The Shelby Report and The Grocery Group have partnered on this series, entitled People to Watch, to focus on current and future leadership in the grocery industry. In this installment, The Grocery Group Founder and CEO Cindy Sorensen interviews Lindsay Koch, president of Koch & Associates Inc. in Atlanta.
Tell me a little bit about you and what you like to do with your time away from the office.
During my free time, I’m working on a startup through Georgia Tech (LADgistics) to attempt to solve the trucking crisis and help bring down the cost of goods for vendors, retailers and consumers. Our team is focusing on inefficiencies with trucker time to attempt to streamline pickups and deliveries, and the industry as a whole has been extremely helpful in answering our questions and leading us to solutions. We came together during the Georgia Tech EMBA program, and this project has garnered interest from CPG companies as well as retailers looking for backhaul and staffing solutions in relation to trucks running on time.
When not working on the startup or managing Koch & Associates, I travel, garden, read everything I can get my paws on. I volunteer with The Friendship Center of Atlanta to help those with mental illness, foster dogs; I maintain a football addiction to both Georgia Tech football and Atlanta Falcons football; and last, but the most important, I spend time with my wonderful family.
Please provide a brief description of Koch & Associates.
Koch & Associates is a brokerage firm in Atlanta started 30 years ago by my father, Tom Koch. We are an “old school” broker in that we still have a retail team in place to check every store we call on in the Southeast on a six-week rotation. Our people do not simply check items—they are merchandising, correcting tags, making sure promotions are reflecting, checking for out-of-dates, gaining facings where possible and selling displays. While expensive, this retail intensive strategy has built Koch & Associates, and our vendors have experienced at least a 26-plus-percent increase in average yearly growth per year for the last 10 years. We support retail coverage with headquarter calls, program design and implementation, and a keen attention to detail for each and every account we cover.
What is your role at Koch & Associates? Responsibilities?
I was named president of Koch & Associates in June of 2016. I am responsible for P&L, sales teams, retail people, managing vendors, promotional programs, including customer-specific initiatives and my corporate retail customer accounts.
What was your career path to this position?
I spent my entire life vowing to never enter the grocery business. I had seen my father work too hard for not enough for too long. However, when I graduated The University of North Texas in 2008 after managing a record store for five years, not many companies were looking to hire someone with a marketing degree and no experience. Unemployment was a huge problem. My dad said to come to Koch & Associates and give him a year. If I hated it, the economy should have picked up by then and I could go chase another dream. So, I began as a retail sales person in June of 2008, working with individual store managers, driving for miles and miles, talking to folks and finding problems and solutions. And I loved it! The challenges in this business are interesting, the people are wonderful and everyone likes to work together to find solutions. I was hooked.
I moved from retail sales to retail sales manager, then to VP of sales and marketing and then to president of the company by posting excellent results, working on team-building and leadership, finding ways to keep service while cutting costs, and keeping open channels of communication between all pieces of the CPG chain.
In December of 2018, I graduated from Georgia Tech’s EMBA program.
What do you see as the greatest opportunities for workforce and leadership development within the grocery industry?
The grocery industry has been a “good ol’ boys club” for a long time, and that is really starting to change. Women and minorities are taking leadership roles and being given more responsibilities, leading to a great renaissance of teamwork and ideas from people with different life experiences and perspectives. This diversity is leading to more growth in the industry with retailers and vendors alike. Beyond diversity, technology is decreasing the time that people are spending on paperwork and communication. Time is a fixed resource, and people are expensive.
I’ve heard you reference employee engagement on developing future leadership; tell me a little more about that.
As a company, we don’t micro-manage people. If you are going to make a mistake, make a big one. The reasoning behind this motto is that our people are bright, self-starting and bring great ideas to the table. Sometimes a mistake shines light on an issue within my organization or something we could be arming our people with to make their job simpler or have greater improvements. The greater free rein they have, as well as a culture of continuous change within the organization, the more likely they are to suggest an improvement for a process within Koch & Associates. And they frequently have great ideas!
Do you personally play a role in helping to develop/coach/mentor future leadership in the industry, either internally or externally?
Absolutely. I handle all of the employee reviews, do ride-alongs with retail people to suggest improvements and talk to everyone at least twice a week about issues they are experiencing or things we can be doing better. Communication in this industry is key to solve problems before they become problems as well as to help develop future leaders.
Did you utilize or participate in any mentoring/coaching experiences as you developed your career?
I’ve been around this business since I was 8 years old; it would be simpler to name those who haven’t helped or mentored me! One of my favorite things about grocery is that we are this little family, always looking to help each other improve. My father, of course, gave me the introductions and paved the way, but so many folks have helped me become who I am today with their attention to detail, needs and wants, and teaching me that every customer is a little different. Almost every category manager, store manager, vendor and executive I have met has taught me something new and made me better at my job, and I use those lessons and interactions as a template for ways to motivate and improve our people at Koch & Associates.
What advice do you have for college students and young professionals looking at the grocery industry as one in which they can build a career?
The industry is quickly evolving. If you want a career in grocery, develop relationships now. Look for internships with top CPG companies and treat every person you come across like they will be your boss one day—they very well could be. Nurture relationships, hold on to business cards (and get some of your own!) and find a mentor or several to help steer you. Get involved now in local grocery organizations and read all the trade magazines you can get your hands on. This industry is becoming data-driven at an unprecedented rate. Sharpen up your Excel skills, learn what a pivot table is and understand relationships between promotions, assortment, distribution and everyday pricing in relation to movement and turns. Get the vernacular down and it will be much easier to succeed in your first position.
What pieces of advice did you receive as you built your career to this point that you found most helpful?
Treat everyone like you are going to be working with them forever. You never know where any person in this industry might end up, so it’s good to cement those relationships early and as well as you can. Everyone in grocery knows each other; don’t be the person that, when your name is spoken, someone has a bad story about. Always put your best foot forward and be a pleasure to work with. Take time for lunches, dinners and other relationship-building. Not only is it a great time and you will make friends, but it pays off.
Always return communication within 24 hours. This includes email and phone calls. Nothing is more infuriating than someone not returning my calls, and you had better believe that my team returns all calls and emails within 24 hours of receipt. Not only does it make you look more buttoned up and competent, but it shows that you value whoever is calling or emailing you. Show respect to everyone, and that includes returning communication. They took the time to reach out to you, so you should take the time to reach back, even if it is a simple “Thanks for reaching out, but we can’t do that at this time.”
What else would you like the readers of The Shelby Report to know about you, Koch & Associates and/or other relevant industry information and insights?
The grocery industry is hard work, and the amount of data you process in a day is incredible. Talk to people, recognize when the data is wrong, make friends and enjoy the ride. This industry is, in my humble opinion, an honor and a privilege to work in. Great friends, partnerships and learning opportunities abound—take advantage of them. It’s a wild ride, but one that is entirely worth it.