From (rooftop) farm to table

Sustainability class project leads to management role at urban agriculture company

Thibault Sorret (BCom’18) first learned about hydroponics as an undergraduate in the Desautels Faculty of Management, where he studied Entrepreneurship and Managing for Sustainability.

A class project about sustainable agriculture mentioned Lufa Farms, an urban agriculture company co-founded by another McGill graduate, Lauren Rathmell, that grows pesticide-free vegetables, fruits and other plants in three huge Montreal-area greenhouses perched atop large-surface warehouses and office buildings.

Lufa Farms delivers baskets of fresh products, all sustainably grown, to subscribers – now 17,000 and climbing daily – to a multitude of Montreal-area pick-up points, including pharmacies, YMCAs, cafés and community centres.

Intrigued by the innovative operation, Sorret set out to learn more about it.

Prior to an open-house visit for a class project in 2016, “I prepared like crazy. I think I read everything about Lufa. Lauren was giving the tour and I started peppering her with questions that were very, very specific.”

“She had no time, so I asked if I could email her with ideas… Instead, I asked two or three people selling basket subscriptions for Lufa about some of the sales problems they faced. I ended up sending her a three-page memo detailing some issues with how they did sales. I was looking to volunteer, but they called me in for an interview for a job – even better.”

A summer internship

Sorret wound up doing an internship at Lufa that summer, while still in his second year at McGill.

They didn’t do many sales at the time, it was mostly open houses and small events – word-of-mouth stuff,” he recalls. “So they sat me down at a computer downstairs and asked me if I knew anything about Facebook ads. No. ‘OK, Google it.’ They gave me the (web) accesses, and a week later, I had beaten my sales targets.” But Sorret had also noticed something else: “The sign-up process was very difficult, way too hard. You really had to want to sign up despite all the obstacles. So I asked if we could revamp the sign-up process. They asked me if I had any ideas. I did. So with the software development team, we reorganized the whole process… They put it in place and it tripled the conversion rate (from a website visit to a sign-up).”

While on a visit to France later that summer, Sorret got a call from Lauren. They were putting him in charge of all sales. “So now I’m working full-time and going to school full time… I love that about Lufa. They trusted this 19-year-old kid with no experience, still in my second year at McGill.”

Three years on, he is now a chief of staff at the company, in charge of marketing. Overall, Lufa Farms has about 250 employees, up from about 100 when he started.

The momentum for fresh food, locally grown and sustainably harvested is gathering, seeping through the entire food chain. The trend is upending long-established practices, from the world of agriculture to restaurants and kitchen tables.

Lufa Farms is one answer to that market trend.

Sorret explains that the three enormous greenhouses Lufa Farms operates recycle water used for irrigation, use half the energy of conventional greenhouse, and – instead of using pesticides -- employ “good” insects that feast on destructive aphids.

Valuable classes

Sorret credits Desautels instructors for teaching him “the framework for thinking about problems.” In particular, classes taught by Jay Hewlin (on negotiations), Anita Nowak (on social entrepreneurship) and Dror Etzion (on managing for sustainability), provided valuable lessons, he says.

While at McGill, and restlessly energetic as usual, Sorret went to Argentina for an exchange semester – while still running sales at Lufa Farms.

“They let me run sales remotely, but at the time I had only one person on my team, Lena, a McGill student. She was running the events and I was running Facebook. I would write giant weekly reports to Lauren telling her everything going on in sales, then we had a one-hour call, and that was it.”

Why Argentina? “It was a new continent to explore, and I wanted to learn Spanish. Also to escape the winter.”

That was just the latest twist in the path that led to his current position.

Sorret grew up outside of Paris until the age of 8. His father, a car-interior executive, took up what was supposed to be a three-year posting in Shanghai. It ended up being 13 years. But Sorret left after 10 years in 2014, eventually ending up at McGill.

“I grew up essentially in an international school,” in Shanghai, where he learned to speak English without the trace of a French accent. “I applied at McGill because I wanted to keep that sort of milieu in a university setting: stay in an English-language institution. But it’s neat to be able to do that while having all the French stuff, as well. It was like reconnecting with my roots.”

Sorret scouted British and American universities before settling on McGill. Five years on, he says his decision to come to Montreal and McGill could not have panned out better.

“People are getting a lot of fantastic work done, but they also know how to live. The art de vivre français is also here, the French language. You have that university feeling you dream about in high school. You have a lot of sports teams, the first year in residence, the lectures, but also a lot of smaller classes. You get all those elements within a context that’s almost European.

“Plus, it was a new continent to explore.”