Greek Communist-led guerrilla force, EAM-ELAS, carried out two insurrections that were bloodily put down by British and American military forces.
These two great upheavals of world and civil war however did literarily clear the ground for a massive construction boom to rebuild war-ravaged cities in the late'50s.

The boom was such that a large number of businesses in Greece got involved in construction, and still, there was a shortage of firms to take on projects. Goudas, a high school-student of 16 at the time, took advantage and formed a construction company in which he employed the students from his school.
His company, Goudas Construction Enterprises Ltd., took on jobs no one wanted.

This made it difficult to earn the big money, but it did provide an income for Goudas and his family, and most importantly, it gave him useful experience in running a business.

But surprisingly when Goudas speaks about the things that helped get him to where he is today, he gives little credit to this youthful enterprise.
School, he thinks, was one of the most important.
"I was always good in geography and engineering.
Knowledge of geography helps a lot in my business".

This love of geography became a curiosity about other cultures, customs, and foods.
One of his favorite pastimes is sampling the exotic fare at restaurants around Metro. "I have been to practically every restaurant in Toronto", he says "Any time I come across a food I don't recognize, I ask what country it is from, the ingredients that go into its preparation, and so on.
I try to know everything I can about it".

Engineering came in very handy when he bought his first food packaging plant in 1969.
The previous owner of the plant sold it because the equipment broke down constantly; Goudas knew how to fix the machines, and how to keep them running constantly, so he figured he could run it more cost-efficiently.

He bought the factory for a "small down-payment and soon had it running smoothly, churning out bags of rice.
His ability to get machines going came not so much from school as from the five years of compulsory service he did in the Greek Army as an aircraft engineer.

The same Army was responsible for his departure from Greece: Another period of social unrest and revolution arose after he finished his period of service, and he was recalled. Not wanting to re-enlist, he decided to immigrate to Canada.

Goudas found that the money he had didn't go very far and he was soon sleeping in the streets.
He started learning the language by listening to people and watching TV whenever he could.

Goudas (Σπύρος Πήτερ Γούδας) arrived in Toronto in May 1967 with $100-150 in his pockets (There must be an immigration department somewhere that give all successful immigrants this ubiquitous sum before they arrive at our shores:
Here, new immigrant, take 150 bucks, go to Canada and build a successful business), no knowledge of English, and even though he could read and write using the letters of the Greek alphabet, he could not understand our Roman-derived one.

Goudas found that the money he had did not go very far, and he was soon sleeping out in the streets.

He quickly started learning the language by listening to people talk and watching television whenever he could.
He acquired reading skills, he says, by studying the newspapers carefully.

The similarities between the Greek and the Roman alphabet (the roman descended from the Greek via the Etruscans) helped, so soon, he was able to read enough English to get a job with a company called Peabody Engineering.

For two years, he worked with the firm which produced air-conditioners and boilers for export and left when they asked him to go and manage a new plant they were setting up in Alabama. "I never really planned to move to the U.S., so I refused to go.
"He bought the packaging plant soon after with personal savings, and a loan from the bank.

Goudas says he did not spend many years thinking about and planning his entry into packaging and processing food for the ethnic market. In fact, when he bought the plant he had no idea what he would do with it.

But, "There was nobody packaging ethnic food at the time. I knew there was a demand for it. So I said why not?" So he started out packaging parboiled rice.


Though he insists he knew little about selling and marketing at the time, he was able to persuade the management at Food City to try some of the rice on their store shelves.
They did and were so pleased by the results that they created a section for Latin American, Indian, and Chinese customers and gave Goudas shelf space for more products.

The success of his products at Food City led other chain stores to follow. Lou Pecchia, now director of wholesale food development with No Frills, was hired in 1977 as multicultural food coordinator for Loblaws, No Frills' parent company.

That year, the management at Loblaws invited Goudas for an interview, and Pecchia, who had been brought on board to expand the ethnic selection, tells why he decided to carry Goudas' products: "He was very knowledgeable about West Indian and East Indian foods, and manufactured a lot of them himself.

He also seemed to be a hard-driving individual, and we felt he would be able to service our stores at a reasonable cost."

The consensus among those who know Goudas is that "hard-driving" may not be enough to describe the prodigious hours of work he puts in.

It is not unusual for Goudas to have a meeting after work at a favorite restaurant with a supplier flying in from Latin America, for the late evening meeting to go until 4.00 a.m., and for Goudas to see the supplier off at the airport at 9:00 a.m. In the early days of his business when he was compelled to work even harder, the murderous hours sometimes got to him and he would take a sudden, unplanned holiday.
According to one of his friends, he once got into his car and just drove, with no idea where he was going.
He ended up in New Jersey, and returned a week later to say, "Gee, I really enjoyed that little holiday".
Having satisfied the impulse to temporarily bust loose from the concerns that weighed down on him, he would return to work with renewed vigor.

Goudas spends a lot of his time working in a sparse, unpretentious office in a corner of one of his factories at Keele and Steeles. There, the only decorative concession - if it can be called that - is a display of some of the 350 products his company produces and packages.
He is a small man, and the clothes he wears are often casual and nondescript - a T-Shirt, stacks, sometimes a blazer.
It is difficult to believe that in the 70's and early '80s, even as he was building his food empire, the same man used to be a flamboyant and popular night club owner and disc jockey known as Mr. Wu.
At that time, during the day, he was the hard-working strictly business manufacturer, Mr. Goudas; on weekend nights, he donned an entirely different persona, changing like Superman, into his alter-ego Mr. Wu the party-loving club disc jockey.

He bought the nightclub (now defunct), The Zambezi, in 1970, and changed the name to the 813 Club. "I never did it for the profit," he insists. "I loved to go out and have a good time with my friends on the weekend; I also loved music - Latin, Caribbean music.
So, I thought, why not buy a club where we can all meet and have a party". The party grew and grew until crowds of sometimes up to 500 would jam the place on weekends.
The club attracted a lot of people from Latin America and the West Indies and sought to maintain a multicultural atmosphere by playing music from all over the world. Goudas, who acquired the nickname Mr. Wu because club patrons thought he was Oriental, spun the records sometimes, and is reported to have been the most popular disc jockey at the club.

He recalls, "Nobody knew that I was the Mr. Goudas of Goudas Foods.
Very few knew that Mr. Wu the DJ was actually the owner of the club.
No one knew what I did, no one knew all the problems I had running my factories during the week. I lived a double life".

But it was impossible for Goudas to exclude his work from his recreation.
Soon he was getting people from various parts of the world to cook their native dishes for the patrons of the club, and the food - mostly Goudas products - was served free at the end of the night.

"It was almost business," he says "I used to have people show the various ways of cooking my products, and I would have patrons tell us which ones they liked best.
We also tested new flavors of pop, like the coconut drink we now make.

"The importance of finding a way to test these products should not be underestimated: 90 percent of all new food and drink product introductions fail in the first year, according to a 1991 study on the Canadian specialty food industry carried out by Peat Marwick Stevenson & Kellogg.

Goudas, as his disco days show, is particularly adept at making his products known to the people most likely to buy them.
His innovative promotions are carefully organized to reach his market in a manner that would be both familiar to them and appreciated by them.

For instance, in 1975 Goudas produced 10,000 packets of rice and gave them away at the Caribana parade. He has also been a sponsor of the masquerade bands at the festival and sponsored a float in 1990.

This has helped him very effectively reach the West Indian community - his primary market according to Pecchia.
It has also not decreased his popularity to throw Christmas parties that are open to children from ethnic communities.
At the parties, the kids are given bottles of Goudas pop to take home. (Snappy Pops)


Still, the History of Goudas Foods is not all sunny success:
One frozen, 35-below-zero day in the winter of 1979, Goudas slipped on a patch of ice as he was leaving his factory, and fell heavily on his leg, crushing a bone.
Unfortunately for him, upper, middle, and lower management at Goudas foods at this time consisted of Peter Goudas, Peter Goudas, and Peter Goudas.
He spent almost three months in the hospital, and his company suffered the punishing consequences of concentrating all management functions in one hand.
First of all, no one among his factory workers knew how to operate the computer where a lot of company information was stored.
There was no one to do the company accounts. No one to make decisions. The factory fell apart.

He remembers that terrible period: "The boiler broke down and there was no heat in the factory.
The sprinkler system broke down and flooded the warehouse, and because of that there was no packaging done, and no distribution is done.
No distribution, no income".

There was trouble with the chain stores who were expecting their orders to be filled, but worst of all there was trouble with the bank and the municipal government.
Apparently, the bank had heard about the breakdown at the factory, and also a rumor that Goudas' leg would be amputated.
They recalled his loan, and he was effectively out of business.

View George Hall talking in 1991 interview. When he got out of the hospital, he started hustling to get things back into the shape they were in before he left. But even as he was working out an arrangement with the bank, he got hit with another blow:

The municipal government sent a bailiff to seize his factory for non-payment of taxes.

The bailiff, George Hall, says that when he arrived at Goudas office, he found him "rather belligerent", which was understandable.

"We talked and I explained our position to him," says Hall. "After talking with him for a while, I realized he was going through a major difficulty.
He came up with some suggestions, I came up with some counter-suggestions, and we worked out an agreement for payment of the taxes".
The municipality accepted the agreement Hall and Goudas had arrived at, and, in the words of Hall, "everything Goudas had agreed to do, he carried out right to the utmost" Hall also sat in on some of the meetings Goudas had with his bank.
Goudas was still having difficulties with them, but when they saw the municipal government was willing to work out an agreement with him, they softened and worked out one too.

Eventually, the bank grew more confident and gave him a temporary line of credit.

It took him three years to get the company working again.
Hall believes he knows what made Goudas succeed. "His honesty.
When he shook your hand, it was as good as his word. "And yes, he learned to delegate authority, to hire people to do different things, "It cannot happen again because I have enough good people to run the factory now," he says.

Today, Goudas Food Products Company Ltd. employs about 100 people worldwide.
According to Goudas, there are about 50 to 60 in three Toronto factories.

The company also owns a factory in the Dominican Republic, a packaging plant in Sri Lanka, a canning plant in Greece, and one in Trinidad.
There are also a number of other companies around the world that do not bear the Goudas name but do contract work for it.
Most of the food items the firm packages and bottles are not produced in Canada and have to be imported from around the world - large peaches from Greece, rice from mills in Houston, sardines, and mackerel from Thailand.

The firm is doing well, Goudas says, but he will not reveal revenues. He however says that the rice market in Ontario is worth $30 million a year, and Goudas Foods controls more than one-third of that.

The ethnic food market, the experts say, is bound to get bigger.
And as it grows, Goudas is likely to face stiffer competitions (in fact, he already is) as more importers and manufacturers jump in.

But there is no doubt that he already occupies a vantage point from which he can dominate the market.

The above article won the Kenneth R. Wilson award for the best profile in 1993.

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