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Coffee company employees learns to deal with culture shock after moving its operations to Richmond

Mickey McLeod's little coffee-roasting café was named for its location, the artisan community of Saltspring Island.

Mickey McLeod's little coffee-roasting café was named for its location, the artisan community of Saltspring Island.

So when McLeod lost a rezoning bid and moved his growing business to the flat, industrial parks of mainland Richmond, he faced an additional challenge: managing culture shock for his employees.

Urban Richmond "definitely was a culture shock," said Salt Spring Coffee human-resources director David Norget, comparing daily life in the thriving city of 200,000 with life on artsy Saltspring, population 10,000.

"The [Richmond] houses are very ornate. They are bigger. It's not funky."

Salt Spring Coffee, an organic, Fair Trade and sustainable-environmental-practices coffee roaster, worked hard at change management, going so far as to provide a staff house for commuting employees.

McLeod told employees of the move some four months in advance, despite the risk of people quitting and leaving the company short-staffed. "Yes, it was a scary thing," said Norget, "but it seemed like the right thing to do."

Norget kept communication open, giving time off for job interviews and asking for help with transitions. Some people ended up working part-time at Salt Spring Coffee and part-time in their new jobs for a while. "In some cases, we hired in Vancouver and brought people over here to stay while we were still in transition," he said.

In the end, just 10 of the company's 70 employees left and were replaced in Richmond. Fifteen employees, ranging from a production supervisor to roasters and line-workers, moved to the mainland. The 35 employees who already worked in the company's Tsawwassen, Vancouver and Salt Spring cafés were unaffected. Eight people, mostly senior management, McLeod and Norget included, chose to commute.

The company learned some surprising lessons.

Locating a staff house in Richmond, near their new 18,500-square-foot roasting facility, offices and education centre, seemed a sensible move. But geographic proximity to work turned out to be less important than a familiar neighbourhood feel. So the company rented a four-bedroom near their Vancouver coffee house. The funky east Vancouver neighbourhood, boasting fashion designers, cafés and bike shops, was much more similar to home, but still close enough to Richmond to cycle to work. Most weeks, at least five staff stay at the house.

While the big changes were a shock, the accumulation of little changes turned out to be even more stressful.

"It's the little things, like how do we get to work?" Norget said. "If I'm taking the bus, how do I get there? Where do I stand? Do I have the right clothes with me? Toiletries?" Similarly, it was the little personal gestures that made all the difference.

One longtime supervisor was anxious about the move, which coincided with a personal move from Saltspring Island to the Sunshine Coast. Getting to work now meant taking three ferries, staying two weeks in Vancouver, then getting a long weekend at home. "That's incredible dedication," Norget noted, but said that at first, for this man, even staying at the staff house was stressful. "A number of staff [took it upon themselves to] set up his bed and even turned down the covers," said Norget, who now works two days a week from Saltspring and two days a week in Richmond. "I don't know how that came about."

One day, a ping-pong table appeared at the Richmond facility. "That symbol was poignant for me," Norget said. "There it is suddenly, out on the production floor, and I just love it."

Commuting managers use ferry travel time to work, or to relax. "How we are building in our hours is up to us," Norget said. Pay scales did not change, but a new policy covers travel costs and food.

McLeod, a former tree planter and small sawmill operator, and his wife, Robbyn Scott, opened their little roasting café 15 years ago to instant acclaim. They were so swamped that after three days, they had to close for five days to regroup. Before long, the company had spread hodgepodge, with a roaster in one place, the café in another, a warehouse, an office plus storage lockers and four shipping containers. Today, the mid-sized specialty roaster has $10 million in revenue and delivers 375,000 kilograms of coffee annually to western Canadian grocery stores such as Safeway and Save-On-Foods, as well as small independents and cafés.

Having everybody in one location for at least half of the week makes for better planning, McLeod said. "There's a lot of face time. It's created a really strong culture for us now."

McLeod's setting up a food-buying club for the company, providing bicycles for staff to use, and is building a kitchen in the facility.

"We're taking the culture with us," McLeod said.

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