May Issue: Famed Quebec coffee maker perks up its manufacturing prowess with world-class automation technologies and packaging know-how
High-speed robotics and highly-automated production and packaging may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s proving to be just the perfect blend of shopfloor brains and brawn for a venerable Quebec coffee producer nowadays finding itself caught up in a fiercely competitive, high-stakes global marketplace.
Founded in Montreal in 1919 by a French-born emigrant Albert-Louis Van Houtte as a specialty grocery store, the company quickly sprang to local business prominence as a highly reputed supplier of gourmet, European-style roasted coffee—setting a solid foundation for decades of continuous business growth that made the Van Houtte coffee brand a household name for millions of Canadian coffee aficionados and connoisseurs right across the province of Quebec and throughout much of western Canada.
After a rapid expansion of the company’s bistro business during the 1980s and a well-executed series of strategic acquisitions in 1990s made it one of the country’s elite coffee processors and distributors, Van Houtte entered the 21st Century as a highly prolific, fully-integrated coffee company with a big presence in Quebec’s OCS (office coffee service) segment, a thriving chain of bistro-style cafes throughout Quebec, and a Canadian customer base estimated at over 60,000 offices, cafeterias, grocery and convenience stores, restaurants, hotels and other places of employment.
With growing market share and exceptional brand loyalty making it an increasingly attractive investment proposition, the company was ultimately acquired by the Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc. (GMCR) for a staggering $915 million at the end of 2010—setting stage for a healthy inf lux of capital investment from the new owners into Van Houtte’s two production facilities in Montreal, as well as a Toronto-based Timothy’s plant also acquired by GMCR in 2009.
“It is a highly competitive global business where you really need to have both product innovation and good process automation to succeed,” says Jean-Francois Vallée, engineering and maintenance director at the central Montreal production facility now operating under the GMCR Canada Group L.P. as GMCR’s CBU (Canadian business unit) manufacturing enterprise.
Having joined the Montreal facility in January of 2006, Vallée is mandated with carrying out prime responsibilities for the specification, selection, installation, and integration of all of the plant’s processing, packaging, facility management, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) and other key systems and equipment deployed at the Montreal operations.
Naturally, it’s a job that keeps Vallée and his highly-skilled teams of engineering and maintenance technicians busy throughout the year.
“There’s always something that needs to be done,” says Vallée, who is also mandated to look after the equipment and systems employed at the smaller GMCR’s CBU plant in a nearby St-Laurent suburb, two distribution centers occupying over 140,000 square feet of warehousing space between them, and the administrative offices.