Sisters build company as Canadian as maple syrup and … peas?

Best Cooking Pulses, which produces pea flour, pea fibre and other pulse flours at its mill in Portage, was named one of 10 food companies in Canada that “are changing the way we eat” in a 2011 Globe and Mail report.

Those kinds of generic statements are often meaningless generic statements, but the owners of Best Cooking Pulses truly want to change what we eat.

“We’re reintroducing pulses into the North American diet, in sort of a stealth way,” said president Trudy Heal while sitting inside an office at the company’s mill in Portage.

“We’re taking a traditional food (peas) that’s fallen out of favour … and introducing pulse flours into processed foods, which in turn, makes (those foods) healthier,” added Heal’s sister, Margaret Hughes, who manages sales and marketing for the company.

The sisters have transformed Best Cooking Pulses from a pea splitting company into a food ingredients juggernaut since assuming control of the company in 2004 after their father, Geoff Heal, died.

As an example of their growth, Hughes and Heal have increased pulse flour sales from 4,000 pounds in all of 2004 to nearly 900,000 lb. in one month this fall.

“We’ve had like 50 percent growth for five years running (in volume of product sold),” Heal said.

Hughes has also developed markets for pea hulls, a byproduct of the splitting process. The pet food industry and global food companies are using the hulls to enrich the fibre content of food.

Hughes and Heal never intended to run the family business. In fact, they were likely sick of peas by the time they became adults.

“We grew up in a second generation pea family,” Hughes said inside a small office at the Portage plant, the hum of milling machines audible in the background.

“That means that during the harvest (season) you have pea soup everyday…. And when you go on a car trip you don’t go to Disneyworld, you visit every factory and (food processing) plant beside every rail siding.”

Following university, Hughes and Heal established careers away from Portage la Prairie and peas. Hughes moved to England for 14 years, where she was a manager with the National Health Service. Heal became a partner in an interior design firm in Toronto.

However, the sisters returned to Portage to run the family business when their father was diagnosed with ALS. The business was started by their grandfather in 1936.

They said they didn’t sell Best Cooking Pulses after their dad died because they couldn’t abandon the pulse milling plant.

“It’s very much like the notion of the family farm. This is our family’s livelihood. It’s the family’s asset. It’s how we’ve fed ourselves and sent our kids to school for three generations,” Heal said.

When Hughes and Heal assumed control of Best Cooking Pulses, they quickly realized the company’s old business model of selling peas, chickpeas and lentils into the soup, canned food and curry markets wasn’t sustainable in the modern world of food.

“Pea soup. People may make that on the weekends, (but) it is no longer a staple. It has dropped out of the North American diet in the last 40 years,” Heal said.

The sisters also learned their father had developed a proprietary process for milling pulses into flour that increased the shelf life of the product.

Hughes, who took on the sales role when she moved back from England, began by marketing the pulse flour to pet food companies.

“What this person has done,” Heal said, gesturing toward her sister. “She started working on the formulators of pet foods and got them incorporating the flour because it has such a great nutritional profile…. So we’ve made fabulous inroads there.”

After conquering the pet food industry, Hughes turned her attention to the human food market. Food ingredient buyers were initially skeptical about pulse flour, but over the last eight years Hughes convinced many companies, including Fortune 500 corporations, to use yellow and green pea flour in their sauces, breads, cereals and snacks.

Best Cooking Pulses has expanded its operations in Portage as sales have grown. The company now employs 25 people at its mill, up from eight employees in 2004.

Heal and Hughes said their previous lives in cosmopolitan cities helped them understand the attitudes and perspectives of urbanites when it comes to food.

“Going away and having a different view of the world has enabled us to market this stuff differently. If you’re living in downtown Toronto … you’re witnessing your friends becoming fearful of food and buying all organic,” Heal said.

“If you’re in a farming community, you don’t understand the paranoia around food that people in large urban centres have.”

As women running an agri-business, Hughes and Heal are definitely in the minority in Canada. Even within their family, the idea of two women running the pulse mill was an absurd concept not so long ago.

“When Trudy was born, grandfather sent a letter (to their dad) saying better luck next time,” Margaret recalled with a laugh. “I’m telling you, people have no idea how much the world has changed.”

“Well, Grandpa did (eventually) give in. He said I could be his secretary when I grew up,” Heal said.

Hughes and Heal said one advantage of being women is that they view peas, chickpeas and lentils as food rather than commodities.

“Canada is about few people, lots of resources, get it on a train and ship it out,” Hughes said.

“Whether it’s our wood or oil or our agricultural products, that’s how as Canadians, we kind of think.”

Heal said there are endless opportunities to process crops in this country if Canadians can overcome the commodity philosophy.

“The biggest thing that gets in the way of the development of agriculture in Canada is the commodity mindset that doesn’t think of value-added.”

Best Cooking Pulses has experienced significant growth over the last five years, but Hughes and Heal feel they’re just getting started. They envision a future where pulse flour is in 10 percent of every loaf of bread so that peas become a staple of the Canadian diet again, albeit in a different form than 200 years ago.

“Every longboat of voyageurs leaving Montreal, there was a bag of peas on the boat,” Heal said.

Added Hughes: “(Peas) are more Canadian than maple syrup.… This country was built on pulses.”

Company profile

  • Best Cooking Pulses operates two pulse mills: Portage la Prairie, Man., and Rowatt, Sask.
  • Portage mill produces pulse flours and pea fibre for human and pet consumption
  • Rowatt mill cleans and bags whole peas, lentils and chickpeas and de-hulls, splits and polishes peas for domestic and global markets
  • the company sold 4,000 pounds of pulse flour in 2004. It now sells nearly a one million lb. of pulse flour per month

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