(“I prefer being in direct contact with paper, phones and people,” he revealed.) Below is the transcript of our meeting with a fascinating and inspiring entrepreneur who is passionate about his philanthropism and at the dawn of a well-deserved retirement.
Panoram Italia: When you launched Les Fromages Saputo in 1954, did you ever imagine running a business that would one day conquer not only Quebec and Canada, but the world?
Lino Saputo: Not at all. My father came to Canada in 1950 and two years later he brought his family. When I got to the train station and saw my father ... my heart sank. He was 45-years-old and had lost his dignity ... it was awful. My memory was of my father as a great businessman in Italy. So, when I saw him like that, defeated ... I decided to give him back what he had lost. I decided to give him back his dignity.
Two days after my arrival, I found work at Fantino and Mondello, in the Italian charcuterie. I was fortunate to work in the factory and with Mr. Fantino as a store clerk. I worked hard, six days a week. In 1954, two years later, I had enough money to open a small cheese factory, similar to the one my father had in Sicily.
So, did I have a vision spanning national and international markets? No, I was 15. I saw my father working in construction despite having been a successful merchant. I set myself to helping him become the great man he had been. With $500 to my name and a bicycle, we opened Giuseppe Saputo e Figli Inc. It was September 1954. I did it without my father's knowledge because he was too afraid of opening a business in a new country in which people operated in unfamiliar ways and in a foreign language ... but I was insistent and persistent ... I’m a stubborn man. There were three of us: my father, my mother and me. It was difficult. I was only 17-years-old, but I wanted to succeed so badly ... I did everything I could to succeed.
PI: Mr. Saputo, what do you think are essential qualities for success in business?
LS: First, you have to know what you're doing. Even when confronted with tremendous challenges, if you believe in what you’re doing, it’s important to persist and continue. Every morning, during all those years, I wondered what I could to do to improve myself. You know, there are people who have success and who boast about it ... I’ve never been one of those. On the contrary, every day I still wonder what I might do better. But the real secret is being surrounded by people who are better than oneself. I didn’t go to school for very long. Instead, I schooled myself in hard work, surrounding myself with the best of the best, which enabled me to improve.
PI: Was there a time when you began imaging the company becoming as successful as it has?
LS: You know, the first few years were very difficult. I had to find another job to inject money into our business. I went to see Mr. Fantino and asked him if I could distribute his products on the weekend. At the same time, I was also delivering to several grocery stores in Montreal with my little truck ... I worked six to seven days a week, 20 hours a day. I did everything I could to succeed. Arriving in Montreal, I was terribly affected by the sight of what my father had become.
I set up a small factory, bought equipment, went to see my father and told him “Dad, on Monday, we start working together in our own company.” My father was my idol; I also admired my brother Franco. Everything came together gradually. I am an innovator, an entrepreneur. So when I noticed that the products most loved by Italians couldn’t be bought in Montreal, we simply resolved to produce them ourselves. Then I went to New York and discovered American pizza – a thick pizza cut into slices. I brought the idea back, and the first pizza restaurant in Montreal, King of the Pizza, opened and started offering it. I became a supplier of pizza ingredients. In the 1960s, we distributed the ingredients, especially mozzarella. We started in Montreal, then across Quebec and later into Ontario, eastern Canada and finally across all of Canada. It was me who took to the road, opening up all these markets.
After that we bought plants in Mont-Laurier, in Maskinongé, before expanding into the rest of Canada. Today, more than 38% of processed milk in Canada comes from our factories. We are the largest milk processor in Canada, number two in the United States, number three in Argentina and Australia.
PI: What are your happiest memories?
LS: There are several. First, when I saw my father take pleasure in his work again. Then, in 1957, when we built our first factory in Saint-Michel and in 1966, when we built the second one. When I brought over all my brothers and sisters from Italy – we were seven children – to work together in the factory from 1957 to 1966, that was very special. And of course, when I met my wife, Mirella, who helped me a lot.
PI: Your most painful memory?
LS: Carole, we must not avoid it ... .Remember that I came from Italy, from the small Sicilian village of Montelepre. It was the birthplace of a well-known bandit, Giuliano, a kind of Robin Hood figure who became an outlaw. After the war, times were hard, wheat distribution was being controlled and villagers didn’t have enough to eat. In light of this injustice, Giuliano began to steal wheat to redistribute it. His bags of wheat were seized once, then a second time, and the third time he shot a policeman and became a fuori legge – an outlaw. After that, he began taking money from the rich to give to the poor. That was 1946.
So, we come to Canada. We are Sicilians and we are only just becoming successful. In the minds of some people, one could not be successful without being part of some mafia. I always said, “You cannot condemn me by association.” Yes, I do know many people, but please judge me by my actions. I work hard. I am generous. I’ve created a lot of wealth and many jobs. Still, for some people, a successful Sicilian is a shady character. But, in the face of such adversity, I perform even better. If I know you're wrong, I'll make sure to convince you of that. Every time the newspapers came after me, I called them and told them they were committing an injustice. It hurt me badly, but I have to say it made me stronger and over time I was proved right.
My biggest challenge was 1972, but it woke me up. The police searched my factory. They claimed to be inspecting it for hygiene issues, but nobody there was from the department of hygiene and the people in that unit knew the police was out to tarnish me. By then I understood that. Time passed and eventually proved me right.
We shouldn’t forget that in the late 1980s, National Bank invited me to sit on its board of directors. When an institution like that offers such a position, believe me, it has done its homework. It does not just invite anybody. That appointment helped me enormously to clear the cloud of suspicion that hovered over us.
PI: Is it important for you that your children follow in your footsteps?
LS: My daughter, Nadia, is different from the boys. She wanted to be a good mother and immerse herself in the education of her children. It makes her happy and that’s what she chose. I always told my children, “Do what you want, but do it right and be the best.”
And, my two boys honour me with their passionate approach to work – not for financial benefit, but because they feel a deep sense of responsibility. Lino was chosen to succeed me, and Joey was chosen to manage all our other satellite companies. You cannot have two chiefs in one company. Normally, the eldest takes over from the father, but children have different personalities and talents. You know, it wasn’t me alone who took the decision to name Lino as successor because a father can lack objectivity sometimes ...
To avoid mistakes, I involved five members of my board of directors and gave them a list of ten potential candidates. Their conclusion was unanimous: Lino was the best choice. But they imposed a condition, which was that I wouldn’t protect Lino like a father protects his son. They told me: “If you let him do it, he will be excellent, but you shouldn’t interfere. That opened my eyes. They helped me see things more clearly and I learned how to stay out of the way.
In 2004, when Lino Jr. took over, Saputo's assets amounted to $3.5 billion. Today it’s worth $11 billion. That says a lot about his talents and abilities. Since then, we have had only three father-son meetings, all at home, during which we discussed certain aspects of the business that weren’t going very well. That helped us.
PI: You are part of a generation of men for whom work was the defining aspect of life, while today, young men prefer getting more involved with their family. How do you see it?
LS: Today people have so many tools at their disposal, which makes work much easier. In my day, there were no computers; everything was done, calculated and recalculated by hand. Nowadays, we change a number and that’s it. I believe that with enough passion, it is possible, but the time spent working must be exclusive. Our wives have suffered enormously. You know, I only went home three nights a week because I was always traveling to open new factories. Today, women don’t tolerate what my wife did. We live in another era, just like our parents, who also lived and worked differently. But we must work hard and always give our best effort.
PI: You said you had only one boss your whole life: your wife Mirella.
LS: That's right ... I told you about all those problems I ran into at one time; my wife was the one who always encouraged me to continue and not listen to critics. She forced me to go stand up for myself. She was an extraordinary asset. Not only is Mirella my partner and the mother of my children, she is also the one who brings me back to shore whenever I’m adrift. She always fostered in me the peace of mind I needed to work through problems without worrying. She was an ideal companion. Mirella also did a great job with the children, instilling in them the best values. And, when the children got to be around 17-years-old, she asked me for help; every Saturday morning, we’d have “man to man” meetings. There is no doubt that, without Mirella, I could not have accomplished what I have.
PI: Many young entrepreneurs read our publication: I wonder if you have any crucial advice to help them succeed in their endeavors.
LS: First, when you undertake something, make sure you are in the right field, the one you love and master. Know what you want to do and, above all, persevere, persevere, persevere; don’t quit the playing field when difficulty arises.
PI: Why is it so important for you to give back to society?
LS: We created the Mirella and Lino Saputo Foundation in 1979 to help sick and disabled children. Then we expanded our focus; now we want to change lives, to have a real effect on the lives of some people. You know, I've had some very difficult times because of some ill-intentioned people who, rather than building, chose to destroy. I haven’t forgotten that. Canada has given me so much – I will always be grateful for that. I have been here since the age of 15. I’ve been here for 65 years and created Saputo 63 years ago. Giving back a little from the success we’ve achieved in Canada is important – everyone should do it. You know, you can’t take your fortune with you when you die.
"Canada has given me so much – I will always be grateful for that.
I have been here since the age of 15. I’ve been here for 65 years and created Saputo 63 years ago.
Giving back a little from the success we’ve achieved in Canada is important – everyone should do it"
PI: What are your plans for the next few years?
LS: Right now, I’m managing my grandchildren’s portfolio and some of my family’s. I am open to lend a hand to those who can use my knowledge. The Mirella and Lino Saputo Foundation has made venture capital available to entrepreneurs that banks decline to finance. If I can help people, especially young immigrants, who have goodwill and great projects, it makes me proud and happy. I want to change lives and help others become assets for society, creating jobs and wealth.
PI: Have you ever taken stock of everything you’ve accomplished?
LS: I'm preparing to write a book. When I look back, I see my life’s journey from 1954 to 2017 and I say to myself: “It can’t be ... how could I have done all this?” In the early years even though it was difficult, I enjoyed it a lot. I have to tell you that if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. You know, my toughest year was 1972: there was a lot of adversity. Despite this, we continued to grow and open up markets. I never stopped.