Catherine Dagenais, EMBA'18, is the president and CEO of the Société des alcools du Québec (Photo: Christinne Muschi)


The woman in charge of your wine and whiskey

As the CEO of the Société des alcools du Québec, Catherine Dagenais, EMBA’18, oversees an institution that generates $34 million each week for the Quebec government. When COVID-19 hit, “we had to reinvent the way we serve customers.”

Story by Brenda Branswell

November 2020

As the pandemic took hold last March, people flocked to Quebec’s liquor stores thinking a closure was imminent.

It resembled the Christmas rush – minus the festive mood – at the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ).

But the SAQ remained open for business, among the essential services in Quebec that were allowed to keep operating during the lockdown last spring to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

For president and CEO Catherine Dagenais, the crisis has been an opportunity for the government corporation to demonstrate what it can do.

“I think that the role of the SAQ has been confirmed – it’s been key, economically and socially,” says Dagenais, EMBA’18.

The SAQ generates $34 million every week for the Quebec government. “People don’t like it when we talk about money,” she says, but the government needs the revenue in this difficult period.

The SAQ is also an important part of the lives of many Quebecers, she says. “In these tough times when we could only be home and cook a nice meal and maybe have a glass of wine, well, why not.”

Dagenais recalls returning from vacation on March 13, just as the government was announcing that universities, schools and daycares would be closed because of the pandemic. “The crisis management started that day. And the first priority was [the] health and safety of our employees and, of course, of our customers. We had to reinvent the way we serve customers, the way we greet them, the way we deal with our employees as well.”

The SAQ temporarily closed three stores in late July on Montreal’s North Shore as a preventative measure when eight employees tested positive for COVID-19. The problem originated from a meeting in the back of a store where staff members were less than two metres apart and weren’t wearing masks. One had the virus but was asymptomatic and didn’t realize it.

“That was a big lesson and right away we messaged everybody in the company: ‘Don’t lower that guard, keep your distance,’” Dagenais says.

Online sales have doubled during the lockdown. “Our warehouse was not geared to respond to that many orders. We had to reorganize our warehouse to make it work,” Dagenais says.

Have consumer preferences shifted during the pandemic? Yes and no, says Dagenais. “[Customers] were shopping for products that they know. They were shopping for value or they wanted to treat themselves with maybe a little more expensive wine than usual, so we had both trends.”

Dagenais took over at the helm of the SAQ in 2018, the first woman to hold the position in its nearly 100-year history. (It will celebrate its centennial in 2021.)

In an interview last year with McGill’s Karl Moore for The CEO Series and his Les Affaires blog, Dagenais said she never told herself “I want to be vice-president or I want to be CEO”.

“To me what was important, it was always about the challenge,” Dagenais says. “What can I do next, how can I [have an] impact?”

She has prioritized her development, taking courses throughout her career and attending a leadership program at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

She also enrolled in the McGill-HEC Montréal executive MBA (EMBA), a 15-month bilingual program for experienced managers.

“At that time in my professional life, I realized that, okay, I’ve been working for so many years, how can I still be relevant to my team? If I move up, I want to keep on being relevant to my team. And when I looked at the EMBA program it was the perfect fit for me,” she says. Fifty per cent of the content was theory, the other half was practice “and I’m a very practical person.”

How does she characterize her leadership style?

“I’m definitely a people person. I’ll say a democratic leader. I like to talk to employees. Not just my team, but I like to be close to employees and hear what they’re preoccupied about and how we can make the SAQ better – if we can, of course. We can’t say yes to everything.”

Dagenais has spent her career in retail, first at Hallmark and then the SAQ. As an undergrad at HEC Montréal business school, Dagenais had a somewhat cynical opinion of the sector. “My view of sales … was a shoe store [trying] to sell you an 8-1/2 when you need a 9.”

But a class assignment changed her perspective, when she spent a day with a sales rep visiting grocery stores. She didn’t witness any pressure tactics at play. “It was just the interaction with his clients,” she says. “It was a conversation. That’s the first time I really connected with, wow, I could work in retail.”

She spent many years at Hallmark in different roles, including being responsible for training in Eastern Canada. At one point, there was a position she really wanted in the company, “and basically the person who was hiring told me that he was looking for a man,” she says. “Of course, I was very disappointed because I wanted to grow.”

She left for a job at the SAQ that she landed through a recruitment firm. She started as a district sales manager and moved on to several positions, including vice-president and COO.

One of the innovations she’s most proud of – and took part in – is the SAQ’s Inspire loyalty program. “It’s a great innovation, it’s all in-house. I think we’re an inspiration to other liquor retailers around the world. People are interested in our model and what it allows us to do is we [get to] know our customer better,” Dagenais says. The SAQ is able to cater to its customers’ actual taste preferences rather than what they thought customers liked. For example, if you’re a fan of Chiantis, the SAQ will let you know when new releases are on the way.

When Dagenais joined the SAQ, it generated big sales at its popular annual Beaujolais nouveau event. But over the years, clients have discovered more complex wines and now want to sample other vintages, she says. What used to be ‘a happening’ with Beaujolais nouveau is now almost “a non-event.”

What has changed the most during her time at the SAQ is how consumers shop and the way retail is evolving and becoming more complex.

“Retail has changed so much in 20 years, it’s amazing. Twenty years ago, maybe you were buying movie tickets online. Maybe. Today, you buy … all kinds of things online.”

Customers now shop in different ways – online and in stores – and on different devices. Retail used to be far more transactional, she says. Now for people to go to stores, “it’s an experience, it’s a relationship, it’s a conversation,” says Dagenais. “If you’re not having that relationship with the sales consultant, you might as well stay at home and order online.”

published in November 2020

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