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What does it take to build a world-class agri-food company that thrives in a specialty market niche? Vision. Courage. Commitment. And a good dose of common sense.

If you're one of the 250,000 Canadians suffering from celiac disease, finding healthy, great tasting, gluten-free food is a challenge. The food processing requirements are strict and the market is small.

Jerry Bigam, CEO of Edmonton-based Kinnikinnick Foods, Edmonton, AB, is changing that paradigm while carving out a dominant position in the specialty-food market. Its breads, buns, bagels, cookies, muffins, cereals, soups, sauces and snack foods now make up one of the largest selections of fresh and frozen gluten-free foods in the world. For his successes, the Canadian Agri-Marketing Associa-tion (CAMA) has named him its Agri-Marketer of the Year.

If you had strolled through the Edmonton farmer's market some fifteen years ago, chances are you would find Kinnikinnick Foods selling their unique products from a stall. Today — thanks to perseverance, visionary leadership and innovative execution, the company commands a lion's share in a highly competitive specialty market manufacturing gluten-free food.

Kinnikinnick developed the first Web-based food distribution system in North America and is one of the largest e-business specialty food companies in North America.
• Online sales account for 50% of its business.
• The company serves 25,000 customers through its online retail business, and delivers electronic orders inside of 24 hours.
• Its products are found in 1,150 stores across Canada, 50 in the U.S.
• In addition to its storefront operation in Edmonton, it supplies 18 warehouses in the U.S. In Canada it has coast-to-coast distribution through Loblaws.
• In 2005, it opened a 120,000-square-foot, the-future-is-here, production facility to augment its existing 30,000-square-foot plant.
• This year sales are up 40% and export sales are up nearly 60%.
• Its direct sale business continues to increase at a rate of 15% annually through the internet, in spite of increased store distribution.

Bigam was once a customer of Kinnikinnick Foods, buying food for his wife who has celiac disease. He credits the growth of the company to a raised awareness of the disease, once thought to only afflict children.

"My wife was undiagnosed for 25 years," says Bigam. "And that's a typical situation for many people with the disease. But there is much more awareness today with more people familiar with the disease and getting checked for it."

Bigam became a co-owner of the company in 1996. Previously, he was one of the founders and President of Ceapro Developments, a company that develops and markets unique ingredient separations from oats into the pharmaceutical, veterinarian, cosmetic and food sectors. During his tenure, he moved the organization from a startup to a publicly traded company on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Bigam co-founded Westcan Malting Ltd. (Rahr Malting) in 1991. As President, he led its growth from inception through startup for it to be among one of Alberta's leading exporters and one of the largest malting facilities in the world.

Bigam developed and operated a wide range of manufacturing companies producing signs and displays, furniture and art gallery supplies. He built several service companies including a GM dealership, a trucking company, a consulting firm and an import/export agency. He has worked in senior executive positions for the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

He is currently Chairman of the Alberta Food Processors Association and a member of the Agriculture and Food Council. He serves on the Advancing Canadian Agriculture and Agrifood (ACAAF) board under Agriculture Canada. This group funds projects that improve Canada's value-added food sector.

Bigam is actively involved in the Celiac Association and the CEO Club for Food Processors. He is a graduate of the University of Alberta in Economics and received the Queen Elizabeth Golden Jubilee Medallion for community service.

What is a kinnikinnick? In western Canada, the bearberry bush has historically been of importance to animals and humans. The berries last through the winter when all other fruits are gone and are a favorite of black bears early in the spring. When Native Americans mixed the leaves of the bearberry bush with tobacco, they called it kinnikinnick — derived from the Algonquin word for "mixture." When smoked in a sacred pipe, it is said to carry the smoker's prayers to the Great Spirit. Other applications using the leaves included a tea to treat urinary tract diseases, a powder applied to sores and the berries were also made into a tea to fend off obesity.

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