Law department profile: Turning a crisis into an opportunity at Maple Leaf Foods

Leveraging engagement with the business to overcome challenges and support new strategies

Law department profile: Turning a crisis into an opportunity at Maple Leaf Foods
Suzanne Hathaway, SVP, general counsel at Maple Leaf Foods

Navigating obstacles presented by the ongoing pandemic crisis has been a significant responsibility for the legal department at Maple Leaf Foods Inc. over the past two years. The lean team juggled a vastly increased workload as standard tasks such as routine contracting became much more challenging. The team had to consider many issues, ranging from supply chain disruptions and force majeure considerations to health and safety, and privacy matters relating to employees’ health information.

“COVID-19 just added an extra layer of complication into every aspect of what we would normally do,” says Suzanne Hathaway, senior vice president, general counsel, at the Mississauga, Ont.-based Canadian consumer packaged goods company. “Everything suddenly needed more attention and more thought.”

As the organization implemented a mandatory vaccination policy for employees, Maple Leaf offered vaccination clinics at many of its sites, so Hathaway’s team had to consider related legal issues and privacy concerns.

When Hathaway first joined Maple Leaf in March 2019, one of her initial goals was to broaden the reach of the legal department — a strategy that served the team well during the pandemic crisis.

“I wanted to build a level of engagement with the business, and I found that COVID really amplified the need for that,” says Hathaway.

The legal team’s deep involvement in the business allowed it to support all the cross-functional initiatives needed throughout the pandemic. “We were in the midst of a crisis, doing a trial by fire, getting a really deep understanding of the business and the people that were running it, and how COVID was impacting that.”

The legal team — which consists of three full-time lawyers and one working part-time, as well as four support staff — rapidly pivoted to working from home at the start of the pandemic and adopted new technologies to stay connected. They introduced weekly touchpoints, which helped bring the team closer together, Hathaway says.

The team launched a contract lifestyle management approach last year to boost efficiencies, which will modernize many of the processes in place, so Hathaway plans to continue advancing and leveraging that technology within her team.

“In many ways, the pandemic shone a light on the areas where we may have opportunities to improve those processes, which is a nice opportunity,” says Hathaway.

Another key priority for the legal department at Maple Leaf is working closely with the sustainability team on many initiatives, including supporting the organizational vision to become the most sustainable protein company in the world.

In 2019, Maple Leaf was named one of just three animal protein companies globally and the only food company in Canada to set science-based targets aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The organization was also named the first major carbon-neutral food company globally. The legal team is working closely with partners in regenerative agriculture to seek carbon-capture opportunities to underpin that achievement. They are also examining initiatives within the Maple Leaf facility to reduce its carbon footprint and use more sustainable packaging.

“My team gets involved on the contracting side and even just thinking through some of the strategic elements of those sustainability initiatives, which is really exciting,” says Hathaway, who is responsible for the legal and corporate secretary side of the business, as well as the communications and public affairs teams.

The legal department will prioritize partnering with the business to achieve its objectives in 2022, both commercial and operational. Hathaway hopes to grow her team with another lawyer this year. She also plans to examine the allocation of resources and external counsel partners, as well as billing arrangements, to maximize efficiencies for her team in the year ahead.

FAST FACTS: Maple Leaf Foods Inc.

  • More than 13,500 employees
  • Sales over C$4.3 billion in 2020
  • Does business in Canada, the U.S., Asia and over 20 global markets
  • Maple Leaf Mills was created in 1961 through the amalgamation of Maple Leaf Milling Co., Toronto Elevators and Purity Flour Mills Ltd.
  • Maple Leaf Foods Inc. was created in 1991 through the merger of Maple Leaf Mills Ltd. and Canada Packers Inc.

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