You’ve been working at the SAQ for 20 years and climbed the ranks before being named CEO in June of 2018. What does it mean to you to be heading a 100-year-old organization?
Catherine Dagenais: I feel privileged to be at the head of the SAQ at such a unique moment in its history. It makes me proud to have overcome this new obstacle alongside all our employees and other Quebecers. I joined the SAQ in 2000, first as area director, and later as purchasing and marketing manager — I contributed to the establishment of the Inspire program. Then I was named head of operations, where I was responsible for the supply chain, sales, marketing, purchasing, and sustainable development. Over the years, I’ve watched the SAQ evolve and transform itself.
On that subject, tell us about the SAQ’s evolution and the connection between its history and Quebecers.
CD: The Crown corporation was born in the midst of prohibition, in 1921. Québec was the first place in North America to boldly pronounce that it was against prohibition and for the responsible sale of alcohol. During its beginnings, the Commission des liqueurs (its name at the time) offered around 300 products sold by an agent working behind a counter — today, it’s 30,000 products from 80 countries. The evolution of the SAQ reflects Quebecers’ love for discovering new wines and spirits. They are really passionate about it. The clientele has changed a lot. One hundred years ago, we told them what to drink. Today, advisors talk to our customers to “introduce them to flavours from around the world.”
The last fiscal year ended on an unexpected note: COVID-19. Have you been able to successfully achieve the objectives you set for the organization despite the situation?
CD: Just before the pandemic hit Québec, we achieved our performance objectives in our 2018–2020 strategic plan. In fact, during the fiscal year that ended on March 31, 2020, the SAQ contributed $3.6 billion in revenue to the government, for the benefit of Quebecers, while reducing its operating costs by $225 million. In terms of customer satisfaction, the SAQ has risen to be number one on Leger’s Wow list, which measures customer experience at over 200 retailers in the province. In terms of our social effects, we’re involved in various causes related to health, culture, and education. What we’ve established in recent years will have a good leverage effect in the future.
What has the health crisis taught you about consumption habits and how your organization functions?
CD: When I accepted the position of CEO three years ago, I never would have imagined having to lead the company through a pandemic! At the time there was no instruction manual. Fearing closures, people stormed our stores. We had to adapt very quickly, and we wrote the book on how to manage a business during physical distancing and establish sanitary measures — waiting lines at the entrance, disinfectant for people’s hands, Plexiglas at the cash register to protect employees and customers — all while continuing to offer a pleasant in-store experience.
With the lockdown, consumption habits changed: people came less often, but bought in larger quantities. Many discovered our SAQ.COM transactional site. With the explosion in online sales, we took the opportunity to invest in our supply chain, rethink stock management at our warehouses, and bring our IT platform up to speed.
How does this infrastructure transformation benefit all Quebecers?
CD: It should be said that the world of retail is more dynamic than ever, with the multiplication of competitive banners and increase in e-commerce. To differentiate ourselves, we needed to respond to our customers’ higher expectations. How? By personalizing and facilitating the in-store and online buying experience. By modernizing our systems, we will be able to offer all of our 30,000 products on SAQ.COM, including private imports and even new product discoveries we don’t offer in-store. This will enable us to shorten home delivery times, with our goal being a 24-hour delivery service.