A supply chain of trust

From the April 2024 print edition

Mark Kenny likes to describe his journey throug his procurement career as going “from dish pig to desk jockey.”

As a youth, the Stratford, Ontario native spent summers at Grand Bend, on the shores of Lake Huron in the province’s southwest. His first job saw him working in the food service industry when he was 14, as a dishwasher at a local restaurant called J Dee’s Summerhouse. It took only two weeks working there before its owners (Kenny’s lifelong friends to this day) moved him to the broiler bar and taught him how to be a line cook.

“I wasn’t a great line cook but it did kickstart my love of cooking for other people,” says Kenny, now senior manager, procurement, planning and operations at hospitality services at the University of Guelph. Eventually, he was promoted to kitchen manager, while his skills grew to include those he uses in his current role: purchasing, inventory management, quality control, as well as transportation and logistics. At the time, Kenny had no idea where such skills would take him.

“I was just a kid running a kitchen the best way I knew how, most likely from taking so many cues from watching my mom run our kitchen at home with style and grace,” he says.

Kenny worked at three other restaurants during those early years before eventually landing a job at the University of Guelph, although not yet in procurement. Rather, he managed a printing and graphics shop – a position that suited him due to an interest in art and design developed in high school, combined with an innate creative streak. Kenny found that, once again, several procurement principals applied
to the job, although in a different context. After 10 years there, the university offered him the opportunity to move into the procurement office of its hospitality services.

At this point in his career, Kenny also began a formal study of procurement. Through Supply Chain Canada, he completed his Supply Chain Management Professional (SCMP) designation at Toronto’s Humber College in 2009. He also attended Conestoga College in Stratford, receiving a diploma in business administration, as well as studying for a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Guelph as a mature student.

“My love of food, cooking skills, and restaurant management background made it the perfect opportunity to grow the university’s local purchasing initiatives, which at the time were small but beginning to support local farmers and producers,” he says.

At the same time, a local food movement was developing in the area, and Kenny set out to meet as many local farmers and food producers as possible. His ambition was to incorporate local food into what the university served. At the time, the concept was rather novel: the institution’s chefs would use local food to feed a student population of over 20,000, with small-scale farmers supplying that food.

Over the years, Kenny has participated in focus groups and panel discussions that have allowed him to meet other local food enthusiasts. Eventually, he was able to help develop and launch the Taste Real initiative in 2011, started by Kate Vsetula and now lead by Christina Mann. The initiative started as branding for Guelph Wellington Local Food supporting local businesses, farms, and producers.

“At the time, incorporating local food into such a commercial environment was a real challenge. But now, with a great team of chefs here supporting the beginning initiatives, local food in university foodservice is commonplace and really offers our students, faculty, and staff the best of what our regional farmers offer,” Kenny says. “The food at the University of Guelph is legendary, award winning, and one of the best recruitment tools we have in our toolkit.”

Variety adds spice
Procurement and supply chain are both known for their lack of “typical days,” and Kenny’s routine is no exception. That variety is part of what attracts him to the field, he notes. One day, Kenny can spend his time reviewing his 50-to-70 daily emails and acting on the ones that need a response. Like many in the field, Kenny can spend time writing contracts, drafting RFPs, or reviewing 100-page contracts. Other days can be filled with meetings with suppliers, visiting chefs in the kitchen, or trying new products (those days are among his favourites).

Technology has largely taken over the business of meetings and communication. In both our private and business lives, we rely on tools like Google Meet or Microsoft Teams to speak with colleagues and acquaintances in order to see them face to face. For Kenny, food service procurement remains, as much as possible, an in-person affair. Facetime with suppliers is crucial to build trust, learn about each other, solve problems, and celebrate wins, he says.

The business revolves around people, and those one-on-one interactions are important to the success of relationships with the final customer: the students who actually consume the food. The institution wants them to have the best food experience possible while attending Guelph.

“You can’t do that through emails,” Kenny says. “I’ve built many long-term relationships over the past 20 years that could not have been possible without meeting in person, in my office, or in a farmer’s field.”

Perhaps the most non-typical part of Kenny’s day involves marketing work. He collaborates with the university’s marketing team, as well
as the chefs who cook at the university, to help develop concepts for new operations on the campus, design logos, menus, and other features.

He especially enjoys that creative aspect of his work. The art and design eye he developed working at the print shop, and while pursuing personal interests like architecture and furniture design, has resulted in some new operations.

“The nice marriage between the two is that I get to tell the stories of the food that I’m purchasing through our marketing channels,” he says.

“It’s really an interesting job, because normally a procurement person doesn’t work in marketing. I’ve always been good at it, so it’s a nice added bonus that I’m good at both of those things.”

There are moments in Kenny’s career that stand out, even helping to define who he is, he says. Perhaps the most decisive of these was earning his SCMP designation (known as the CPP at the time). Overall, Kenny found his time in elementary and high school uninspiring. Yet he could enter almost any business situation and thrive. Earning the designation was a four-year process that included attending night school, but Kenny realized it would offer him opportunities that were otherwise closed to him at the time.

A plant agriculture professor at the University of Guelph, Manish Raizada, has asked Kenny several times to guest lecture a class about agri-food systems, representing another career highlight. The course is an introduction to agri-food systems, both Canadian and global. Kenny’s lecture has focused on how the university procures local food, as well as how it incorporates sustainability and economies of scale while following the Broader Public Sector rules of procurement.

“He was like, ‘we just want you to come in and talk to the first-year agricultural students about why the food is like it is at Guelph, and how you do it. What are you doing locally? How are you supporting farmers?’ – all that conversation,” Kenny says of the invitation to speak to students. “So, of course, that was right in my wheelhouse. I was very engaged in talking to the students about that because they come
to the university knowing the food is great, but they don’t know anything about it, like how did it get here?”

Kenny was also awarded the Local Food Ambassador Award in 2012 from Taste Real. The award was unexpected, Kenny says, although he has spent many hours in committee meetings, attending local events, meeting partners, and growing local supply chains in Guelph-
Wellington. The award Kenny received was in the shape of a fork. To this day, the fork award hangs on his office door to remind him
to “keep eating well and laughing often,” which Kenny says has been a long-time motto for him.

The food services industry supply chain has improved in the post-pandemic era but isn’t yet fully back to the way it once was, Kenny notes. The greatest challenge to the field concerns staffing and people. It’s hard to pin down exactly what has happened, although Kenny cites a disconnect between people and the principles necessary for a well-functioning operation. Not all employees returned to work, for example, and the pre-pandemic dedication to working as part of a team seems to have waned. That’s meant fewer people performing the same workload.

“The supply chain I know is not 100 per cent back to, let’s say, 2017 and 2018 levels,” Kenny says. “That’s certainly in our industry, and I’m sure it’s the same everywhere. I believe that people are still the problem. People haven’t come back to work after COVID. Nobody seems to know where they’ve gone. This is a recurring conversation with everybody I talk to. That is one of the big issues right now, people have left the food service industry.”

Outside of work, Kenny remains involved in food-related projects. One such project is called Cooking by Degrees, which Kenny developed with friend and mentor Owen Roberts, who is a lecturer and director at the University of Illinois. The undertaking is a recipe series – first appearing in the Toronto Star newspaper’s digital space – that highlights campus chefs and their recipes. The series highlights such chefs from across Canada, as well as the farmers and producers they support. The project has won the Best of CAMA 2022 and Best of NAMA 2022, two industry awards.

Kenny also works with the Canadian College & University Food Service Association (CCUFSA), a national organization supporting procurement and supply chain at colleges and universities. Through the organization, Kenny manages a national trade show and co-operative purchasing group for 16 institutions across Canada.

“It challenges me to stay current with food trends, build relationships in institutional procurement and, one day, to hopefully mentor up-and-coming supply chain professionals in our unique industry,” he says. “With 27 years at the University of Guelph, I look forward to
a continued successful career in supply chain management and making a difference in other people’s lives.”

Kenny’s wife Jen is a former chef, and the couple enjoy travelling and sampling the food in restaurants around the world. Post-pandemic, the couple has been looking to restart their former travel habits. He also enjoys playing golf, and through his creative background developed a love of architecture and furniture design.

A family friend is an architect and an authority on domed stadiums and arena design, as well as a founding partner in the firm that designed Toronto’s Rogers Centre stadium, originally called the SkyDome. Kenny even owned a blueprint diagram of the facility, and when he was younger spent his free time designing mid-century modern style homes on graph paper. As a child, he often visited his godfather in Toronto, who he says had great furniture.

“His furniture was Eames, Breuer and Bertoia to name a few,” Kenny says. “Clean lines, soft textures, and simple design. The less-is-more theory works for my eye. I am fortunate enough to now own an Eames Sofa Compact and Bertoia Diamond Chair, both of which I cherish. I sat on these as a kid and now use them at home and office daily, reminding me how important this relationship with my godfather is.”

Integrity first
Regarding advice for those new to the field, Kenny cites integrity –honesty and strong moral principles – as the most important trait
in a procurement role. It’s a people-focused business, and integrity is a cornerstone of relationship building. Ensure that you do what you say you’re going to do, Kenny says. Avoid sugar coating information or covering up mistakes or bad news. Customers and suppliers must trust each other to produce successful contracts. Integrity gets built over time, so be vigilant in the pursuit of building that trust.

“We’re in the trust business,” he says. “I have to trust the people that I’m buying food from, because the people that we’re serving food to, they have to trust us. The supply chain of trust is from the farmer to the plate. If you don’t have trust with somebody in that regard, how can you work together to come up with contracts and all that?”

It’s also important to stay flexible in approaching everyday challenges, Kenny adds. Those challenges are constant during any procurement career. Outside influence is an ever-present pressure on decision making. Whether that influence comes from economics, people, mechanical breakdowns or elsewhere, try to spot it in advance. COVID-19 taught the world how vulnerable supply chains can be – shortages, stockouts, staffing issues, and manufacturing problems were all exacerbated by the pandemic, and we felt the effects globally.

Procurement professionals must be ready to pivot, not letting last-minute changes upset the process too much. Be fluid and realize that you cannot control everything, Kenny says.

“You need to be open to change, sometimes on an hourly basis,” he notes. “You can’t be so rigid in your thinking that you think, ‘this is how it’s going to happen every single day. It doesn’t work like that. Fresh or perishable product is a perfect example. If there’s a problem, you don’t really hear about it until two days later, because that’s how long it can take to get to market. So, the more you know, the better off you are.”

Finally, in the food service sector, supply chain decisions tie directly to the final meal that customers eat, so what gets served is important.

“We believe in truth in advertising and go to great lengths to ensure our products are authentic and true to our food philosophies,” Kenny says. “Always make sure what you do is what you said you’ll do. Your customer will come to know you for your brand, your personal style, and the way you do business. And brand loyalty is paramount. Just as much as customers have brand loyalty, so too do manufacturers and distributors. If you’re authentic and true, they will keep coming back to you to collaborate, communicate, and problem solve.”