The Shelby Report and The Grocery Group have introduced a series entitled People to Watch that focuses on current and future leadership in the grocery industry. In this installment, The Grocery Group Founder and CEO Cindy Sorensen interviews Ann Waletzko, district sales manager for Fairlife.
Tell me a little bit about you and what you like to do with your time away from the office.
My heart belongs to the Big 10, as I earned my bachelor of arts from the University of Minnesota in 2012, and my master of arts from Northwestern University in 2014. (Just don’t ask me who I cheer for when they play each other!) I am lucky to work for a company that promotes a healthy work-life balance. My time spent outside the job involves traveling to new destinations with my husband, Eric, spending time on the lake and hiking in the summer and creating new memories while visiting with our family and friends. We are expecting our first child in January, and we couldn’t be more excited about this new chapter in our lives.
Please provide a brief description of Fairlife.
Fairlife began in 2012 with the belief that milk and its natural health benefits can be used to create great-tasting products that nourish consumers and fit into their modern lifestyles. Fairlife specializes in delicious, dairy-based products with more calcium, less sugar and higher protein to give everyone the nutrition they need. Fairlife’s highly nutritional dairy-based portfolio includes Fairlife Ultra-Filtered Milk, Fairlife Ultra-Filtered Milk with DHA, Core Power Protein Shakes, Fairlife YUP!, Fairlife Nutrition Plan and Smart Snacks.
What is your role at Fairlife? What are your responsibilities?
I am the district sales manager (DSM) for Fairlife, managing the West Region key accounts along with the Minnesota and Wisconsin territory. I work to establish, grow and maintain the partnership with our Coca-Cola Bottlers—Coca-Cola distributes our products—to further drive our Core Power and Fairlife YUP! business units. While finding opportunity gaps and developing strategies to close the gaps is a huge portion of my job, I also get to share the passion I have for the company with consumers throughout my day-to-day responsibilities. I wear many different hats as the DSM, including event planning and coordination, grassroots marketing, brand ambassador—and the list goes on. No two days are the same in my role, and that is what I truly enjoy most about the job.
What was your career path to this position?
My career path started in college with several internships. My time in high school was spent playing sports year-round. I was a game-day intern for the St. Paul Saints in 2010, sponsorship intern for the Minnesota Swarm in 2011 and a City of St. Paul Parks & Recreation golf marketing intern in 2012. My favorite position while in school was working for Gopher Sports Marketing as promotions manager for women’s soccer and basketball and men’s baseball.
After graduation, I moved to Chicago to attend Northwestern University for graduate school. While living in Chicago, I interned for Northwestern’s Athletic Department, Octagon Sports Marketing as graphic designer for the baseball division and worked as a brand ambassador for Cytosport’s Muscle Milk Brand. The research for my master’s capstone project, which focused on sports loyalty rewards programs, led to my first full-time job at FanMaker in Minneapolis as senior project manager. With FanMaker, I managed the relationships of our collegiate, professional and amateur sports clients by providing marketing solutions and activation strategies for our loyalty platforms.
Though my career path seems extensive, each position I have held—whether it was an unpaid internship, part-time job while in school or a full-time position—all played an integral role in leading me to work for Fairlife and grow within the company as well. In 2015, I became a part of Fairlife’s team as field marketing manager, managing a team of brand ambassadors to build awareness, trial and product loyalty within the Minnesota market. I was promoted to sales development manager in 2016, and again in 2018 to my current role as district sales manager.
What do you see as the greatest opportunities for workforce and leadership development within the grocery industry?
I believe a huge opportunity within the industry is not only being able to understand the changing needs of consumers but being able to stay ahead of these changes as well. In a time where everyone has a voice and wants to be heard, there are many simple actions the industry can take in using consumers’ (and employees’) feedback to create a new and rewarding shopping experience. These types of opportunities also are aimed to create more interest/passion in the company and allow employees to further develop their skills for leadership positions. Some of these ideas include:
- Opportunities/events to connect—The ability to share new products and processes (example: how to utilize a newly launched rewards mobile app) with consumers through a fun and engaging experience, such as monthly parking lot grill-outs or cooking lessons with in-house chefs, gives your guests something special while providing you real data from real shoppers. This also allows employees to interact with consumers first-hand and build upon relationship management.
- All-team focus sessions—By allowing all levels of the company to participate in open-ended focus sessions—from the front line who consistently work with and hear consumers’ needs/wants to the team who handles the back of house to vendors you work with—organizations are able to get a real feel for things that can be improved on, upcoming trends and individuals within the company who are well suited for a leadership role.
- Establishing mentor opportunities—By no means does this have to be formal or even cost any money. By creating the chance for new employees to work closely with experienced employees, you open the door for two-way learning. Not only will new employees have a better understanding of what it takes to succeed in the industry, but a new employee also can offer a different way of looking at things, which is important in the rapidly changing industry.
In what ways does Fairlife focus on developing future leadership?
Fairlife fosters an environment that is open and welcoming to the feedback and information from all individuals within the organization. This creates a great sense of passion from employees, as we not only feel like our ideas are being heard but, in a lot of circumstances, they are being implemented as well. Though there is no formal leadership development structure, everyone within the company helps others grow. We have many levels of experience within the team, and from the top down, we know that to be successful we must win together. I have coworkers I consider my mentors, and that all stems from the “we not me” culture that is prevalent in the company.
Do you personally play a role in helping to develop/coach/mentor future leadership in the industry, either internally or externally?
Yes—mostly external. I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors in my life and advice shared with me throughout my years that has helped me grow with each role I have had. I promised myself that if I ever got the chance to share what I have learned in the hopes of helping others that I would do so without hesitation. A few years ago, that opportunity arose when I had the chance to be a guest speaker at the University of Minnesota’s Lunch and Learn Series. Through this experience, I was able to share my career path and job responsibilities at Fairlife with students while answering questions and giving advice about navigating life after college and finding the right career.
In addition, I participate in informational interviews, which usually are established both through LinkedIn and the University of Minnesota’s Maroon and Gold Network, that give current students and alumni an avenue to connect. I have been a council member for the University of Minnesota’s Student & Young Alumni Board for the past two years. As a council member, I connect with and share experiences with peers, students and other alumni, which has led to many networking opportunities with others eager to grow their careers within the industry. What is great about everyone I have had the opportunity to connect with through these channels is that I learn just as much if not more from them.
Did you utilize or participate in any mentoring/coaching experiences as you developed your career?
I have by utilizing both informational interviews and mentorship programs. Over the years, the best advice I have received—and honest information about the highs and lows of a job—have come from informational interviews. Many of these individuals who I met for the first time through the interviews have become mentors and even friends to me still today. I also have been lucky enough to participate in several mentorship programs. Most recently, Cindy Sorensen (author of this article and founder of The Grocery Group) and I were awarded the International Deli, Dairy and Bakery Association (IDDBA) Mentor Grant Program in 2017. With the IDDBA mentor grant, Cindy and I were able to attend the National Frozen and Refrigerated Foods Association Business Partner Meetings and annual trade show to present as dairy industry representatives. Years later, I am continuously learning from Cindy, and consider her one of my biggest resources within the dairy and grocery industry.
What advice do you have for college students and young professionals looking at the grocery industry as one where they can build a career?
The job opportunities within the grocery industry are endless and sometimes not knowing where to start can seem a little daunting. The best advice I can give is if you get the chance to intern for a company or the opportunity to job shadow someone within the industry, take it. Internships are the best way to discover your likes and dislikes about a position you may think you want while still in school and allow you to gain experience that you won’t find in a textbook. Internships open the door for connecting and establishing relationships with professional contacts that can be—and often are—opportunities further down the road in your career.
What pieces of advice did you receive as you built your career to this point that you found most helpful?
1. Keep in touch with past co-workers, teachers, mentors—Dropping a simple hello from time to time goes a long way. Don’t let the first time you “reconnect” with someone be to ask them for something. It’s all about who you know and, many times, those individuals are ones to open doors.
2. Be open to change—I never thought I wanted to work in sales, and when I was transitioned from the marketing team to sales early during my career at Fairlife, I was nervous I wouldn’t like the switch. However, by keeping an open mind and allowing change to happen, I have found myself in the best job I could have hoped for at this point in my career.
What else would you like the readers of The Shelby Report to know about you or your employer and/or other relevant industry information and insights?
With a sports marketing background, I never thought I would find myself working for a dairy company. When the door opened to the industry through past work experiences and connections with individuals within the grocery world, I was surprised to learn just how much of my interests and passions aligned with my roles at Fairlife. The career possibilities are endless within the grocery industry. To start and/or further your career within grocery, I would encourage you to get involved in and take advantage of all the different resources the industry has to offer (associations, publications, LinkedIn groups, expos).