Entrepreneur Of The Year 2021 winner: Darrell Jones puts Save-On-Foods at the top of the grocery food chain

Since taking over as president of Save-On-Foods in 2012, Darrell Jones has grown the grocery chain's store count by almost 50 percent

In the highly competitive grocery business, Darrell Jones knows how important it is to understand what your rivals are doing. “If they do something well, go and copy it and make it better,” says the president of Save-On-Foods, which shares a crowded marketplace with brands like Sobeys/Safeway, Superstore, Walmart and Amazon. “But the worst thing you can do, in our opinion, is to chase somebody or get fixated on a competitor,” Jones argues. “If you sat around and thought about all those guys, your head would explode.”

Instead, Jones believes in striving for continuous improvement. “You come back to the same thing: What is it that we’re all about? What makes us special, in our view? What can we do to continue to differentiate ourselves from the competitors? That, to me, is the secret sauce to success for any entrepreneur, to be different and better than your competitors, and be innovative and try things that nobody else has tried to see if they work.”

Jones has spent his whole career with Save-On-Foods. He grew up in Cranbrook, where as a Grade 11 student he started bagging groceries at the local Overwaitea Foods in 1976. “There were great people within the store, and something about the grocery business,” he recalls. “For some people, anyway, it’s like a bug, and once it bites you, you pretty much get addicted.”

Planning to earn a teaching degree, Jones moved to Port Coquitlam two years later for a full-time job with the chain. He thought he’d do that for a year but went on to work at about 20 stores, rising through the ranks of what is now Save-On-Foods to become regional manager, then vice-president. His boss, Jimmy Pattison, appointed him president in early 2012.

When Jones took charge, he upheld the company’s existing culture, which he describes as a family atmosphere where everyone cares for each other. But he also adjusted its vision statement to “Always Customer First.” For Langley-based Save-On-Foods, there’s the internal and the external customer, Jones explains. “If you don’t take really good care of your internal customer—in other words, your team members—you’ll have zero chance of doing a great job with the customers who come through the door.”

Jones set some big goals, too, including an ambitious annual sales target. To help make that happen, he took the company into Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. When Save-On-Foods opens a location, it tailors its offerings to the local demographic. “What people want in Richmond is not the same thing they want in the city of Winnipeg,” Jones says of that approach.

In another innovation, Save-On-Foods became an early adopter of e-commerce about five years ago. Unlike other grocery chains, the company has its own in-house digital platform, with a fleet of more than 160 vans doing home delivery. “We said, Look, we want to be able to give customers groceries where they want, when they want and how they want,” Jones recalls. “So we decided that the best way for us to do that was to control the experience the customer had when they went online to buy groceries.”

Paul Hazra, Save-On-Foods’ CFO, has worked with Jones for almost seven years. “He’s always got a big focus on great causes for the community and for those less fortunate,” says Hazra, noting that Jones chairs the board of the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation. The company and its suppliers, employees and customers have donated some $40 million to children’s hospitals across Western Canada, and each year they give $3 million to the region’s food banks. Save-On-Foods has also diverted more than 10 million kilograms of food waste to food banks and farms since 2018.

“He loves talking to all of our team members at our stores, not just the management team but as many employees as he can talk to,” Hazra adds of Jones. “Having grown up in the company, he’s very passionate about their growth and success.”

Save-On-Foods likes to promote people from within for a couple of reasons, Jones explains. “No. 1, they understand the culture of our company, which is maybe just a little bit different,” he says of the 106-year-old business.

Second, with about 20,000 staff under its three banners, which also include Urban Fare and PriceSmart Foods, the company keeps a close eye on succession planning. “Giving people the opportunity to grow and to take on bigger responsibility is a big part of our success story,” Jones says. “Because the best entrepreneurs are the ones that come from within, as far as we’re concerned.”

Along with setting goals, it’s crucial to give staff autonomy, Jones argues. For example, if the goal is to increase a store’s sales by 10 percent, the manager is left to figure that out. “There may be certain guidelines, but you have to make those as loose as possible and give people the freedom to do what they think is best to run their business.”

Under Jones, Save-On-Foods has grown its store count by almost 50 percent, to 184. The company has delivered on his sales goal, too, after boosting revenue significantly during the 2020 fiscal year. It got through the main stretch of the COVID-19 pandemic without any store closures, Jones says. “We were as successful as you can be in difficult times, and I think that is largely due to our team members and the fact that they felt safe and felt comfortable coming in.”

Asked what’s next for Save-On-Foods, Jones notes that it’s now the second-largest grocery player in Western Canada, on track to reach 200 stores by 2024. “Once we’re No. 1, we’ll look for the next spot to go, whether that’s further east or down south.”

To that end, he says the business is fortunate to be privately owned, which lets it take a longer-term view. “Stock market companies tend to measure themselves by the last four months, whereas we measure ourselves over a five-year period.”

Besides focusing on the customer, an entrepreneur should avoid living in fear, Jones says. “Whatever you do, you don’t want to risk your company on trying something new,” he warns. “But if you’re not trying something new and different and continuing to try and differentiate yourself from your competitors, you won’t be in business very long.”

10 Questions With Darrell Jones

What was your first summer job?

Working for a company called Southern Music in Cranbrook that had pool tables, jukeboxes and pinball machines. I used to go and make sure that everything was in repair.

Is an entrepreneur born or made? 

Made, more than likely. But if you’re born with a desire to seek out new things and success, some of that is inherent. A lot of that has to do with your upbringing by your parents, in my view. If you’re a young [person] and your parents were good enough to tell you, Look, you can do anything you want to do. If somebody hears that from the time that they’re four or five years old, they’re going to be successful. I suspect it’s probably a combination of both.

What is your definition of success?

Accomplishing things that you want to accomplish, for yourself, but more importantly, for the organization you work for and the community you’re part of.

What other career might you have had?

I think it probably would have been in education. I’m a big history buff. It’s fascinating to look back at history and say, What can we learn from what happened? How can we help not make the same mistakes again? In today’s world, we can learn a lot from the past, and I don’t think sometimes we pay enough attention to it.

Name one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you.

I’m as much the guy next door that you’d go for a beer with as anything else. I’m just a normal guy. Love my family, love my grandsons and just love to be with my family.

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”


What businessperson do you most admire?

No question: Jimmy Pattison. There’s a guy who had nothing and has built himself one of the largest privately held companies in Canada. And I haven’t heard too many controversies surrounding Jimmy. He makes his money and gives it away—the vast majority, if not all of it.

We don’t have to go far from home to find somebody to admire. I would say that it’s Jimmy, because he personifies—at 92, still going to work six days a week. I would say other than my father early on in my business career, Jimmy has certainly been the most influential guy to me, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him.

What do you do to relax/unwind?

I like to spend time with my family. When I have more time, I like to do a little bit more golfing. I like to travel and see different parts of the world.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Driven. If you don’t encourage people and push them to do something different, they’ll take the path of least resistance. And that isn’t always the way to become a successful entrepreneur. So I would say that I encourage the people around me to make sure that they’re not just taking something because it’s the easiest way out, because it may not be the best way.

Sometimes, the easiest way is the best way. So I would say if you’re going to come to say, This is the solution, make sure you’ve thought it through. Because I don’t know that you can be successful you’ve thought your ideas through and your people have thought them through.

If somebody wants to try something and I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, but they’re certain it is, 99 times out of 100 I say, Go ahead. Because they have the passion to want to do something. But all I want to know when I talk to somebody about something is, do you really have a passion to do this? Have you thought it through?

Because guess what? They could very well be right, and I could very well be wrong. The first things you’ve got to learn is, you’re often not right. The people around you might have the best ideas. That’s why you have to let them do them.

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing. 

I usually don’t take enough business cards.