Growing from a small family business into a leading importer and supplier of dried fruits and nuts has been years in the making for Canada’s Compass Food Sales Inc. But in 2018, an introduction to a top grocery chain in the United States launched the homegrown company into the world of global trade.

“We saw the opportunity to take all the expertise we had built and apply it to U.S. retail,” Jaclyn Sutton, Compass Food’s chief executive officer, explains of the company’s expansion across the border.

The proximity to the American market and the ease of doing business there were key attractions, but Sutton credits Export Development Canada’s (EDC) Business Connections Program for kickstarting their export business.

For more than 20 years, the program has helped create export opportunities for Canadian companies by introducing them to international businesses interested in their goods and services.

“The strategy is to deeply understand the capabilities and desired growth strategy of Canadian exporters enrolled in the program. With this information, we identify opportunities for them to help grow their export footprint. In parallel, we work with EDC’s international clients to understand their business needs and as a result we connect them to explore the opportunity,” says Joanne De Franco, director of EDC’s Global Business Development (GBD) team.

“Many Canadian companies spend a significant amount of time trying to get that first meeting with a targeted buyer and aren’t successful. We have the relationships and global networks to get them in front of the right people and ensure that they’re speaking to someone who has the decision-making power related to their expertise,” De Franco says.

Since 2018, about 4,400 introductions between Canadian companies and international buyers have been made. This has resulted in 448 contract wins worth more than $730 million, she says.

The Compass backstory

Since 1974, Compass has been Canada’s No. 1 importer and supplier of dried fruits and nuts from around the world, including almonds from California, tropical fruits from the Philippines and raisins from Turkey.

Based in Aurora, ON, the medium-sized company works directly with reputable growers to ensure premium quality products, which they repackage under their own Compass brand and sell to retail chains across Canada and the United States, including Walmart, Whole Foods and Target.

Since 1987, it has also supplied private label baking and snacking products to major grocery and big-box stores, and bulk products to manufacturers and food service companies.

“Compass always puts the customer’s needs at the forefront of decision-making. We believe in bringing high-quality baking and snacking fruits and nuts from around the world to enhance the lives of North Americans—hence the name ‘Compass,’” says Sutton.

“Consumers who enjoy our products, sometimes without knowing as many are packaged in the strong private label brands of our customers, can count on consistent freshness, quality and deliciousness in each and every bite.”

Loaded with vitamins, nutrients, and fibre, their products include dried fruit, apple rings, apricots, and figs, and an array of nuts such as walnuts, hazelnuts, and pistachio.

Biggest challenge

“Like many industries, inflation in the food industry, and especially foods imported from around the world with significant freight components, is inevitably the biggest challenge we face today,” says Sutton. “Consumers are having a hard time affording their grocery bills and categories that aren’t necessities aren’t inelastic in times of inflation. 

“Healthier eating is definitely a tailwind, but the cost to eat healthy can be a barrier. Continuously looking for ways to source more efficiently and cost-effectively, improve our operational efficiency while providing high quality, value products and service is a fine balance to strike and something that our team is constantly striving to achieve,” she says.

The power of connections

With EDC’s Business Connections Program, introductions are made through in-person meetings, virtual introductions and visits to Canada or the buyer’s country, to tour each other’s businesses.

“The connections and strong relationships are what drives business opportunities. Connecting Canadian companies to key decision-makers within these organizations who know and trust us helps them in many ways,” says De Franco.

“When the outcomes are positive and they’re successful in winning a contract, we often hear that once they have that first contract, they’re then able to pursue opportunities with other buyers because they now have the experience and have developed their reputation in the market,” she says.

The team at EDC is constantly looking for opportunities to support connections and has facilitated key introductions to retailers in the U.S that we’re currently in the process of developing as new potential customers.

Jaclyn Sutton  —  Compass Food’s chief executive officer

With EDC’s support, Compass was introduced to Lidl, a leading German food retailer with a growing footprint in the United States. This led to a small contract in 2021, which has since ballooned into a business more than 50 times that size by the end of 2023.

“The power of our relationship and depth of involvement with Compass Food Sales has led to their dramatic growth and expansion. This is an ideal partnership where we have full engagement and repeat orders ongoing with a connection-financing client. This allowed us to introduce the Canadian company to opportunities that they weren’t aware of,” De Franco says.

As for the future, the sky’s the limit for this 50-year-old business.  

“We are on the path to accelerating our growth in a meaningful way with several strong strategic opportunities from channel expansion to brand development to geographical expansion,” says Sutton.