Conference Has Helped Students Become ‘Industry Ready’ For 50 Years

Western Michigan University students won the National Grocers Association University Case Competition in 2014. The 14 students who represented WMU won with a locally focused marketing strategy developed for an independent grocer in Ohio. Dr. Frank Gambino, director of the food and consumer package goods marketing program, is in the front row, third from right; Phil Straniero, executive-in-residence in food and CPG marketing at WMU is in the second row, center.

Celebrating its 50th annual Food Marketing Conference, Western Michigan University (WMU) continues to make an impact in retail through its graduates who help build the consumer loyalty that retailers strive for each day.

Retail is one of the most exciting and challenging areas in today’s marketplace. Providing the intersection between product and consumer, successful innovation is at the heart of growing retail enterprises. With shifting shopping behaviors, the rise of technology and the demand for a shopping experience that meets the expectations of today’s savvy shopper, hiring the talent poised to build the future of retail is a critical need.

More than 50 years of experience

Courses in food and consumer package goods marketing began at WMU in 1959, and its annual food marketing conference started in 1965. The conference in its early years was known as Industry Appreciation Day. From the beginning, the commitment of the program was to deliver industry-leading talent to both retailers and manufacturers.

Today’s students are prepared to provide immediate value to an organization. How are they prepared? Through externships, internships, industry projects, case studies and competitions, simulations, consulting projects, industry tours and panels, informational interviewing with industry executives and coursework, WMU graduates get hands-on experience in the industry all while earning a four-year business degree, which gives them a thorough background in accounting, finance, management, communication and technology as well.

The curriculum, which is at the heart of this unique program, is a collaboration between WMU faculty experts and industry advisory board members who help shape the program by advising faculty on future directions for the curriculum. The WMU Food Marketing Advisory Board includes more than 40 members.

“The food and consumer package goods marketing program at Western Michigan University has helped develop industry leaders for more than 50 years,” says Brian Haaraoja, VP of fresh merchandising for SpartanNash. “As a graduate, I can validate the worth of the program. I was much better prepared coming out of college and entering the business world. I can also endorse the program as an employer; it has evolved with the changes of the food industry, and I believe it is developing and preparing students better than any program in the country. Here at SpartanNash, we sponsor interns yearly to work for the summer. Many of those interns are offered permanent positions upon graduation.”

With a nationally recognized program and the most successful academic-industry food marketing conference of its kind, WMU has become a household name for talent.

“The Western Michigan University Food Marketing Program is one of the premier programs dedicated to educating and preparing the next generation of leadership in the industry,” says Dave Jones, VP of industry initiatives for The Kellogg Co. and chairman of the WMU Food Marketing board of directors. “The rate of change in our industry continues at an unprecedented pace and requires new types of future leaders. The WMU Food Marketing program is producing new leaders who will be prepared to move the industry forward.”

Outlook

The outlook of graduates on their chosen field is as important as their preparation, and WMU students come to their employers expecting to be the “first in and last out.” The work ethic of WMU students is a draw for employers from both the retail and manufacturing sectors. Pair that work ethic with the academic and practical experience of the students, and you have a recipe for success.

“Our graduates are prepared not only with the most relevant knowledge of the industry but also have the expectation that they will work hard and earn their success in this field,” says Dr. Frank Gambino, director of the food and consumer package goods marketing program.

Students come to organizations understanding how to deliver exceptional customer service, embrace proven strategies and maximize them and innovate in ways that add value. Their outlook is highly practical yet very inventive, and with the diversity of experience that makes them well-rounded employees and exceptional thinkers.

“The food marketing program at WMU is nothing short of exceptional,” says Brad Taylor, category analyst at Constellation Brands Inc. “During my time in the program, I was very fortunate to build a wealth of skills and knowledge through various experiences both inside and outside of the classroom. I believe that it is a combination of these experiences along with dedicated faculty members and industry partners that have provided me with the toolkit necessary to establish a long and successful career.”

Opportunity

Students in the food marketing program have new opportunities that they can take advantage of that allow them to become even more skilled and provide their employers with necessary skill augmentation in their workforces. In 2014, the food and consumer package goods marketing program earned certification for its category management coursework from the national Category Management Association. To earn certification, coursework must include proficiency in industry knowledge, category management history and process, pricing analysis, promotion analysis, assortment analysis, spreadsheet development, presentation development, syndicated scanner data methodologies, consumer panel data applications, retailer point of sale data analysis, space planning software and relational databases.

“This certification provides employers assurances that the students they hire from our program have met the industry standards set for an analyst position in category management,” says Gambino.

In 2014, a team of food and consumer package goods marketing students won the National Grocers Association University Case Competition, earning the top spot for creating a locally focused marketing strategy for an independent grocer in Ohio. This sort of rigorous competition and industry evaluation of performance prepares students to deliver the next generation of solutions to employers.

“I knew going into the competition that we had a great idea and exceptional teammates, but I also knew we had tough competition, including MBA students,” says Jessica Roerig, a member of the winning team. “I’m so proud of our professors for pushing us and of the whole team for delivering a great presentation.”

Many food marketing students decide to complete a double major. By focusing in areas such as supply chain management, electronic business marketing and other areas, they widen their experience and deepen their proficiencies.

In addition, WMU has many opportunities for students who want to gain an entrepreneurial mindset that they can apply to their chosen field. A new minor in entrepreneurship can be paired with any major. WMU also provides a student business accelerator, a business pitch competition similar to TV’s “Shark Tank” as well as an entrepreneurship major.

All of these learning opportunities enable students to think as entrepreneurs, thereby adding an important innovation-driven and profits-oriented perspective that pairs well with retail positions. With opportunities to launch a product, build an app, or market a new service, students become adept at applying these skills in any industry and often become the in-house experts in new business lines.

Research

Research is the future of the food and consumer package goods marketing program. In order to know where the industry is heading, time and resources must be invested in understanding how shoppers, stores, pricing, inventory and many other factors affect retail operations. Applied research allows WMU to partner with retailers to help solve complex problems that impact businesses. Whether it is providing basket analysis, pricing models, logistics analysis or input on Black Friday shopping behaviors, the marketing faculty and students are able to help address the business and provide relevant solutions.

Beyond the basket

Collaboration is key to the success of WMU and the reason why so many retailers have identified Western as a partner in recruiting talent for their organizations. WMU wants to partner with those in the industry in a way that makes the most sense. It offers events dedicated specifically to recruitment of only food and consumer package goods marketing students.

WMU’s recruitment officer, faculty and current students are ready to talk to independent grocers looking at succession planning and hoping to educate the next generation in the family about the opportunities that exist in that segment.

WMU faculty members are always looking at new projects to evaluate for potential research opportunities or classroom research projects. The university can help food industry professional and retailers with research they might otherwise not have time to address.

The WMU Food Marketing Conference provides relevant speakers, education and value. This year’s conference is March 16-17 and registration is now open. WMU students have a near 100 percent pre-graduation placement rate and the university invites the industry to see why and how it can help you build business. Contact Western Michigan University’s Food and Consumer Package Goods Marketing Program at (269) 387-2132 or visit wmich.edu/marketing.

About The Author

A nine-year employee of The Shelby Report who writes for and about food. In previous lives, she worked at a police department in Texas and an amusement park in Arkansas. She also was a newspaper publisher for more than a decade. Not sure which of those qualified her for this job.

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