All in the Family
New co-packing enterprise well on track to make big waves in plant-based beverage markets with state-of-the-art aseptic packaging technology
If the quality of life is determined by finding a happy balance between work and family life, then Stew Cardiff thinks he has one of life’s biggest mysteries figured out.
Growing up as one of six children on a family farm outside the tiny southwestern Ontario community of Brussels, being part of a family business was an integral part-and-parcel of Stewart’s upbringing that laid foundations for a highly successful career path in both the food business and the more buttoned-down white-collar world of corporate finance, where he rose through the ranks to join a senior management team at TD Canada Trust, one of the country’s largest commercial banks.
While the latter career feat would more than suffice for most people trying to make a good living for themselves and their loved ones, Cardiff’s exceptional entrepreneurial skillset—combined with solid academic background and natural curiosity about food science and technology—helped him grow into a man whose happiness is defined by being fully in charge of his own destiny.
So when he quit his high-paying job with the bank in 2003 to start up a cheese company literally from scratch, there were more than a few eyebrows raised among many of his friends and colleagues.
“Most people I knew, just about everybody, thought I was crazy,” Cardiff recalls. “Leaving a very good job, a senior level position, at a leading bank, to start making cheese from milk from my sheep farms I also owned … it’s just something no one could relate to.
“I still recall one of the senior V-Ps at TD Bank calling me six months into the venture saying, ‘Cardiff are you done playing around with those sheep and that cheese hobby? We want you back!
“Trust me, it was a difficult ‘no thanks, I want to give it a little more time’, as it was the toughest thing I ever did.”
For Cardiff, however, getting back to his farming roots was a calculated risk that ultimately paid off in spades in 2018, when Canada’s leading dairy products group Saputo purchased his family-owned Shepherd Gourmet Dairy operation in St. Marys, Ont.
Starting out in a small 5,000-square-foot plant making sheep cheese from the sheep milk sourced from his and his brother’s farm, the fledgling start-up quickly grew into a highly reputed supplier of high-quality sheep products—with time extending into goat cheese and then traditional cow milk cheeses—supplying all the leading national grocery chains under its own Shepherd Gourmet label and other highly respected brands.
By the time Saputo came around with a generous offer that was just too good to turn down, Shepherd Gourmet Dairy already ranked as the country’s largest producer of sheep milk cheeses, and a leading co-packer of premium-quality cheese products for many well-known national brands.
“We grew up rather quickly in a heavily regulated business,” Cardiff says, “much faster than we expected.
“I used to tell people that Shepherd Gourmet was the best-kept secret in Southern Ontario,” Cardiff recalls, “and once people got to know who we were, the business really took off nicely.
“We invested heavily in technology and keeping our plant spotless, and by the time potential buyers would start coming through our facility, they knew that we were very serious about what we were doing.
“We always took great pride in our facility,” says Cardiff, who was more than happy to see his wife and his two daughters join the family enterprise in 2008, along with his future son-in-law and business partner in Cardiff Products, Jon McPhail.
As Cardiff explains, having close family members on-board working alongside many dedicated employees creates a unique sense of ownership and vested self-interest that is hard to replicate in conventional management hierarchies and structures, if not impossible.
After the sale to Saputo, his son-in-law Jon pitched the idea in 2019 of working together again, and Cardiff was more than happy to put his entrepreneurial instincts and vast operational experience to good use again.
“The timing of the call from Jon was prophetic, as only a few days prior a good friend in the industry flagged the aseptic business as an opportunity for our family,” he recalls.
“He knew our organized approach to business and processing expertise would be a welcome entrant to the industry.
“At the same time I had also been noting a trend towards shelf-stable and plant-based beverages in my own travels,” he adds, “and my personal appetite had also moved more towards a plant-based diet.”
After a thorough evaluation of available production sites in the area, Cardiff set his sights on Discovery Drive in southeast London, in close proximity to Highway 401 and Highway 402.
Soon after, Cardiff proceeded to design a 50,000-square-foot factory himself along with his son-in-law Jon—just as he did with the Shepherd Gourmet plant in St Mary’s—while launching extensive capital investments aimed at making the new Cardiff Products plant as modern and state-of-the-art as possible in time for start-up.
Commencing operations in March of 2021, the 30-employee operation marked its start-up with resounding aplomb, running a 24/5 schedule to turn out sizable quantities of private-label plant-based beverages packaged in one-litre Tetra Pak Slim beverage cartons manufactured by the world’s leading aseptic packaging and processing technologies group Tetra Pak.
Running two turnkey filling lines supplied and expertly installed along with Tetra Pak Canada personnel to ensure optimal production efficiencies—from blending and pasteurization through filling/capping and on through to the downstream packaging machinery—the extensive array of Tetra Pak equipment laid out in perfect sequential order is naturally a great source of pride for Cardiff.
“Tetra Pak is the industry standard,” he says, “and considering we were new to the industry, it made sense that we stick with a known entity right out of the gate.
“Compared to our very humble beginnings for my last dairy business, this was like taking off in a rocket ship,” Cardiff extols, adding he loves working with the high-performance Tetra Pak equipment and with shelf-stable aseptic beverage cartons more and more each passing day.
“Doing aseptic processing and packaging is difficult,” Cardiff remarks, “but our ultra-modern plant and our loyal dedicated staff were up to the challenge.
“It was imperative to uphold our reputation gained from our days of owning Shepherd Gourmet, when we were well-known for our high-quality products, strong customer focus, and efficient operation of state-of-the-art facilities.”
For Cardiff, choosing to go with aseptic beverage production technology provided a welcome opportunity to put many of the technical, IT and business skills he acquired with his previous venture back into action—integrating the highly-automated Tetra Pak machinery with the company’s larger enterprise operating systems to optimize overall process efficiencies.
“With technology advances, including state-of-the-art SCADA, ERP and EDI systems, a family company such as ourselves can operate at scale and still remain in close contact with our customers,” says Cardiff, adding he feels “blessed” to have his wife, along with both daughters and their spouses, join the company’s management team in various capacities.
“We have no head office,” Cardiff expands. “Our customers always have access to a decision-maker, and we can move very quickly once a direction is agreed upon.
“Our company is one team and there is no finger-pointing internally: We own our mistakes and we learn from them,” Cardiff states.
“Our customers have always appreciated this approach at Shepherd, and now at Cardiff.
“We have won awards with major brand-owners for this approach,” Cardiff point outs, “and we still live by it today.”
This approach has enabled Cardiff Products to establish its name in all the right retail and CPG (consumer packaged goods) circles with such speed that the company is already in the opening stages of a 40,000-square-foot facility expansion that it hopes to complete by March of 2022.
According to Cardiff, the expansion will involve construction of a new onsite warehouse and installation of two to three more turnkey production lines to massively boost its manufacturing capacity; diversify its product portfolio with other carton sizes and formats; and grow its workforce to about 75 full-time staff.
Cardiff readily acknowledges that being an aseptic operation gives the company a strong competitive advantage in attracting new customers, being perfectly in line with the larger food industry trends towards more shelf-stable product in general and towards more plant-based foods and beverages in particular.
With Tetra Pak as a partner, there’s really no limit to the heights that his new business ventures can reach, according to Cardiff, quick to praise Tetra Pak’s exemplary customer service capabilities.
Says Cardiff: “Any time you work with any other company cooperatively, you get to know their systems, you get to know their equipment, you get to know their personnel, and you can build many mutual synergies and trust over the time you work together.
“Being a very collaborative person myself, I really believe in the advantages of a team-based approach to problem-solving and working with like-minded people,” Cardiff states.
“Their technicians helped us out through some very tough times during the COVID pandemic lockdowns,” he says, “and that kind of customer service really resonates with me.”
With his new plant boasting the vaunted globally recognized BRC AA food safety rating of the GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative)—along with authoritative Gluten-free, Kosher and Organic certifications—Cardiff says he’s highly upbeat about the new company’s chances of becoming the next “best-kept secret in southern Ontario” before long.
“Our initial success has really exceeded all our expectations,” Cardiff sums up, “but we intend to manage our growth carefully to maintain our high levels of quality and service going forward.
“We are a multigenerational family company,” he concludes, “and we are definitely in it for the long term.”