Progressive Grocer: Looking back to your college days at Shippensburg University, what was appealing to you about the consumer packaged goods industry and what made you decide to go to work for Frito-Lay and then Kraft?
Michele Buck: At Shippensburg, I majored in business, and I only discovered CPG while at UNC Chapel Hill pursuing my MBA. I loved the concept of brand management and was able to pursue assignments that stretched my experience and helped transform pockets of business, like creating the Fourth of July season on the Cool Whip brand at Kraft. I was hooked. Later, as a general manager, I found being the hub of the wheel so appealing. The responsibility and variety made things interesting. Skills I developed then, like resourcefulness, leadership and quality listening, continue to serve me well.
PG: What do you remember about those first few days of work and interacting with customers?
MB: It was like drinking from a firehose! It was exhilarating to learn so much about the brands’ consumers and how to reach them with the right message. I loved the opportunity to work with a cross-functional team to build the business and partner with customers to figure out how to use the in-store experience to build our collective businesses and drive category growth. I was constantly fascinated by the data and process, and inspired by the collaboration.
PG: Talk about some of your early influences, who they were and what lessons you learned from them.
MB: I’ve been fortunate to have had several passionate advocates during my career, including Daryl Brewster when I was at Kraft, and JP Bilbrey at Hershey. They saw potential in me and gave me opportunities to stretch and achieve in unexpected roles that weren’t on my radar. They both taught me the importance of developing people, building teams and getting comfortable being outside my comfort zone.
PG: What was it like being young and female in the CPG industry? How has that experience shaped your leadership approach today?
MB: There were significantly fewer women than today, but many of my male colleagues worked to help me learn. Several had daughters and felt a responsibility to help young women in the workplace, because they hoped someone would someday do the same for their daughters. It was a great lesson in paying it forward. I had a great experience, and it further reinforced my long-held belief in togetherness and the power of bringing people with different experiences together to achieve a goal.
PG: Now, as CEO, what is your proudest accomplishment so far?
MB: The ability to embrace disruption as a company. It’s built a muscle and way of doing business that is pushing us into new and exciting spaces. From our portfolio expansion from a confection leader to a snacking powerhouse, to our growing international geographic footprint, we are truly transforming. This ability to be agile, adaptive and courageous was taking hold prior to the pandemic, and it helped us through the toughest times — from the perspective of both our business and caring for our people. For example, we are doubling down on the concept of well-being and experimenting with what that means. We are on a path to creating a workplace that might look very different in another five years but is equally committed and capable of producing results.
PG: The Hershey Co. has done a lot to diversify the ranks of leadership. What’s being done to move the needle even further on diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) among senior leadership and to ensure the company has a strong talent pipeline?
MB: Our foot is on the DE&I accelerator to make sure diverse talent is joining and growing at Hershey. A strong, diverse talent pipeline is critical to the longevity of our business. Internally, we have a focus on professional development and are intentional in “recruiting” from our retail teams, which allows us to bring in diverse perspectives from around the world. Externally, we have deep relationships with diverse-owned search firms, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as Hispanic-Serving Institutions, to ensure we’re recruiting diverse top-tier talent. Last year, we increased our total search volume conducted by diverse-owned firms to 41%. Beyond our own hiring, we are also reaching out to our communities. One example of that work is removing barriers to education through scholarship with our first-of-its-kind endowment with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, specifically dedicated to students studying food science.
PG: Hershey was recognized by Forbes Magazine as the world’s top Female Friendly company. What makes you most proud about the progress Hershey is making for women, and what is still left to do?
MB: There’s so much to be proud of and yet plenty left to do. I’m thrilled that we’ve already achieved aggregate gender and people-of-color pay equity for salaried employees in the U.S. Now we’ve set our sights on achieving pay equity for similar job categories across our global salaried workforce by 2025. We lead by example with gender representation at every level of the company, but we also know that we can’t let up on recruiting diverse candidate slates, developing our diverse populations with pathways to grow, or the constant work to make sure everyone can bring their whole selves and their diverse perspectives to work.
PG: As a leader, you are widely known as a compassionate listener. How do listening and compassion translate into business results?
MB: Good business is all about listening — listening to your consumers, customers, the world around you and your people. I am a big believer in asking probing questions and listening intently to the people closest to the work. They have the best insights on how to improve and get better. Listening is a hallmark of my leadership. It’s important to allow time and space to ask questions and solicit diverse perspectives from every aspect and level of the business. Triangulating information, both internally and externally, leads to true insights. Quality listening is the foundation of successful co-creation, and co-creation leads to growth.
PG: Did the pandemic impact your perspective on leadership? In the past two years, were there any game-changers in how you think about ways of working and ways of defining success?
MB: Actually, leadership is what helped us through the pandemic. We had already built the muscle for disruption before COVID-19 hit, so we were more adept at the “shift and pivot” the pandemic required. Today, we put even more weight on seizing opportunities anticipated with disruption as a part of scale, and we define how we get to success in new ways. We are thinking more about well-being, empowerment, how we use people’s time, and the human aspect of delivering. COVID accelerated an exciting, admittedly sometimes scary, important conversation on the future of work. When I see where we are, where we are headed and what new ways of working will mean for our current and future workforce, I am excited about where we are going.
PG: A lot of people in the grocery industry struggle with work-life-family balance. As a parent of three, what advice do you have for your peers?
MB: Everyone struggles with balance, including me. In my journey, I’ve stopped thinking about work-life balance and started thinking in terms of energy management. I know what my priorities are at home and work, and I schedule my time to make sure I have the energy to be fully present and engaged in the moment. My weeks range from board meetings to lacrosse matches. No one can do everything, but you can choose to recognize what you need mentally and physically to keep going, prioritize those needs, and put your time into those priorities. Those needs are different for everyone. For me, getting up early, working out and time with my children fill my cup. When I dedicate time to those things, I am better everywhere else.
PG: Can you talk about how consumer behavior has changed CPG and grocery in the past year when it comes to consumer trends, supply chain and labor?
MB: Even as COVID-19 moves into an endemic stage, people are still spending increased time at home. This is driving more snacking and meals at home and putting people in their grocery stores more often. People still have safety concerns, and others simply want to continue to enjoy their time at home to connect with the people they care about most. We also see inflation and affordability as other drivers for increased home food consumption.
In terms of supply chain, consumers have certainly felt the impact of limited availability of their favorite products, and that has caused many people to shop differently. For example, we are seeing many people shopping earlier and stocking up on their seasonal favorites, with the expectation that product would sell out long before the holiday.
PG: What one new retail/CPG technology or trend — e.g., better-for-you, plant-based, NFTs, e-commerce — do you believe will have the biggest impact in 2022, and why?
MB: The biggest factor influencing CPG in 2022 is likely the macroeconomic environment. If high inflation persists and the threat of recession continues to loom, we will see continued consumer behavior shifts. Three trends to watch in 2022 are: 1) the increased importance of personal happiness to consumers, and how that shows up in their category and brand choices; 2) the existing better-for-you and related adoption of plant-based products across categories; and 3) the execution of more mobile and automated checkout solutions at retail. Consumers are exploring options that help them meet their emotional and dietary needs, and retailers are looking to offset labor pressures through digitization and automation.
PG: What’s next for CPG? Can you elaborate on personalization, artificial intelligence, social commerce, direct to consumer, sustainability and other trends affecting CPG?
MB: There are many trends afoot that will impact CPG, but we expect that the increased desire for better-for-you benefits will continue. A proprietary study of the snacking landscape showed the desire for better-for-you benefits in CPG snack foods increased threefold from 2016 to 2022. Consumers have a wide range of attributes they consider as better-for-you, and it ranges considerably across product categories, but one component is how the product makes them feel. This is where we expect product and brand sustainability to continue to play a greater role with consumers.
PG: What is your best advice for young people starting their careers today?
MB: Always be in the driver’s seat of your work and career, no matter if you are in your early, mid- or later career. At Hershey, one of our most important behaviors is “Own It.” It’s important to own your work, your energy, your development, your career moves and perhaps, most importantly, your setbacks, because that is where you learn and grow the most — that and taking assignments that push you outside your comfort zone can be game-changing.