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CEOs Get Personal on Industry Challenges of Past 2 Years

Executives share lessons they learned during turbulent times
Lynn Petrak, Progressive Grocer
Rick Keyes
Rick Keyes, president and CEO of Meijer

Over the past two years, there have been a lot of essential discussions about the shopper journey and the important ways that grocery workers’ lives were impacted by pandemic-fueled changes and challenges at work. Industry leaders have also been in the fray to steer their companies ahead in a challenging era with hits from all sides.

“It was like getting a curveball every single day.” That was one remark from an executive who took part in the 56th Annual Food Marketing Conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., presented by the Food and Consumer Package Goods Marketing program within the Haworth College of Business at Western Michigan University.

Several executives were on hand at the event, including a trio who sat down with Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of FMI - the Food Industry Association. Those leaders included Brandon Barnholt, president and CEO of KeHe Distributors; Rick Keyes, president and CEO of Meijer, and Jim Snee, chairman, president and CEO of Hormel Foods Corp.

The executives talked about what they have learned from the past couple of tumultuous years. Below are some of their shared insights.

On Appreciation for Their Teams

Barnholt: “What COVID did was to remind everyone of the heroes on the frontlines of our business – they never missed a day. As companies, we talk a lot about people, but COVID really brought it out that it is the people who make us great.”

Keyes: “There was validation around the power of the purpose, and what a difference that makes. Our teams felt that purpose and it came to life, whether it was the recognition they received or how they felt individually about the contributions they were making. It was rewarding and humbling to be a part of that and to witness it.”

On the Toll of the Crisis

Snee: “This is my personal belief – there are a lot of mental health issues in front of us. COVID was just hard on everyone. We have talked to our team members about how it’s okay to say if you have something you need help with. We want to take care of our entire team to make sure we are supporting them as they emerge from all of the changes that COVID brought.”

On Honesty

Snee: “We learned about the importance of honest, open, direct and transparent communication – not telling customers what you think they want to hear. There was a lot of bad news – we didn’t have the workforce, we had to cut SKUs, we couldn’t produce some products. Instead of overpromising and under-delivering, you have to tell customers what you know to the best of your ability. We learned from our customers that it was appreciated.”

Keyes: “You have to be comfortable being wrong. Basically, there are no sacred cows. And we are willing to change and to stop, listen and hear the opinions from leaders and teams.”

On the Notion of Future-Proofing

Barnholt: “We talk about ‘COVID hot,’ ‘COVID normal’ and now we are in the period of what we’re calling the ‘next normal,’ but I don’t think any of us know where, exactly, this is going. All I can say is to stay true to your core philosophy and be flexible in knowing that people are going through a very strange time and you are moving through this with them.”

On the Resilience of Grocery Channel

Snee: “Here we are two years later, and demand for food at home is as strong as it has been. Food away from home is strong, too, and so now we are living in this double-demand world.”

On Coping

Keyes: “Throughout the pandemic and now, you have to figure out a way to balance things out, like keeping routines, working out, eating healthy, getting sleep. I also leaned into knowing that it was not all my responsibility to solve for all of it – we have a great team and we solve things together.”

On Advice for Younger Team Members

Barnholt:  “You want to work for a company that values who you are and the whole person who you are.”

Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer operates 257 supercenters and grocery stores throughout Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Wisconsin. The company is No. 18 on The PG 100, Progressive Grocer’s 2021 list of the top food retailers in North America. Naperville, Ill.-based KeHE is the largest pure-play distributor of natural and organic, specialty, and fresh products to more than 30,000 natural food stores, chain and independent grocery stores, e-commerce retailers, and other specialty product retailers throughout North America. Based in Austin, Minn., Hormel Foods has over $10 billion in annual revenues across 75 countries worldwide and encompasses more than 40 brands.

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