Sue Klug is perhaps the best-known woman in the West Coast food industry. The 54-year-old Unified Grocers executive started in the business at Vons as Susan Lawmaster in her early 20s. She went on to work at Lucky Stores before joining Catalina Marketing and later Albertsons/Supervalu. Prior to coming on board with Unified in late 2012 as the wholesaler’s SVP and chief marketing officer, Klug served as president of the Southern California Division of Albertsons for five years.
“Through the years I have had the good fortune to witness Sue’s successes during her years with Vons, Catalina Marketing, Lucky Stores, Albertsons and now Unified Grocers,” says friend and Western Association of Food Chains (WAFC) COO Carole Christianson. “She has left her footprints in every organization she has served.”
As much as she’s known for her business prowess, Klug, to the same caliber, is a supporter of women. In an industry historically dominated by men, Klug came up in the grocery business during a time when there were no other women to look to for guidance. Today, she serves as that beacon she didn’t have. In fact, Klug has mentored countless young women over the years in how to succeed in business—from how to conduct oneself to professional makeup application.
She’s an advocate for education, too—something she credits for helping her choose her career path and succeed. Growing up poor, Klug’s parents did not encourage her to go to college after graduating from Temple City High School in Temple City, Calif. It didn’t take her long to realize, however, that—for her own security—she needed an education. She graduated from USC’s Food Industry Management program in 1984 and would soon earn her bachelor’s degree as well as an MBA. Because of her dedication to advancing education at Unified and across the industry, Klug received the Illuminators Education Foundation Torch Award last year.
But for Klug, her most important role is wife and mother. Her son Sean is 18 and her daughter Shelby is 16. Shelby has cystic fibrosis, and the Klugs have long been powerful advocates of finding a cure for the disease—a reason why the West Coast food industry is such a strong supporter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Read more about how Klug got started in the industry and how she balances family and her executive role at the largest wholesale grocery distributor in the western U.S. in an interview with The Shelby Report from Unified’s Commerce, Calif., headquarters in mid-February.
Q: How did you get started in this business? This is a timely question because one of your mentors just passed away. We’d like to hear a little bit about Bill Davila and specifically how he may have influenced you as a woman coming up in the industry.
Sadly, two people who were significant to my joining the industry, joining Vons, passed away in the last week. Bud Moorman—he worked in deli in the manufacturing area of Vons. I joined Vons in 1979 and my mom actually worked in the deli kitchen; she worked on the factory line with the cheeses and the lunchmeats. I was in my early 20s. I was visiting my mom in this factory/deli/kitchen environment and Bud Moorman stuck his head in and he said, “Would you be interested in thinking about working for Vons someday?” And that’s how the whole conversation started. I started in a function that now resides in the mailroom, which was sorting DSD invoices that came in from the stores.
Q: What do you think prompted Bud Moorman to ask you that question?
He knew my grandfather had worked for Vons and my father had worked for Vons and he knew my mother. He knew the family, so I guess he just thought that I came from good stock or something.
Then I was working in this accounting/mailroom function and there was a Teamsters strike, so a bunch of the people that were in the accounting area went out to do the books because the bookkeepers were honoring the strike, and I had a bit of an accounting background from high school. They said, “Can you do some of this other work because the skilled people have gone to the stores?” So it sort of gave me an opportunity. The strike, honestly, was an opportunity to show them I could do something else. It was kind of fun. I worked through accounting, then I went into inventory management.
I had that background, but while I was in high school we were so poor, college wasn’t going to be in the cards. The only thing my parents said to go for were any kind of cash awards—like write an essay or something and get a cash award as a senior. I got a big award from Bank of America. But if it was a scholarship, they were like, “No, you’re not going to go to college.”
Q: It was just assumed?
Oh, yeah…My dad said the reason women go (to college) is to get their M.R.S. degree, to find a man. That was for the rich people, and that wasn’t going to be us.
But while at Vons in this accounting thing, I see people get promoted and I’m thinking, “I’m as good as them, I think.” But I didn’t have the opportunity, and it was because they had been through college. That’s what sort of sparked me. I ended up going to Pasadena City College. I ended up with 72 units that I ultimately transferred to USC. But it was really that hunger to get out of the cycle of poverty. My dad, the one that had worked at Vons, he and my mom divorced when I was quite young. He was an alcoholic. He died. My mom remarried and my stepdad didn’t work, so she had this factory job and four kids.
Q: Tell us about your siblings.
My older brother, Greg, he’s two years older and he’s from my real dad. When my mom remarried, they had two children, so I have a younger brother who’s eight years younger and a sister who’s 10 years younger from a different dad. My sister lives in North Carolina and my younger brother lives in Kentucky. Greg lives in Sacramento.
I went to school at night, worked full-time during the day, so I was in accounting, inventory management, went over into data processing…
Q: As you went through these positions, how many women did you see moving through these positions?
None. There were no women in positions of power.
Q: This was a solid, good ol’ boy system then?
There were no women or officers.
Q: Did you understand how to navigate working with men? Was it your personality or your abilities?
I honestly think I was running to something that would keep me off food stamps.
Q: So you were very motivated?
Very much. It wasn’t like I was motivated for money and stuff; I’ve never been that person. It was, I didn’t want to not know if I was going to get dinner. That was the force early on.
Q: Did your mentors, Bill and Bud, guide you in terms of how to dress, how to talk to people, how to look or how to speak?
Back in the ’80s, Bill used to call me “Disco Sue.” I had a bad disco stage—really curly hair and too much polyester.
But once I graduated from the USC (Food Industry Management) program, it was sort of the moment where I thought, “Oh, I could really have a career.” It’s not just about (getting and staying out of poverty). It could be something more than that.
Q: When did you graduate from the USC program?
That was 1984, and then I got my degree, my bachelor’s, in ’85.
Q: Even today, there are people being promoted in this industry that don’t have a degree from college. Do you really believe it was the degree that opened the doors for you or was it your motivation and desire?
At that time in the USC program you got college credits. I believed in my gut, like I had this epiphany, that I needed to get a college degree and that would mean that I wasn’t going to have to worry about dinner on the table. I wasn’t committed to the food industry, frankly, at that time.
Q: You were just looking at it as a degree. A steppingstone toward success.
Yes, but the program, the content of the program, is what completely turned me around and I said, “I can not only get a degree and be safe, I can have a real career in this business.” That is why I’m such an advocate for that program—because it meant so much to me on so many different levels. After I graduated they said I could get my masters. No one in my family had ever been to college, so I said, “OK, I’ll take the GMAT.” That was the test at the time. I don’t even think that test is around anymore, but I took it. I was lucky and scored well. It took me five years, but at night I got my MBA.
Q: You were given a lot of opportunities that not a lot of other women out there who have an education were given. True? So what is it that Sue Klug did?
I think I was willing to take risks early. Even in that accounting thing, I was willing to raise my hand during that strike and say, “Give me a shot.” I was willing to transfer into inventory management and learn the buying system. I was willing to step into data processing at the time without any (code and systems knowledge). I knew nothing.
Q: You could learn it and do it, though.
Yeah. I think it was being willing to take the risks. And I also think having those strong mentors along the way. Bill Davila was my primary mentor. He was incredibly creative and brilliant and really pulled the best out of people. There are a few different mentors I want to talk about. I was just thinking about them and the issue, I would say, with each of them, the overriding thing if I had to button them all up, is they knew how to connect with people at a very different level. Bill connected with me and he connected with a ton of people and taught me a lot. When you talk about mentors sometimes you think, “Oh, they gave you a pass and they were really easy on you.” My mentors were the toughest people on me that you could ever meet. It was not unicorns and rainbows; it was tough stuff. But they were tough because they cared and they were pushing me to be my best. Bill’s creativity, his passion for the Hispanic consumer, those never left me, and it serves me well here at Unified, obviously. Really, he had a very strong appreciation for diversity. So while there were no real women in positions of power, Bill, being the only Hispanic in a position of power, understood how it was to be the odd one out in the room—and I think he really embraced it.
And then I think about Dick Goodspeed and Larry Del Santo. Again, they connect to people and they care. Dick and Larry, when I worked for them—Larry would always pat you on the back and Dick would kick you in the butt. It’s true.
Q: In a nice way…?
Yeah. They taught me to connect to people, but secondly, there’s power in a really strong team. Neither of those guys would have been as good without the other. That was another terrific example to me; that’s a life lesson I took away.
And another one I was thinking about was Jeff Noddle. When the Supervalu transaction happened, the first thing Jeff did was come out and connected with the store directors. He got in their stores, he talked to them about the issues. He could have worried about labor and capital and the deal costs, synergies and all the other things you do during an acquisition, but he just sat in back rooms and talked to people. As I think about the people who really impacted my career and the lessons I’ve learned, it’s all about having a very real connection to people and demonstrating that you care about them.
Q: You have a support group, obviously. You have your husband Todd, who is the rock and he takes care of so many things for you. He’s got a big career of his own at Popchips and previously at Coca-Cola, which is amazing. You have two children, one of whom has always been a high-needs child. What is it that enables you to have a career, a husband who has a career and still do what you do?
I think having the support system is really important—great family support, great friends, a company that understands. I just got Shelby out of the hospital yesterday. She was ill. Thankfully with the internet now you can be sending emails at midnight and you can kind of get caught up, but I always tell women to really think about what you want and understand that, and once you do, make sure you articulate what it takes. Because a lot of times people get to the what do they want but they don’t do the hard work of what it’s going to take and how you set the wheels in motion to make all that happen.
Q: Tell us about Shelby.
Cystic fibrosis is the No. 1 genetic killer of children. When she was diagnosed at two years old they told us she might live to her early 20s. She’s 16 today. Cystic fibrosis just clogs up the lungs and digestive system. If I had been born with it, statistics say I wouldn’t have lived to be 10 years old. They’re living longer (today) because of the treatments. And those treatments take hours of her time every day, just to try to maintain her health. It’s degenerative, so she loses lung capacity and health every year.
While the disease is the most horrible thing I think I could have imagined for my child, I’m sure there’s worse. I haven’t seen it. The one thing it really has blessed us with is getting to know at a very real level how much people care and how much they’re there to support us. And you wouldn’t know if you weren’t as needy as we are in terms of fundraising and awareness and getting people involved in our cause. I would never have guessed that people in this industry could be that good and that caring and that supportive and that generous. I very much, from that perspective, look at it as a blessing because we are thankful every day for the support we get. Across competitors, CPG companies and third-party suppliers. Every which way you look. It’s unbelievable.
Q: You’ve mentioned before that she starts her day at 5 in the morning.
It’s 4 or 5 in the morning on school days. On the weekends she can sleep in.
Q: Todd tells us you’re a list person.
I am. I have to be. I have to be highly organized. I know everything I have to accomplish every day. I know everything he (Todd) has to accomplish every day, even though he doesn’t acknowledge it. That’s just how I keep myself organized.
Q: Is your list on a spiral notepad or notebook?
I don’t tear the pages out, so then I just do it chronologically. And then about once a week I go back and say, “OK, is there anything in the last week that fell through the cracks?” It really helps me kind of stay on it.
Q: Have you learned to do that now with your cell phone?
A little bit. I like to see something visually and if my cell phone loses power or whatever…but I do keep my calendar and everything on (the phone).
Q: Did somebody teach you to make lists, or is that something that is self-taught?
I think it’s just self-taught. It’s what works for you. Everybody has different things that work. I make notes on the littlest things in the world, but that helps me stay on point and gives a sense of accomplishment. At the end of the day I look and say, “Did I nail it or did I leave it on the table?”
Q: Do you set goals, like five-year or 10-year goals?
I don’t have clearly articulated goals because I’ve just found in my life and my career I have to be somewhat opportunistic. I kind of push myself every day and I sort of know what I’m aiming for today or this month or this year. But one thing I’ve learned, particularly with Shelby’s illness, is I live every day in the moment. Every good day we have is a day that I am thrilled with. I’ve been lucky in parts of my career and my life. I have an amazing family and great friends. I relish and appreciate that.
Q: What time do you typically wake up in the morning?
4:30 (Monday-Friday). I try to get into the office early.
Q: You’ve always been an early bird?
Yeah, pretty much.
Q: Shelby now takes care of herself, without much help anymore.
Yeah, but as the mom with the list…I have a list for her, too—so I have to make sure she’s done everything in the right order and that the pills have been taken and the rinses and the sprays have been done. There’s a whole regimen of things that have to get done.
Q: What time do you normally go to bed?
Q: That gives you family time and all that in the evenings?
Q: What time do you normally get home?
Q: You have somewhat of a normal work schedule?
Yes, but I do travel a lot for work because we have office in Northern Cal and Portland and Seattle. Next week, for example, I’m out all week. I leave on Sunday afternoon. But if it was just an average week…and again, the good thing is there’s so much you can do now with the connectivity at home. So I can get home, make sure the homework’s moving, make sure dinner’s moving, make sure laundry’s moving and then go back and tidy up from the day. Check my list.
Q: We’ve gone through a lot of personal stuff in this interview. Anything you want to share about the business of Unified, perhaps? This is a new venture for you—previously you were with Albertsons, Supervalu. This is a really different kind of landscape that you’re navigating through.
I basically grew up in the chain environment—lots of time at Vons and then Lucky, which obviously later became Albertsons—and really great experiences and some terrific people. But the chain environment is very, very different than the independent environment.
I’m really, truly enjoying this time in my career because what I feel like I’m able to do is take some of the learnings and techniques and technologies from the chains and help the independents through a wholesaler like Unified that can provide some scale…so they can complete more effectively. It’s a perfect kind of marriage because independents are incredible merchants and they have great passion and drive for the business. It’s their family’s name on the outside of the building. Their entire family works for the operation. There’s a drive there the chains can’t even comprehend. If you can complement that drive and passion and commitment with some scale, technology, programs and approaches and strategy—that to me is where the magic is. And I think that’s what I can help bring to the business because of the expertise that I’ve had over the years working in the chain environment.
Q: We’ve always respected how you present yourself—in terms of your business attire, your appearance. Talk to me a little bit about being a woman and how you present yourself professionally.
In the ’80s, I was Disco Sue, curly hair and too much polyester. And I think once I kind of went through the USC program and knew that I was going to commit to a career, I started—there were no role models inside the business really—looking around, looking at magazines, looking at women in positions of power and authority.
Q: So you did do some homework?
A little bit, yeah. But back in those days, honestly, women dressed to look like men. We wore those very plain suits. We wore the little silk neckties. What I’m excited about today is while you still need to look very professional, I think you can bring a feminine touch. And I always talk about bringing your whole self to work. The person I am at work is not different than the person I am at home. Do I dial some things up or down appropriately? Yeah, I think I do. But I think being authentic is really, really important. I think people that you work for, that work for you, that you interact with, they have a good sense if you’re the real deal or not.
Q: What advice would you give to a young woman reading this story?
There are certain norms you have to conform to, and I have personally counseled many women on those norms. I’ve probably been bolder than maybe I should be at times, but it’s because I care. Helping people understand, helping women understand, there is a certain expected norm and if you operate outside of that there’s going to be consequences that go with it. Maybe it’s not fair, and I can’t help that, but it is what it is. So, “Here’s a norm, it’s your choice.” I’ve helped women with clothes a lot; with weight; with hair; and, in fact, when I was with Albertsons, I took a group of about 20 women to MAC, the cosmetic company, and we went through how to do your makeup with professional polish. It’s important, and I feel compelled to help women. Like I say, I’ve bought people salon gift certificates. Just yesterday, in fact, I sent a weight loss program to a woman I’ve been talking to about her health and her physical appearance. I just think, women particularly, have to operate inside those norms.
Q: Do you have time to exercise yourself, and what’s your passion?
Yes, an elliptical; I have it at home. I like to cycle; that’s another thing. And I do a little bit of Pilates. But mostly elliptical for cardio.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share?
Many of the women I know that are in bigger jobs, the husband does the heavy lifting at home. Or they’re single or they’re married without kids. So it is a little bit unique. Again, I attribute all that (for me) to the support groups.
We sort of started talking about how the USC program really convinced me that it wasn’t just a way for me to get a degree. It was a way to have a real career in the industry. Part of my passion today is around providing educational opportunities for people inside the industry, and that’s why the WAFC is so important to me personally because (the FIM Program) was not just a career-changer, it was a life-changer. I think this industry has become more difficult. It requires more technology and probably requires a little bit more sophistication than it might have in years gone by. All that screams the need for education.
Q: You’re breaking the glass ceiling again. In April, you’re going to become the 94th, and first woman president, of the WAFC. Is there anything you can share with us that you see you want to do right away to put your stamp on the presidency?
It will have been, just about exactly, 30 years from when I graduated from the program in 1984 to when I become the president in 2014. And if you had told me as the 20-something-year-old back then that I would someday be that person, I would have never, in a million years, believed you. It is incredible. To me, that just speaks to the value of the program itself.
There are real initiatives we’re working on inside the WAFC. I don’t know if they’re necessarily linked to women, per se, but what we’re really trying to do now is target people of all ages and stages—kind of working on the community college program, which is more of an entry-level to education that is vitally important and growing by leaps and bounds; the next step is the 14-week USC Food Industry Management Program to really get people solidified in the industry and in their career; and then the new initiative is exploring something at a graduate level for people who maybe came into the industry with a finance degree or an engineering degree or whatever it might be—but really giving them some higher education and learning behind the important issues in the industry. That, we hope, will all come together in the next year or so.
Last year, one thing I’m really proud of, is we started on the first-ever resource group here at Unified. It’s the Unified Women’s Resource Group and that has been highly successful. We rolled it out in our Southern Cal office. It’s rolling out in March in our Seattle offices and, once we get our women’s groups rolled out, we want to look at other diversity groups—Hispanic, Asian, LGBT, whatever it might be. I’m excited by that and really enthusiastic about the response we’re getting and, again, how women are connecting to the business in a different way, exploring new career opportunities and ways they can give back to the company and to the industry.
Q: Are you still involved with the Network of Executive Women (NEW)?
I was the co-founder of the Southern California chapter of NEW, and I was the co-chair for about three or four years. Now I’m a committee lead. I lead the public relations and the media efforts. I’m really supporting the next generation and helping them anywhere I can along the way. NEW has over 20 chapters in North America and is experiencing double-digit growth. I have really appreciated the relationships there, and it’s been very satisfying to watch the next generation of women.
Q: Have you gotten feedback from women in Southern California who have benefited from NEW?
I think primarily they benefit from the networking. Men, I think, have traditionally networked on the golf course and in business lunches or in business dinners, and that’s not as comfortable for women. We have several networking opportunities a year. Just to get to know people has been really refreshing, I think, and helpful as well as the content of those, which is often about things like life balance or leadership or how you create your own personal brand. It’s women talking to women about issues that are sort of uniquely theirs.
Q: Men and women do network differently.
The women walk up and say, “Hey, those are really cute shoes” or “I like your haircut.” The men walk up and ask for the business. I think teaching women to, again, be authentic always, but it’s OK to be a little bold. I think we’ve seen some of the women kind of incorporate some of that but, again, that notion of watching the next generation of women find their way is really energizing to me. It’s exciting.
In the feature photo at top: Sue Klug accepts her award as Woman Executive of the Year, presented by The Shelby Report of the West, during the Food Industries Sales Managers’ Club of Los Angeles (FISMC) Legends of the Industry luncheon April 17, where she also was honored as a “legend.” (Find photos from the luncheon here.)
This Q&A originally appeared in the April print edition of The Shelby Report of the West.