The Shelby Report and The Grocery Group together present this series, 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 Katie Waeltz, VP of category management and insights for Topco Associates LLC.
Tell me a little bit about you and what you like to do with your time away from the office.
My husband, Nick, and I have two children, and my kids are young; Frank is 10 and Ellie is 5. So I am knee-deep in basketball practice and band concerts and dance recitals. But I spend a lot of quality time with the family.
As for myself, I enjoy running quite a bit and participating in other outdoor activities—hiking, boating, kayaking. Those are the types of things I like to do when I get the chance in the summer. I’ve run a few half-marathons in my day; I’m flirting with the idea of doing another but haven’t committed quite yet.
Please provide a brief description of Topco.
Topco Associates LLC is a privately held company that provides aggregation, innovation and knowledge management solutions for its food industry member-owners and customers. There are grocery retailers, wholesalers and food service companies among the membership. Started in 1944, Topco is the largest grocery cooperative in the United States, with an estimated value of $14 billion. Our key objective is to support and enhance the initiatives of our member-owners.
What is your role at Topco?
Actually, my role at Topco is new. We are undergoing a reorganization based on the excellent work the teams have done in both category management and sourcing. We are splitting into two verticals that can focus more directly in partnerships with suppliers and optimizing that partnership.
I’m leading the Category Management and Insight team. Here it’s really about optimizing the relationship with our members. Our ultimate goal is to be the category adviser to our members. We’ll do that through providing key insight around innovation and own-brand excellence. We’ll remain focused on driving top- and bottom-line growth through members’ Own Brands.
The way that’s going to come to life is with some of our category management pillars around, as I call it, the six Ps. There’s the four Ps that everybody lives by: product, price, promotion and placement. But then there are two others that I think are just as important. The first is people, or the customer. How does the customer engage with not only the store but the products that you offer? And the last P is profit. Our members take dollars to the bank; we’ve got to ultimately grow our members’ bottom line and we’re in a unique position to support that with own brands. We’ll continue to charge against all of those pillars as we consult with our members to serve as their advisers and really grow their business.
What was your career path to this position?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a math teacher. Let’s begin there. I have a master’s degree in adult education. I started off my career in organizational development. I was really focused on solving the question: How do individuals learn best? Adult education, training, organizational development—how do we optimize the way we work together in order to do things quicker, better, faster, smarter? I did that for a few years, but when I started using bell curves in distribution analysis on performance review ratings, I knew I was in the wrong job.
So, I made a career change away from HR into insights and analytics. I was doing basic department reviews and line reviews as an analyst and that’s where I found my love of being able to take data and actually making a business decision against it. How does the performance of a product and the projection of what it can do in the future impact what we’re going to do at shelf? And that grew into, “How does that look in the market?” The new wave of data at that time was customer data. So how do you take that and attach it to a customer to find his or her value?
What do you see as the greatest opportunities for workforce and leadership development within the grocery industry?
I think leadership development is capitalizing on the places where people get energy. There have been instances in my career where I have worked with people whose goals of what they want to do personally and what they have to do professionally weren’t always aligned. But there has to be a willingness to make career leaps—I did that early in my career and that was the best thing for me. And it landed me an opportunity to be a “math teacher” for a long period of my career.
I’ve seen people shine when they are able to find the place where they get energy and are able to channel that energy to drive the business forward. The other side of that is being able to take those risks and step out of your comfort zone to see where you get energy and to apply what’s worked into a new workplace. So, it’s dual focused. It’s about developing yourself as a leader and also having peer mentors.
Folks that I’ve been most impressed with seek out their own mentors, seek out networking opportunities within the business. I have an associate on my team who does coffee chats deliberately with people that he doesn’t ever work with, just to learn more about the business, and that actually brings connections. I have found that people who have been interested in building people connections first can typically make giant leaps within their career. I think this belief applies broadly across the board and isn’t necessarily specific to grocery.
In what ways does Topco focus on developing future leadership? Tell me a little more about that.
I had the privilege of being a part of the first class of Leading From Every Seat, which is a talent development program that supports Topco’s continued focus of career and talent development. And that not only combined executive leadership and MBA-like courses with a capstone project that directly applied to the business, it also provided individualized coaching on presentation skills and your executive presence within a group. It also brought together folks from different offices, from different departments—people I never had the chance to work with. Coming out of that program, I learned a lot about myself in terms of a self-reflective view of my own performance and where I’m going to get energy and where my strengths are. It also exposes those blind spots that are really necessary to work on and it gives you the tools to work on right there. That’s one of the big things that Topco is working on.
In terms of broad leadership, we’ve got a new training department to equip new first-line managers with the basis of not only the systematic changes of being a new manager but also how to have those difficult conversations and how to coach somebody else. Leadership is about the whole person. It’s more than just going in and having skills to be able to have a difficult conversation; it’s about being relatable but also have a command of where we need to take the business and influencing folks who don’t necessarily report to you.
Do you personally play a role in helping to develop/coach/mentor future leadership in the industry?
There are a few associates at Topco that I meet with on a regular basis just to talk about the company and how they can grow. What’s interesting was that one of the people that I mentor was not a direct report of mine; they actually sought me out to say, “Hey, I see you as a leader of the organization, I just want to pick your brain on things.” That led to talking about how they get energy from Topco and that person has since made a career leap to a very different team at Topco, which was an excellent fit for them.
Mentoring is actually something that I wish I had more time to do because I actually learn a lot. I often learn more from the associates I mentor than they learn from me. But it’s really just somebody to bounce things off of that has a different perspective. And I also really value the mentorship program because sometimes you learn some things that you didn’t know were happening that, as a leader, you have the power to influence or change.
Did you utilize or participate in any mentoring/coaching experiences as you developed your career?
I have a couple of mentors who are managers I’ve had in the past. But I absolutely have retained that network of people who have more experience, are smarter, more expertise and/or have a completely different style. Actually, after I got this last role, I went back to each one of them and said, “There are things that I have taken from you and I want you to know that these are the things that I’ve applied and how well I’ve been able to use them.” Obviously, I’ve made them my own, but there are simple things like how to edit a document that very clearly came from one of my previous managers.
One facet I’ve learned from others has been the power of being my authentic self. If you try to be anybody else, nobody believes you. I had one manager who was always her authentic self. At first I found it startling because there were certain things where I was like, “Can we say that?” But she built so much credibility with me and she’s somebody that I reach out to quite often.
What advice do you have for college students and young professionals looking at the grocery industry as one where they can build a career?
Everybody shops at the grocery store, everybody has been to the grocery store and knows something about the grocery store. What I don’t think everyone understands or sees is how exciting it can actually be and what kind of influence the decisions you make about where to put a product on a shelf or what product you carry, how you can meet a customer’s needs and what that can do for the business. What’s really energizing for me is to say, “We can make this one decision here and it can be a game-changer.” So even if you know something about the grocery store, when you look one step further, it’s actually a really exciting business to be in. It’s fast-paced, it’s innovative. Everyone I talk to acknowledges how excited I sound for this job, and it’s because I am. There’s no better place to be because it’s a reflection of what’s going on in the world and what’s happening in our country. And it’s who we are and what we want and how we want to spend our dollars and how we want to be served. What other industry has that? And people still need to eat.
I would also advise them to spend time working in the stores because you can have a great idea here, sitting in front of a computer, but until you get out there and have to actually operationalize it, you really have to keep that perspective in mind.
What piece of advice have you received as you built your career to this point that you’ve found most helpful?
One piece of advice I’ve acquired is the importance of having a really clear message. There is something so important about being precise on what you want to say and using the right words to deliver your message without making it glitter. I often keep in mind and share one of my favorite quotes from Blaise Pascal, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” A clear message takes time to craft and is incredibly valuable.