The Shelby Report and The Grocery Group have introduced a new series entitled People to Watch that focuses on current and future leadership in the grocery industry. In this third installment, The Grocery Group Founder and CEO Cindy Sorensen interviews Whitney Atkins, VP of marketing for the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association. Sorensen’s questions are in bold.
Tell me a little bit about you and what do you like to do with your time away from the office?
I started in the grocery industry as many do—checking groceries. Here I am today in an industry that has provided me opportunities to advance personally and professionally. Most importantly, it has given me the chance to become me through meeting and building lasting relationships. Being new to Madison and the Midwest, my 12-year-old son and I spend a lot of time exploring the area and trying out all the fun winter activities. Moving to Madison has been what we call #adventure and we love it.
Please provide a brief description of IDDBA.
The International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA) is a nonprofit trade association for food retailers, manufacturers, wholesalers, brokers, distributors and other industry professionals. Our membership includes more than 1,500 companies, ranging from small independents to the world’s largest corporations. IDDBA helps its members enhance their economic position by providing opportunities for professional dialogue, education, exchange of industry data and selling opportunities. IDDBA produces top industry trends reports and original research, and develops training programs on marketing, merchandising, management and operations, food safety and customer service. The IDDBA show is a vital networking event for the industry, featuring the finest in dairy, deli and bakery. The annual tradeshow attracts close to 9,000 registrants, includes more than 1,800 exhibit booths and features distinguished and internationally-recognized speakers such as business leaders, key policymakers, former presidents, celebrity chefs and star athletes.
What is your role at IDDBA? Responsibilities?
As VP of marketing, it is my role to build new relationships and foster existing industry and member relationships, to grow the dairy, deli and bakery (fresh) segments of our industry. My role is to continue to deliver IDDBA as an industry influencer 365 days a year to communicate the amazing work done by IDDBA to support the growth of the industry.
What was your career path to this position?
As mentioned, I started out checking groceries for Kroger Delta Division right out of high school. I laugh sometimes as I remember training people on the latest technology at the time: scanners. During those college years, I did roles such as customer service and manager-in-charge duties. In 1996, I entered the Kroger management program. My time led me through a co-manager role and to the advertising role that fed my passion. For the next 20 years, I spent my days and nights working to grow stores, people and relationships. Looking back, it was quite the ride that made me who I am today. I was able to work with and meet amazing, influential people while watching my field of work transform from advertising to marketing and now to where it is today. In addition to the advertising and marketing world, I had the opportunity to spend a few years in the merchandising arenas in deli/bakery, which allowed me to learn many different exciting facets of the business.
What do you see as the greatest opportunities for workforce and leadership development within the grocery industry?
One of the biggest challenges is to educate those entering the job market about the countless opportunities to make this business more than a first job—to make it a career. IDDBA What’s in Store trends and research has been a great resource to better understand our consumers and for real insight into what those consumers want in all aspects of life. Working with my marketing and communications team, we see one of our biggest roles as telling the workforce what can be gained from working in the industry and the resources that are available. With that, it is important for the IDDBA to support our association members to find, retain and educate current and new people for their workforce needs.
In previous discussions we’ve had I’ve heard you reference IDDBA’s emphasis on developing future leadership; tell me a little more about that.
People and Community are two of our six influencers. Our industry-leading trade show provides opportunities for thousands of people across our industry to engage, network and build lasting relationships. The IDDBA offers a plethora of educational and training materials and programs as well as scholarship opportunities.
Do you personally play a role in helping to develop/coach/mentor future leadership in the industry either internally or externally?
It is absolutely one of, if not the greatest joys in my career. I work every day to lead by example. My greatest moments are when people call and walk in for advice. It means the world to me for somebody to ask what I would do or how I would handle certain situations. I am honored to be asked. It makes me feel successful and that I have made an impact or difference to someone, even if it is only one moment in time.
Did you utilize or participate in any mentoring/coaching experiences as you developed your career?
Every day was a mentoring and coaching experience. The paths you cross and the people you meet along those paths develop you. As life goes, you may experience the good, bad and ugly but those experiences define your character. During my career, I have used professional resources to continue to grow. These resources give you great insight into who you are, how people see you, what you want and how to achieve goals. They have helped me grow my career, strengthen my leadership skills and honestly be a better parent.
What advice do you have for college students and young professionals looking at the grocery industry as one where they can build a career?
Find a mentor. Make connections. There are so many opportunities. From retail management to distribution manufacturing, research, technology. I could really go on and on. There are truly endless global opportunities.
What advice did you receive as you built your career to this point, which you found most helpful?
Be who you are. Define your values. Live them. Build relationships of trust, honesty and integrity. Fight, but fight fair. Take opportunities. Take a chance. Every opportunity and chance has a purpose and comes full circle.
What else would you like the readers of The Shelby Report to know about you, IDDBA and/or other relevant industry information and insights?
I am elated to be part of the IDDBA team. It allows me to support an industry I dearly love, to grow as it evolves every day. I am excited to write and share the chapters of the story. I am thrilled to be a voice and the opportunity this role allows me to pay forward the many insights I have gained during my career.