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[gn_tabs style=”5″] [gn_tab title=”The West“] [gn_spoiler title=”Christianson: Goal-Oriented Decisions Propel Career“]

by Ashley Bates/staff writer

Carole Christianson
Carole Christianson

As COO of the Western Association of Food Chains (WAFC), Carole Christianson said her main objective—along with the WAFC—is education.

Education has been a constant theme for Christianson throughout her life. She says she decided at an early age that she wanted to be an independent, successful woman in life and in business.

“I did realize early on that if I was going to work hard, that I was going to be successful. I sought challenges that would be recognized and rewarded,” Christianson said.

Her personal and career goals seem to seamlessly meld with the WAFC as the organization has made education a top priority for the past 54 years.

The WAFC has supported the University of Southern California Food Industry Management Program along with the Retail Management Certificate Program that is available online.

Christianson grew up moving across the country with her family. Her father served in the Navy and her mother a waitress. She was adopted and raised as an only child, which gave her perspective on her life’s path.

“I knew I was independent and I wanted to be able to take care of myself and achieve some success,” she said. “Neither of my parents graduated from high school. When I graduated at 17, I was on my own. I worked various part time jobs until I got my first full-time job at a small bottling company when I was 18. I basically got a job that grew into a 30-year career in the beverage industry.”

The “small” bottling company that Christianson worked for at age 18 developed into quite a large operation through her three decades with the company, which propelled her food industry career.

“I started with a small family-owned bottler, National Drinks, that sold in 1977 to the Dr Pepper Co. Dr Pepper sold us in 1984 to Beatrice to become part of Coca-Cola Los Angeles,” Christianson said.

Over the years, Christianson has found that if one follows her true calling in her personal life and career, true happiness can be found.

“One lesson that I have advocated throughout my career is to establish goals, and it is essential that you write them down, document them and hold yourself accountable,” she said.

SMART goals—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely—is how Christianson says to organize goals. Then write them down.

“If you set goals for your career path, getting in shape or learning a language, it’s very important that they are tangible so that you are clear on what you accomplish,” Christianson said.

Part of Christianson’s goals over the years has been to balance career and family, which she said no one can do perfectly. As a mother of twin girls, Christianson knows what she’s talking about.

“Do not allow room for guilt or regrets; you just can’t possibly do everything. I always measure my own decisions, my choices, by asking one question: Will I regret it if I don’t do it? If the answer is yes, your choice is made,” she said. “Accept that job? Make it to my daughter’s recital? Go visit a loved one who is suffering? Ask yourself if you will have regrets if you don’t do it, and if your response is ‘yes,’ you have to do it.”

She added that to balance everything, certain choices have to be made.

“We had live-in help. We have lived in the same home for 27 years. Rather than buying the new house, you may decide it is more important to have assistance with your children,” she said. “You create a support network of neighbors, other moms and dads and friends.”

She continued, “During our corporate careers my husband, Paul, and I traveled a lot. Paul is also in the food industry. He is well networked and loves this industry like I do, so for me that has been a tremendous blessing. He is a great advisor, supporter and sounding board for me. And we are very proud of (our twins) Ashlee and Amanda. They graduated from college in 2009 and are both well on their way to successful careers.”

More and more women, in fact, are rising to the top today.

“It is fantastic to see more women in the industry and more women in leadership roles,” she said. “Women are the predominant decision maker in purchases for the household. It’s only natural that they are amongst the leadership in how business goes to market. Every time I hear of a woman being promoted to a senior level in this industry it’s exciting. Yesterday’s news that one of our board members, Donna Giordano, has been promoted by Kroger is awesome.

“We have 32 board members, two of which are women and both presidents of grocery divisions of national retailers. Sue Klug of Albertsons/Supervalu will be the first woman president ever of the WAFC, she will be our 92nd president and chairman, and then, of course, with Donna getting the leadership role at Ralphs that’s a big one.”[/gn_spoiler] [gn_spoiler title=”Bradshaw Encourages Volunteering, Internships“]

by Ashley Bates/staff writer

Kate Bradshaw
Kate Bradshaw

For women to get where they want to get in business, Kate Bradshaw says get your foot in the door any way you can.

Bradshaw, VP of the Utah Food Industry Association (UFIA), said donating one’s time can sometimes get women in the door to their dream career.

“I’m a believer in internships and volunteering,” said Bradshaw, a 2003 graduate of Westminster College. “If there’s an area that you are interested in, a type of business or a political idea or something that you want to get changed and you aren’t quite sure how to get there … I think volunteering and interning are great ways to learn about the industry and to make connections. You can learn really valuable skills that will help to get that first job or position where you can then start learning and climbing your way up.”

The UFIA has more than 350 member companies including independents, chains, convenience stores, wholesalers, food brokers and suppliers of equipment, goods and services to the retailers, according to the website.

The UFIA has been “serving the common business interest, efficiency and welfare of Utah’s food industry since 1896.”

In this year’s legislative session, which ended in March, the UFIA saw the sales tax on food fail—a victory for the group.

“I would again encourage any young people that are interested in either the political issues that we deal with in the food industry or interested in what it takes to run a store…there are so many opportunities if you are willing to volunteer,” she said. “Take an internship and learn at that level first and then off to pursue your path.”

Bradshaw came to the UFIA with seven years of government and public relations experience from campaigning, fundraising and staffing for the Utah State Legislature.

Most recently, Bradshaw was a government relations specialist with the firm of Parsons Behle and Latimer in Salt Lake City.

“I was born in Bountiful, Utah, which is about 20 minutes north of Salt Lake City and now my husband and I live in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City,” Bradshaw said. “It’s an older section of fabulous old bungalows that need restoration.”

Staff writer Katie B. Davis contributed to this report.[/gn_spoiler] [gn_spoiler title=”Kennick: Loving Liaison Between City of Hope and Food Industry“]

by Ashley Bates/staff writer

Cheryl Kennick
Cheryl Kennick

After nearly 30 years in the food industry and 15 years working with City of Hope, Cheryl Kennick truly believes anything is possible for women in the business.

“Speaking personally, I’ve never encountered any obstacles because I am a woman. If you work hard, there are advantages for everyone,” she said. “Treat people how you would like to be treated, have a good work ethic and work hard. Do what you say and say what you do…underpromise and overdeliver.”

Kennick serves as senior director of development at City of Hope with Food Industries Circle in Los Angeles. She explains the connection between City of Hope and the food industry has been in place for nearly 40 years and still going strong.

“The food industry has a 38-year history with the City of Hope. It was started by Gene Walsh in 1973, who was president of Ralphs Grocery Co. at the time. The Southern California retailers, manufacturers and suppliers came ­together to form this group (Southern California Food Industries Circle or SCFIC) to support City of Hope,” Kennick said.

Dave Hirz, president and COO of Smart and Final, is serving as president this year for the Food Industries Circle.

Over the years, “Ralphs, Vons, Albertsons, Food 4 Less, Stater Bros., Superior Grocers, Northgate Markets, Smart & Final, Bristol Farms and Gelson’s manufacturers and suppliers came together and have raised over $140 million for City of Hope through various programs,” added Kennick.

Part of her success at City of Hope comes from years of experience and joining key organizations and placing herself in strategic business encounters.

“I joined lots of industry committees and the best one to join is The Illuminators…The Illuminators is a group of ­individuals engaged on an equal basis for business development at the highest level,” Kennick said. “Exposure for you and your company includes learning, leadership, communication and personal development.”

Kennick began working in the food industry in 1982 and climbed her way up the corporate ladder over the years, mostly in merchandising and sales, but she says the industry has changed over the years.

“I was in the general merchandise business,” said the New York native. “There was lots more opportunity and there were a lot more manufacturers, suppliers and retailers. I think for us, consolidation is probably the biggest for ­opportunities. In the demo world today there’s more social media going on.”

Since her work began at City of Hope, she has a new ­appreciation for life and the generosity of others on a daily basis.

“The City of Hope is just an amazing place that helps ­people worldwide,” she said. “Our science, the passion of every employee from everyone that works here, from the volunteer that greets you at the front door, the doctors, the scientists, all the programs that we offer you. If you have cancer, your whole family is affected and they treat the whole family. From the minute that you walk through our door to when you leave the nurses and the doctors are amazing, they call you to check up on you no matter what time of day it is.

“City of Hope is based on a number of volunteers, and our volunteers always find a way to help us achieve our goals no matter what’s happening in the industry or during tough times. They always manage to come through for us.”

The food industry and the SCFIC are main sources of charitable giving and volunteers for City of Hope, Kennick said.

“The (SCFIC) is one of the largest industry volunteer ­support arms for City of Hope,” she said. “Represented by more than 1,000 leading retailers, manufacturers and brokers within the Southern California food industry, the SCFIC has raised over $100 million since the Circle’s founding in 1973.”

Corporate donations and year-round fundraisers keep the hospital, which was recently ranked 17th among ­cancer hospitals in U.S. News & World Report’s 2011-12 Best Hospitals edition, providing exceptional care and cancer research.

“It’s what allows us to continue groundbreaking research, patient care, conduct clinical trials. It saves lives,” she said. “For example, the Kids 4 Hope mobile checkstand donation program is run by the Southern California retailers: Food 4 Less, Albertsons, Bristol Farms, Gelson’s, Superior Grocers, Stater Bros., Smart & Final and Northgate Markets. This program was started 11 years ago and has raised over $4.2 million. More than 800 Southern California retailers participate. This program supports pediatric cancer research, treatment and education.

“It’s just an amazing place. I hope I never get cancer, but if I do this is where I would want to be treated.”

Coming up for City of Hope are a few big fundraising events to support the award-winning hospital.

“We have our Walk for Hope Nov. 6, which treats all women’s cancers along with industry events and we have our Harvest Ball at the Century Plaza on Nov. 19,” she said.[/gn_spoiler] [/gn_tab] [gn_tab title=”The Southwest“] [gn_spoiler title=”Martin’s Mentor Drove Her Into Business Success“]

by Ashley Bates/staff writer

Polly Martin
Polly Martin

Polly Rand Martin was sitting at her Little Rock, Ark., home when her father, Ben Rand, pulled into the driveway.

Martin had been telling him for years that she wanted to work for the family business—a wholesale grocery company—and that day he finally asked her to come be a part of the family company.

Martin said that one of her proudest moments was when her dad hired her.

“I told him that I wanted to learn it (the business), but I didn’t want to learn it after he died,” Martin said. “He came to my house and said ‘I’d like you to come work for me.’ He actually said ‘we.’ He meant the company because they were our family.

“It was hard for him to have his little girl to go to work for him. We had a wonderful relationship. He was my mentor, my teacher—and not just in the grocery business. He taught me patience.”

Today, Martin is the president of the Arkansas Grocers & Retail Merchants Association (AGRMA). She has worked with the association since 1996, and served as its president since 2000.

Martin worked in her father’s business for more than 15 years, then he passed away in 1993. Rand Wholesale was sold in 1995 and went bankrupt 13 months later.

“I was chairman-elect at the association and called the (then) president and said, ‘They’ve filed bankruptcy. I’m going home and I’m not going to work.’ Well, he called me a month later and said, my assistant quit, my house burned to the ground last night and I need help,” Martin said. “So I did that, and that was over and I was going go back home to be a housewife. But he called me back and said, ‘Now I need somebody to help me lobby.’”

Martin began lobbying for the AGRMA and she says it was one of her best career moves. Soon after she was asked to serve as president.

“When you come out of operations and you learn how to read a bill, then you understand 100 percent of what’s going on in the capital. When I was in operations I had no idea how important it was to be politically plugged in,” she said. “Now I understand it and now I try to convince everyone who is a member that it is very important. Most of the big chain stores understand it, but the independents have a hard time because they have to operate their stores. That’s even more so why they need me to take care of them at the capitol.”

Martin was born in Chicago, but was in Arkansas by the time she was six weeks old. She was adopted by the Rands.

“Then when I went to high school and I went to work for a retail store,” she said. “When I was 30 I went to work for my dad and started in buying. Actually, for the first month he made me pull orders at night, because he wanted me to see the whole operation.”

Over Martin’s years in business she hasn’t had to overcome many obstacles, but that didn’t mean she didn’t hear the stray negative comment.

“The only time I have ever found that there was a barrier, being a woman, is … when they used to do buyers seminars,” she said. “I was the head buyer for our company and I went to one. It was me and 120 men and I sat down next to an older gentlemen and he looked at me and asked who I was covering for.”

Martin said one key for women is to keep up with the changing face of business.

“This business has changed so drastically, and I go back on the operations side of it, and the computers at the retail level, now you have scanners. You don’t punch buttons. On the wholesale side of it I guess the technology has caused the biggest change, and, truthfully, it has in most industries,” she said. “But then, the shopper has changed in that convenience is a huge issue. We used to sell bags of flour. Now we sell the pie shell with the pie in it.”

Today in Arkansas the grocery industry is changing and, as is happening elsewhere, is under threat, Martin said. She has to work extra hard in the state legislature to protect her association’s 300 members.

“In Arkansas we don’t have a full-line wholesale grocer anymore, when Affiliated Foods (Southwest) went out of business and filed bankruptcy, that was it,” she said. “The biggest issues, mergers and acquisitions and bankruptcies—every time, we lose a member. My goal is to fight the economy with our members and understand their needs so they can be profitable.”[/gn_spoiler] [gn_spoiler title=”From the Family Farm to the Capitol, Chapman Has Done it All“]

by Ashley Bates/staff writer

Mary Lou Chapman
Mary Lou Chapman

As a teen, Mary Lou Chapman won 4-H competitions and bread bake-offs at the county fair.

In her early career she introduced wheat to the Japanese as part of the first international food trade team.

She started the first farmers market in the state of Colorado.

She worked in the state department of agriculture.

She started her own consulting firm to help state associations (most of them organized for food producers).

And that’s just the short list of Chapman’s involvement in the food industry.

As a child growing up on the family farm in Eastern El Paso County, Colo., her thoughts wandered to other potential careers.

“My first thought was I wanted to be a veterinarian … but it suddenly dawned on me that one should pick a career in which being a woman is an advantage and not a disadvantage,” she said. “I was only interested in large animals, so my father convinced me that pinning a horse might be difficult.”

Chapman attended Colorado State University and earned a degree in home economics. She married and had the chance to spend time overseas when her betrothed moved to Paris.

“We found out that he was getting sent to Paris and my minister suggested that allowing that boy to go to Paris without me was a poor strategic move,” she said, laughing. “While I was there I had an opportunity to take a French cooking class.”

She spent a number of years in the state department of agriculture as a food and consumer specialist. While at the department of agriculture, she created a consumer advisory committee for the food dealers association.

She also performed marketing, public affairs and writing duties for food producer organizations, including an apple growers association.

“I helped organize the Colorado Pork Producers Association, and then its women’s auxiliary, The Pork Women’s Association—which was originally called The Porkettes,” Chapman said.

She gradually moved into more of a lobbying role for Colorado State University, and then for her food industry clients.

She began a consulting firm specializing in governmental relations, lobbying and marketing. (Today she is president of Mary Lou Chapman Inc.) Chapman performed association management and marketing duties for her clients.

“I would come back from the capitol and tell people what was happening and whose ox was getting gored,” Chapman said. “More and more my clients wanted me to spend more time there.”

Chapman also did a weekly food show for television and wrote a weekly food column and a monthly column for a magazine.

“So when the grocers asked me to take over this association, it was challenging,” Chapman said.

Even at the Rocky Mountain Food Industry Association (RMFIA), where she has been since 1992, she has more than one role. The association serves two states: Colorado and Wyoming.

“I’ve had a sign on my wall ever since I started that says ‘Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought of as half as good,’” Chapman, who is president and CEO of the RMFIA. “I think it’s no big deal for women to get involved in the food industry or in politics because I think that stereotypical attitude has moved long off the board.”

She said women should attempt whatever their hearts desire.

“If you are interested, I would go for it, and recommend finding a mentor, doing some informational interviews and be willing to work hard—and not be tied to 9 to 5.”

Chapman has come to the conclusion that women have advantages working in the food industry.

“I think we have a natural relationship with the food business. We have a natural understanding of what consumers go through. We have a natural understanding of the balance of the home as well as work, and I think we tend to think along nutrition lines and what’s good for us,” she said.

As for lessons she learned?

“I think one of the biggest lessons is tolerance, listening to what others are saying as well as projecting,” she said. “Some of the valuable things that I have had in my career are wonderful relationships with teachers and mentors who are just terrific people to follow, and who set great examples of helping people.”

As she looks back over her time in the food industry, she said she has “felt fortunate throughout my career, that I have been able to have a career that has been a great balance between my heritage and my education.”[/gn_spoiler] [gn_spoiler title=”Passion is Just a Part of the Business for Johnson“]

by Ashley Bates/staff writer

Debbie Johnson
Debbie Johnson

Nearly nine years ago Debbie Johnson stepped out on her own and decided to start her own food brokerage, D.R. Johnson Sales & Marketing, based in Rowlett, just northeast of Dallas.

It wasn’t an easy road, but Johnson thought after years in the business she had a good shot for success in Texas—and beyond.

Over the years in the food industry she has worked in various positions and was introduced to the male-dominated field as a child. Her father worked for Sysco for 25 years and Johnson had the chance to go out on sales calls as a child.

“Oh, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t almost hear his advice or his recommendations or suggestions,” said the Galveston native. “He was disabled for about 10 years before he passed away and he would call and say ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Don’t let them have that order unless they pay you in cash.’”

It was that encouragement that kept her going and what eventually led her to start her own business.

“I decided that if I’m going to keep working this hard that I might as well do it for myself,” she said. “I took the account that I had then, which was Blue Diamond Almonds, and I started my own business.

“A typical day is up before the birds, reading emails or getting ready for calls. It’s such a multi-task job. I’m working on 15 different projects at a time at all times. You have to be able to manage it all on top of the business and sales, too.”

D.R. Johnson Sales & Marketing has two other sales representatives along with the most recent addition of Johnson’s only daughter, Megan Johnson.

“My daughter is getting into it, she has been in the business since December when she got done with school and she’s getting ready to have some of her own sales accounts,” said Johnson, a single mother for 20 years. “She’s a great salesperson.”

In the middle of Debbie Johnson hitting the streets of Houston to grow her business, she took a few minutes to talk with Shelby Report staff writer Ashley Bates. Johnson shared advice for women in the field, lessons she has learned along the way and tips for women to get ahead in the food industry.

Question: How did you break into the food industry and what is your resume since then?

Answer: I managed brokers, covering 30 states for Pacific Trading Cards, selling football cards and baseball cards for seven years. I decided to get off the “road” for my daughter, now 21, to be more at home. I went to work for Sysco Food Service, as my father had worked for them more than 25 years in the Houston market, so I grew up in the “business.” I learned a lot with Sysco in the short time I was there and then went to work for Marketing Specialist (a then national broker). I worked for this company four years and another like brokerage firm for almost two years before deciding to jump with both feet into the brokerage business on my own. In April I will celebrate nine years.

Q: What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way that have helped you in business as well as personally?

A: As my father would say, “Your name is all you have … make sure it is good.” Relationships are extremely important to this business as well as tenacity, follow-through, integrity and work ethic. Follow your heart and always do what’s right for your customers, vendors and yourself. Then and only then is it a win-win for all.

Q: What is some advice for those women coming along behind you in the industry?

A: Limit your alcohol consumption! Hold your head up high. Be ready to work harder, smarter and stronger, thinking out of the box, than ever before. This is not for sissies. Never listen to anyone who says it can’t be done. God is in charge of that. Find a mentor who wants you to succeed. I have several—thanks to all of you, you know who you are.

Read a lot, TV for the most part is unnecessary, stay in tune with what is going on in the market, not just your own market but all markets, current trends, industry news, get involved and learn golf. This business changes pretty rapidly, so hold on tight. If it doesn’t grow your business, your customers or yourself personally then don’t do it. Oh yes, and sleep is over-rated.

Q: What are some advantages/disadvantages of being a woman in the food business?

A: Women definitely still have to work harder I believe to achieve the same or better results. Are there disadvantages? Lifting 50 pounds. Don’t really think there are any if you put your mind to it and allow God to be your boss.

Q: Can you comment on any changes you’ve seen during your time in the business in terms of how women are viewed, accepted, valued?

A: I think I notice it more on the grocery side of the business than c-store. The grocery business used to be more of a good ol’ boy world and that to me has come full swing. Women are viewed as a driving force to the broker business and there are many women in this business that I look up to and admire tremendously. This business can take away from raising a family, having a personal life, so staying healthy with exercise and just all around balancing is sometimes a challenge. My hat is off to all women in this industry.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?

A: If the word ‘passion’ is not in your vocabulary, get out now or never start. I wake up every morning truly loving what I do and I’m blessed for that.[/gn_spoiler][/gn_tab] [gn_tab title=”The Southeast“] [gn_spoiler title=”Success for Kuzava Has Hinged on Partnership“]

by Ashley Bates/staff writer

Kathy Kuzava
Kathy Kuzava

After 22 years of working for the Georgia Food Industry Association (GFIA), Kathy Kuzava said the biggest achievement of her career came this past April when the Georgia Senate passed SB-10, a bill ­regarding Sunday sales of alcoholic beverages.

Kuzava said that the GFIA worked closely with the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores (GACS) as “the lead lobbyists over the past five years, trying to get this bill passed,” she said. “This issue has been something that customers have asked the grocers for for many years and we were just very pleased to finally be able to deliver.”

This coming November, many cities and municipalities will vote on Sunday alcohol sales, and as of Aug. 1 there were 74 that were set to vote, according to Kuzava.

“Judging by the speed of the way the locals have ­responded to the issue, I think the local officials recognize that this is something their constituents want to see put on the ballot,” Kuzava said.

Georgia is one of only three states with a complete ban on Sunday alcohol sales at retail stores. They can purchase beer, wine and liquor at restaurants and bars on Sunday in many locations.

Lobbying for upcoming bills is just one part of Kuzava’s daily duties.

“There is no typical day in the association world,” she said. “During January through April, I am usually at the state ­capitol lobbying for our industry on a variety of issues that affect our membership—food safety, alcohol, bottle bills, tax issues, etc. A good deal of time is spent with regulatory ­agencies, cementing good relationships and negotiating ­reform with other agencies like the Georgia WIC program.

“I spend time on boards and task forces such as the Georgia Supermarket Access Taskforce, looking for ways to bring more healthy foods to food deserts in the state. There is also the time spent running the association, working with my board of directors and terrific staff.”

Kuzava said she loves the fast pace of the position and being the watchdog for the retailers.

“I enjoy representing the food industry and working to ­protect some of the hardest working people in the state,” she said. “Grocers are too busy running their stores and taking care of their customers to worry about what is going on at the state house. They need someone dedicated to looking after their interests, and the legislators know I am passionate about telling their story.”

But she didn’t arrive on the scene knowing naturally how to lobby.

“When I started with the association, I had a grocery ­background but had never lobbied a day in my life,” said the Chicago native. “There were many people, including ­legislators, my peers in other states and other experienced lobbyists, who I turned to for advice.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions—people are always ready to help.”

But she didn’t say working at the state capitol was always easy. Kuzava has seen many changes for women in her field over the years.

“When I started at the capitol, there were very few female lobbyists. I was a young mother in a very male-dominated world,” she said. “I can remember being at a dinner function when an older senator asked me who was at home ­babysitting my children while I was at the function. I ­explained that no one was babysitting—my husband was at home parenting.

“Another legislator wanted to know who was cooking ­dinner for my husband and children. He thought it was ­terrible that I would leave my husband home in charge of ­dinner. Thank goodness those days are behind us.”

Kuzava moved from Chicago to Georgia when she was in 11th grade. She attended Georgia State University and met her husband Al while working at Food Giant, a job she began in high school.

“When Al and I were both in college he was the head stock clerk at Food Giant when I was hired as a cashier. We’ll be married 30 years in October and we’ll be spending our anniversary in Paris, so I’m excited,” she said.

After working as training director for Food Giant following college graduation, Kuzava went to work for Supervalu for three years as training director, opening up new stores for ­independent retailers. She joined the association in 1989 “and has loved every day.”

The couple has two children—a son that is the marketing director for Metrotainment Café and a daughter who has just begun her graduate school program to become an ­occupational therapist.

Keys to Kuzava’s success over the years in her personal and professional life include balance, she said, which has been a difficult task as a wife, mother and businesswoman.

“My wonderful husband is the only reason I have been able to have my career and raise a family,” she said. “He understands that running this association involves a lot of nights and weekends, especially during legislative or ­convention months. We have a true partnership.”[/gn_spoiler] [gn_spoiler title=”All in the Family at Aurora“]

by Ashley Bates/staff writer

Stephanie Blackwell
Stephanie Blackwell

Stephanie Blackwell, owner and president of Aurora Products, has watched her ­natural and organic food company blossom over the past decade, and she’s had the joy of sharing her success with her children that work at the company.

Blackwell formed Aurora 13 years ago and since then has grown the company into a multi-million-dollar national ­enterprise. Along the way, she has developed into the savvy businesswoman she is today.

“I started out my youth being encouraged to go into a job that I could quit when I got married and fall back on if I found myself single once again. I never considered myself as an ­entrepreneur or businesswoman,” she said. “My brother was encouraged to take over my dad’s business, not his daughters.”

Blackwell said she learned from her youth to prepare her daughters for the business world, and that’s just what she did.

“I’ve encouraged my daughters to go for the gusto. My older daughter, age 29, received her MBA last year and is much better prepared in the business world than I was at the age of 45,” she said.

Blackwell has four children, and three work at Aurora Products in Stratford, Conn., with her.

“I have my children, Matthew (operations) and Laura (marketing), to help me, along with my youngest, Gregory, who is just starting out in customer service. This is a family-run business, with passion and dedication holding the reins,” Blackwell added.

Aurora sells its products to stores around the country and provides a variety of nuts, dried fruits, granolas, trail mixes and salad toppings. The company makes its own trail mixes, roasts its own nuts and packages them for sale. All items are all natural and do not contain any preservatives, ­artificial colors or additives.

Aurora’s items are available in supermarket chains, ­natural food stores and warehouse clubs like BJ’s and Costco throughout the country, including the Southeast.

Blackwell started her career as a research chemist until meeting her first husband. During their marriage, among other business ventures, they purchased a hydroponic sprout company called Amalgamated Produce Inc.

It was through selling sprouts that a gourmet retailer in New York asked Blackwell to package its private label ­products. That business opportunity showed Blackwell the need for a snack distributor in the metropolitan area and soon after Aurora Products was born.

Blackwell began packaging Aurora’s products inside a small warehouse space in Bridgeport, Conn., selling private label food products to gourmet retailers.

“The first year in business my sales were less than $1­ ­million. I had four employees and leased 1,000 s.f. Today, sales are nearing $40 million and we have over 150 ­employees. We are purchasing a 90,000-s.f. facility in ­addition to the 75,000 s.f. that we are presently using,” Blackwell told The Shelby Report.

Over the years Blackwell said she has learned many things from owning her own business, but lessons that seem to stick out the most are the importance of the way she treats her customers and employees.

“Every account is an individual and needs to be treated as a special entity,” she said. “Aurora customizes to each customer’s needs as much as possible instead of having strict rules on what ‘the trade’ dictates. I believe this is the way we treat our employees as well.

“For example, we have mentally challenged people working here that get paid via piecework, as opposed to hourly. Since they tend to work a bit slower, we custom-fit our production needs around their handicap in order for them to be employed. Also, we promote people that work in the warehouse, if they have the desire and capability, to work in the office. As a result, we have some great dedicated ­office workers that would normally not be given such an ­opportunity yet (they) have talent.”

Blackwell added, “You need to take risks on people and custom-fit their needs to yours. I have brought this ­philosophy into my own lifestyle.”

Over the years Blackwell also has found that being a woman in the business world can have advantages and ­disadvantages.

“In some cases, being a woman can give you an advantage by going through a diversity program offered by many supermarket chains. We got into Sam’s Wholesale Club via this program being ‘woman owned,’” she said. “In most cases, however, this is not going to get you into an account, yet it may give you a better chance to see the buyer.

“Disadvantages of being a woman in the produce field is that you are not a member of the ‘good ol’ boys club.’ Produce tends to be more male oriented.”

Even through the struggles of business in a male-dominated industry there have been many victories for Blackwell.

“Many people admire me for what I’ve done. I have ­several calls a year from various women asking for help to start their own business,” she said.[/gn_spoiler][/gn_tab] [gn_tab title=”The Northeast“] [gn_spoiler title=”PepsiCo CEO Nooyi Talks Personal, Professional Inspiration During BlogHer Keynote“]

Indra Nooyi
Indra Nooyi

With a nod to the increasing influence and importance of the blogosphere and the female bloggers who dominate it, PepsiCo sponsored the seventh annual BlogHer Conference.

In its third straight year as a sponsor, the company went deeper than ever to engage with today’s digital elite—15 PepsiCo brands participating, the reprise of its popular “Sofa Summit” series on female empowerment, and PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Indra K. Nooyi ­delivering the conference keynote.

Bringing her perspective as a CEO and mother of two, Nooyi addressed the BlogHer community and talked about authentic leadership, the power of inspiration, and the ­influential role of the blogging community as a driving force in society.

“Women globally represent 70 percent of buying decisions around the world,” Nooyi said in her presentation. “There’s a shift happening among women in the world.”

According to a live blog of Nooyi’s keynote address by Jessica Miller-Merrell, a leadership blogger at Blogging4Jobs.com, Nooyi noted that the importance of ­incorporating humanity into advertising, business and the ­executive role is something that has become extremely ­important since the recession.

“Nooyi told the audience that senior leaders must balance their IQ with their EQ, or emotional intelligence,” Miller-Merrell wrote. “This emotional intelligence provides female leaders a huge advantage to relate directly to their ­employees and consumers.”

She went on to quote Nooyi, who said, “Employees ­perform better when they bring their whole selves to work.”

In her presentation, Nooyi distilled her leadership ­philosophy into what she deemed the “Five C’s:” com­petency, courage and confidence, communication, consistency and compass. “Integrity is critical in our jobs,” she added.

Also in her keynote address, Nooyi revealed that PepsiCo’s recently launched Women’s Inspiration Network (PepsiCoWIN.com), an online channel that spotlights women inspiring women by sharing interviews and posts on a variety of topics, would pick three correspondents to travel the ­country, find inspirational stories and feed it into the network.

“I think it’s really going to bring the power of all these ­stories that exist in the country to the women so we can learn from each other and make our lives better,” Nooyi said of the project.

PepsiCo is inviting female bloggers to go to pepsicowin.com to share their stories of inspiration for a chance to become a WIN correspondent, reporting on inspiring events and inspiring women on behalf of PepsiCo. According to the PepsiCo WIN website, the correspondent will travel—on PepsiCo’s dime—to one PepsiCo digital event during 2012 to report (via written blog and/or video) on the experience, on behalf of WIN.

“Blogs have become a go-to social media source for information, advice and recommendations, and today’s female bloggers are today’s social media pioneers, crafting the new business models of the future,” said Julie Hamp, SVP and chief communications officer for PepsiCo, in a press release. “As reviewers, recommenders, and most importantly, ­purchasers and consumers of our products, they are also a critical audience and a source of inspiration to PepsiCo. Our long-term success is tied to understanding and engaging these women who not only control purchasing power, but also who are gaining increasing influence and control over communications.”[/gn_spoiler] [gn_spoiler title=”Bitter Plowed New Ground as First Woman Grocery Store Manager“]

by Ashley Bates/staff writer

Carole Friedman Bitter, Ph.D.
Carole Friedman Bitter, Ph.D.

When one walks into a local supermarket and sees the friendly face of a female manager greeting customers at the front of the store, most would smile and go about their shopping.

But not that many years ago, this scene wasn’t typical. Women were not store managers, but possibly cashiers and even that was rare.

Until Carole Friedman Bitter, Ph.D., came along to shake things up.

When asked if she thought she had been a part of paving the way for other women in the industry, she said, “Positively.”

She was the first female grocery store manager in the United States at Stop & Shop. She now is the longtime president and CEO of Friedman’s Freshmarkets in Butler, Pa., operating six stores in the state.

“I worked for six years for Stop & Shop as a store manager, first as a management trainee…then I became a store manager and then what was called a resident supervisor store manager,” Bitter told The Shelby Report. “I left Stop & Shop, finished my MBA and then started a Ph.D. program at Cornell in agricultural economics/food marketing.

“I worked in the (Friedman’s Freshmarkets) stores growing up from 1961 to 1968 for our company in all different capacities, and then with Stop & Shop from 1968 to 1974.”

According to the Friedman’s website, Jacob Friedman immigrated to the United States from Austria-Hungary

in 1900 and began the family legacy of Friedman’s Freshmarkets.

He was 16 when he came by himself to the United States, and after trying his hand at blacksmithing and severing two fingers, he turned to the grocery business in western Pennsylvania. He opened a little grocery store in Lyndora, Pa., and his five children were born above the storeroom.

The first market was a “large room 40 by 80 feet with lots of sunlight. At the front there are two large plate glass windows, which will contain fruit and green goods. The finishings are mahogany woodwork with white paneled walls and marbleoid flooring. It is lighted throughout with electric lights, and five electric fans have been installed,” the website said.

The market had four departments and served customers with special deliveries.

Today, Bitter’s husband Rick serves on the Friedman’s Freshmarket board, her sister Nancy is a shareholder, and her son worked at the stores for seven years.

“It really all started 111 years ago because my grandfather founded the company on the back of a pushcart. He sold produce and sewing notions,” Bitter said. “He had five kids—two sons who went into the business—and my Dad and uncle ran the business the second generation. When my dad went off to World War II, my mother actually ran the business for seven years.

“With it being a family business, it’s interesting; I didn’t consider going into it when I was younger but I ended up being in it by default,” Bitter said. “I had grown up working in all the stores and in all departments (but) I didn’t do it as a career path; it was for spending money. My dad had two girls and my uncle had a boy and a girl and my uncle’s son was heir apparent. There was never a thought that I would go into the business.”

Bitter started out in college as a pre-med student and ended up changing majors seven times.

“I must have had ADD and didn’t know it, but then I found out about a food marketing program at Cornell. I applied and was accepted so I started working on a master’s program at Cornell in the food marketing program. This is when I started thinking about going into the business,” she said. “I did my year’s work at Cornell and I really loved business. None of my majors before that were in business because ‘nice little girls didn’t major in business.’ Ultimately I ended up working for Stop & Shop of Boston, I was put into their management training program, I was the first woman to ever go into a store management training program. It was very, very difficult to work my way into that.”

Not only was Bitter the first woman but she was also the youngest store manager at Stop & Shop. But soon after her six-year career with Stop & Shop she began running the family chain of supermarkets.

“I was working on my doctorate when my dad called and said, ‘I have an offer to sell the company; why don’t you come home this weekend and we’ll talk about it,’” Bitter said. “My mom had just passed away and my uncle, his partner, had just passed away and Dad was pretty ready to sell the company. When I came home that weekend he offered me the presidency of the company, which was really unbelievable when you think about it because I was not even 30 years old. I took a leave of absence from PhD work at Cornell and came back into the business, so that’s basically my background.”

It wasn’t always easy for Bitter, though; she plowed her way through many years of discrimination but always fought back and made her own way through the business world.

“I worked really hard at Stop & Shop because in those days women were very much discriminated against in business and that’s before the EEOC laws,” she said. “Our counterparts weren’t working the same number of hours. There was a period of time when I found out that my salary was quite a bit lower than the salaries of the other male reserve store managers or other store managers at Stop & Shop, and when I found that out, I spoke up. To Stop & Shop’s credit, I got my raises but they weren’t going to do it until I told them myself.”

Bitter also had trouble while at Cornell University getting job interviews.

“I started signing up, and as my maiden name was Friedman, I would sign up ‘C.A. Friedman’ so they would think it was a guy. They would tell me I was in the wrong room—home economics is down the hall,” she said. “There were a lot of obstacles put in my path, but I’m pretty stubborn, must be the old Hungarian blood in me. I tolerated it all and I rose above it.”

Bitter said she has learned many lessons throughout her career, but most important are perseverance and finding a mentor.

“These were things that they didn’t teach me in business school which I learned on the job the hard way,” she said.

Bitter said she looked to mentors in the business that were older to see how they would handle situations. She joined the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) to learn from those in the industry.

“I observed what the executives were doing and how they handled themselves,” said Bitter, who was the first female FMI board member and vice chair.

Bitter is a member of the FMI board of directors along with other committees. In addition, she has served multiple terms as a director of the FMI since 1978 and was named a vice chairman of the Public Affairs Committee in May 1993. She is currently the immediate past chair of the National Grocers Association (N.G.A.) and serves on the board of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association (PFMA).

Bitter has served on many other industry and community service organization boards throughout her career, along with winning many industry, community and professional awards.

She says there are plenty of advantages for women in the industry.

“Years ago, the advantage was that after people began to accept that I wasn’t some fluffhead and I was willing to work hard and I had some intellect and some desire to do well in business, my uniqueness of being the only female helped me a lot,” she said. “What happened for women was we went from zero opportunities to the sky’s the limit, and that’s healthy, that’s fantastic.”[/gn_spoiler] [/gn_tab] [gn_tab title=”The Midwest“] [gn_spoiler title=”Mastering Management at Hy-Vee“]

by Ashley Bates/staff writer

Kristi Masterson
Kristi Masterson

At Hy-Vee Inc.’s 220 stores, the focus is on “Making lives easier, healthier, happier.”

And that is what Sioux Falls, S.D., No. 3 store director Kristi Masterson has lived during her 24-year career with the ­supermarket chain.

“There have been a lot of changes in the industry itself. When I first started with Hy-Vee I was the can stacker—and look at the industry today, and look at some of the things that Hy-Vee is doing.

“We’ve got clinics in our store. We’ve got dieticians in our store. We’ve got chefs in our store. We’ve got ­nutritional labeling in the store to help consumers make ­better choices with the items that they are buying.”

Masterson was honored in May with a store manager of the year award at the Food Marketing Institute’s (FMI) Future Connect event held in Dallas.

Masterson’s store relocated a few years ago to a building twice as large, and she was able to increase sales by 31 percent in the first year after the move.

She personally conducts reviews of approximately 125 regular and full-time employees, and three of her managers have gone on to run their own stores.

“I love my customers and employees,” Masterson said. “I think this business is all about relationships. You have to know your customers so you can sell what they are looking for. I know a lot of customers by name and they know me, so that makes my job fun.”

Masterson began her career at Hy-Vee while partici­pating in the DECA program at her high school in Yankton, S.D.

“I just never quit and I loved what I was doing, so I stayed with them,” said Masterson, who soon after took a position at another store. “The store I transferred to was Sioux Falls No. 1. It was on Sycamore Avenue, and I worked there from 1991 to 2000 in a variety of positions, just learning every part of running a store. Then I got the first opportunity to run a store, which was at Sioux Falls No. 5 in 2001.”

Masterson opened the No. 5 store and then moved over to No. 3 in 2007. At No. 3 she plays a major role in the store’s community service.

“We have seven stores in Sioux Falls and for the last 10 years we have teamed up with Sanford Hospital for an event called the Legends. We bring in legends in baseball, football, etc., and offer free sports clinics to kids with the help of area coaches,” Masterson told The Shelby Report. “All proceeds from our event go back to the youth in the form of grants. I sit on a board of directors that helps oversee where the funds go. This year we are giving back $135,000 to the area. My role is to run the kids’ triathlon.”

Masterson herself added the children’s triathlon to the ­activities of the Legends event three years ago.

From community service to providing healthy meal ­options, Masterson believes the supermarket can influence shoppers’ lives and families.

“I really feel that we are trying to impact people’s lives. The obesity rate being where it is, we’re trying to educate our customers to make better choices,” she said. “We still carry the Doritos, and we still carry the Mountain Dew, but there are better choices in the store and we have to keep on pace to help those customers make better choices.

“That’s why I think our job is fun and exciting, I think we have an opportunity to provide customers ways to eat healthier, live longer and just have a better quality of life.”

Masterson, in addition to her role as store director, also is a mother of two: Dylan, 14, and Cheyanne, 9.

“Everyone talks about that (balance), but it’s so true—finding that balance between home and work—and for me I always try to focus on the quality time that I do have with my kids, not necessarily the quantity of time. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without a husband who supports what I do. I think it takes a strong significant other, whether it’s a husband or not, to support you.”

Masterson has learned many lessons as a store director.

“I always say there isn’t a job that I would tell someone else to do that I wouldn’t do myself,” she said.

“I think you have to develop thick skin. This is a tough business sometimes, and I think that was my biggest mistake when I first started managing is I managed with my heart instead of my head. You learn very quickly that you can’t be everything to everyone and you have to make good, sound business decisions even though it’s going to hurt ­people along the way.”

She also pointed to staying on top of industry trends as a priority.

“The amount of planning and organizing that this ­position takes—for knowing trends and being a student of the industry and just looking forward to what we think our business is—is extremely important,” she said.[/gn_spoiler] [gn_spoiler title=”From the Airwaves to the Grocery Aisles“]

by Ashley Bates/staff writer

Stephanie M. Skylar
Stephanie M. Skylar

From radio and television in Cleveland to president of Chief Super Market Inc., Stephanie M. Skylar is making her mark in Ohio. She says that transitioning from a broadcast career to the grocery industry was smoother than one might think.

“Before working at Chief Super Markets Inc., I co-owned two radio stations in Lima, Ohio. Owning a small business was a great experience and it taught me how important and satisfying it is to give your heart and soul to a community,” Skylar said. “Actually when I owned the radio stations our largest customer, our largest client, was the supermarket, and so I started long before I ever worked here. They asked me to handle their marketing and advertising for them, so we are going back to the mid-1980s.”

Skylar was named president in 2007. She has served as EVP, director of marketing and a member of the company’s executive team since 1996. She has made it her mission to encourage careers in the retail industry. One result of that is Chief University.

“Last year we created Chief University. Our motto is Non Scholae Sed Vitae Discimus—Not for School, but for Life,” she said. “Our associates need education and training, but most of all support and encouragement to see beyond their present positions and reach for something more. With an aging workforce we must prepare for the attraction and ­retention of our future associates. All of these reasons led to the formation of Chief University.

“My responsibility is to look out several years from today and anticipate what we will need to thrive in the future. We need bench strength—a new generation of people ­interested in making retail their chosen career.”

Skylar remembers “the old days,” when “a supermarket was a coveted job. We want to restore that belief.

At Chief University employees learn to enhance the ­customer experience.

“It’s beyond saying smiling, beyond saying ‘paper or plastic,’ ‘cash or credit,’ it’s really about being an advocate for the customer,” she said.

Twelve stores operate under the Chief or Rays banner in northwest and west central Ohio. Skylar shared some ­observations about the current state of the grocery business in The Hawkeye State.

“I believe people are being very careful with how they spend their money and it’s very competitive,” she said. “Certainly we would like to grow our company and that is something we are trying to evaluate even in a down economy. We’re looking for those opportunities.”

Each store in the chain is autonomous, Skylar says, which is important because the industry is anything but stagnant.

“First of all, it changes every single day, and you can have an impact on that change—everybody in the ­business,” she said. “We’re always doing sales and offering new opportunities and coming up with new ways of doing things. This business is perfect because there are so many open minds. You have to be open minded in retail. It’s great because you have autonomy, really, at least in our organization. I encourage that imagination and autonomy to try new things. That is what makes it so fun.”

Skylar has been a long-time civic, community and ­industry leader and she serves on several boards including the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) board of directors.

The mother of two college-age children, one of whom works as a cashier at the supermarket chain, Skylar says she’s encouraged to see more women now working in what can be an intimidating industry—for anyone.

“It is exciting. I enjoy mentoring other women and ­encouraging them to grow in the industry,” she said. “Women who have made the decision to be part of the ­industry are taken seriously and garner the respect from their colleagues. I think a lot of people starting out in ­business are intimidated. Yet ‘us veterans’ have a lot to learn from new perspectives and new ways of approaching our businesses.”

As one of those veterans, Skylar shared some of the ­insight she has gained.

“One important lesson I have learned is believe in people and that they can accomplish incredible things. I love to help others to maximize their potential,” she said.

“If your colleagues know that you believe in them and their power to accomplish the goals, they will run through walls to get it done,” Skylar said. “Our team is crazy good. They are passionate about the work, have a sense of ­urgency to innovate and care deeply about others.”

Skylar added that to be successful in the grocery industry, a person has to want to continue to learn and grow with it.

“There is a balance between adapting to the culture of an organization and being a maverick who will disrupt the status quo, moving a group forward. Know the difference when to apply which perspective.”[/gn_spoiler] [gn_spoiler title=”Siefken Dedicated to Nebraska, Grocers and Industry“]

by Ashley Bates/staff writer

Kathy Siefken
Kathy Siefken

She has led the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association (NGIA) for 18 years, and Kathy Siefken still loves every day that she works for the organization.

“I can describe my days as busy,” Siefken told The Shelby Report. “I spend a lot of time on the phone. I spend a lot of time talking to regulatory agencies and people that are involved in the food industry, because my job here is to assist grocers in ­solving problems. I love the job I’ve got, it’s a phe­nome­nal position that I hold here.”

Siefken started out life on a farm/ranch operation in South Dakota and assumed she’d grow up and marry a rancher or farmer. Turns out, she was a city girl at heart. She just didn’t know it yet.

“I grew up in Lake Preston and we actually rode horseback, and when we were moving cattle from one pasture up to the stockyards all the kids were on horses herding cattle,” said Siefken, who had a brother and two sisters with her on those cattle drives. “I left South Dakota back in the late 1970s, I went to college at Wayne State College and then I moved to Lincoln, Neb.”

She found out that she liked living in the city and stayed.

Siefken had dabbled with association work in college, and that propelled her to association management.

“When (the NGIA) hired me, I was not a lobbyist,” Siefken said. “I had some legislative background with the Nebraska legislature. I discovered after being here a few years that we were not being represented in what I thought was the best way possible.”

Siefken began shadowing the organization’s paid lobbyist.

“The one I learned the most from was another female, and after she left I became a lobbyist for the food ­industry of Nebraska. That’s been a huge change in the industry in our state. Twenty years ago we did virtually no lobbying. Now I lobby and I am in the capital building quite a bit and we have a strong voice for the ­grocery industry in politics in Nebraska.”

To recognize her skill, knowledge and passion for the grocery industry, as well as “her tenacity of purpose in the legislative arena,” the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) honored Siefken with the Donald H. MacManus Association Executive Award in 2010.

Throughout Siefken’s career with the association she has addressed the industry’s full agenda of issues at every level of government, including food taxes, school vending laws, credit card interchange fees, healthcare reform, the Employee Free Choice Act and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.

Siefken has held positions with the National Grocers Association (N.G.A.), FMI and with the Food Industry Association Executives (FIAE).

“I was on the N.G.A. board of directors and the FMI government relations committee, and as a result of being involved with those national organizations, we’re really involved in national issues. So the last couple years have been very active on a federal level and some of those issues include interchange reform—we were very involved in that. Now menu labeling is a huge issue.”

Siefken’s attributes part of her success to networking and forming coalitions.

“I guess one of the things that I’ve learned—and a piece of advice I’d give to women that would come along behind me—you don’t have to do everything by yourself and alone,” Siefken said. “I have become a builder of coalitions, so when an issue comes up I try to find my allies because when you are working with two or three other people, they help to see things from ­different angles so that you cover all of your bases.”

Sometimes things in business or politics aren’t always what they seem, she said.

“If someone disagrees with you on a policy or a ­position, you should really find out why they disagree with you. Sometimes there are misperceptions. If you can correct that misperception, then suddenly instead of having someone that is in opposition to you, they ­become an ally,” she said.

The work-family balance hasn’t been easy, she said, but certainly worth it.

“Balancing family and career—it was a focus—there were two things in my life, it was my work and my ­children and so I didn’t have a social life,” she said. “I’d go home at 5 p.m. and when the kids were there and up and around, I spent my time with them. Then when the kids went to bed I got on the computer and finished up my work.

“Sometimes I would work until midnight and then the next morning you get up and you get the kids out of bed and take them to school, and you do the same thing over and over and over and you get through it.”

“It was a very busy time but I’ve discovered that all times are busy,” she said. Siefken’s children are both in their 20s today.

Siefken has learned many lessons over the years, and shared a couple with The Shelby Report.

“One of the most important things is being honest and forthright at all times,” she said. “Another thing is never tak­ing a shortcut, even though it might be easier to take a shortcut today. Here’s what happens: it just reoccurs. If you don’t do it right the first time, you end up doing it over.”

She added that she never felt at a disadvantage as a woman in the industry.

“I have heard women talk about how they were at a disadvantage, and I’ve heard about the glass ceiling, and I simply have never believed in it,” she said. “I truly believe that if you’re prepared and if you do your ­research and if you work hard and stay focused, I don’t really think there is a disadvantage or an advantage.”­[/gn_spoiler] [/gn_tab] [/gn_tabs]

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