EXCLUSIVE: KeHE CEO Talks Timing, Transformation and the Importance of Staying Humble

Deb Conklin shares insights from her first year in leadership role with natural and organic distributor
Lynn Petrak
Senior Editor
a woman smiling for the camera
KeHe show
New CEO Deb Conklin underscores the importance of bringing passion-minded brands to life on store shelves.

It’s coming up on one year since KeHE Distributors LLC revealed that Deb Conklin was taking on the role of president and CEO, succeeding Brandon Barnholt. Since formally stepping into her leadership position last April, Conklin has leveraged her longtime distribution and commercial experience to oversee a series of innovations focused on elevating experiences for the natural and organic distributor’s customers and their consumers.

Progressive Grocer recently talked with Conklin about her visionary approach to the business and how a commitment to discovery, quality and efficiencies, along with investments in technology, is fueling growth at Naperville, Ill.-based KeHE. 

Progressive Grocer: How would you describe the pace of change in today's operating environment compared with even five years ago? To what do you attribute this acceleration?

Deb Conklin: We generally live in a world that is moving faster than we would have thought possible, and that has brought an incredible amount of competition. Now it’s a learn-by-doing world, whether it’s in our world or in other industries. The suppliers and the supply chains are moving faster, consumers are changing faster, and this has driven innovation to be nimble and serve customers and their needs faster. In a lot of my statements I say, ‘You have to change before you have to change.’  It makes you think what it will be like 10 or 15 years from now, when we look back and say, ‘Gosh, things were really slow back then.’

PG: What are some defining characteristics of KeHE, in your opinion?

DC: The lifeblood of KeHE is the overwhelming majority of products that we have found, shepherded and resourced through partnerships. What we believe is a real differentiator for us is the ability to harvest the supply chain to think about what’s happening in the world around us. It helps us do things like our DIVERSETrade program and CARETrade program. Also, one of the things that has resonated with me in the natural and organic space is that in general, people have developed products because they are personally passionate about it. Bringing that passion to life not only makes their dreams come true but serves people with the same needs and categories. 

PG: What are some ways that you – as a leader and KeHE as an organization – have adapted to the pace of change and various market headwinds of the past few years?

DC: I was pretty lucky being a [KeHE] board member and having a front-row seat to the organization to be part of the next level of strategic planning. In this industry, everyone talks about their capabilities, but another ability for us is to also talk about our partners and not just think about the big engine of distribution. How can we customize our business model to be able to serve the smaller emerging brands, including in year two and year three of a relationship, to advocate for our customers and help them be successful? Then you think about technology and how we take it to the next level, making data jump off the page and help a partner. Also, we fancy ourselves a business that’s growing in the fresh part of the world. We want to help that perimeter and the DPI Specialty Foods acquisition [in June 2023] is a part of that.

We believe in the ability to learn from each other when navigating through challenging times. The ability to be humble and step back so you can listen helps you learn and apply what you hear from your stakeholders, whether they are your customers or employees. 

PG: Deb, how and why has this been an especially dynamic time for you as a new CEO?

DC: The time presented itself and I really feel like I am the luckiest person to be part of this opportunity for transformation. It’s not about throwing away what we’ve done in the past, because this is a great company with great results that has grown exponentially. It’s about how you build on that. We have phenomenal leaders, and my team is open to my four-year-old behavior of ‘Why?’ ‘Why?’ ‘Why’?

The other thing about timing is the ability to leverage technology. That’s fun, because it’s a target-rich environment. The ability to give 13-, 26- and 52-week forecasting to our suppliers through the best data possible puts us in a position to come up with end-to-end planning with them, which helps the supply chain become way more successful.

PG: When you’ve walked the selling shows this year and talked to your customers and partners, is there a recurring theme or themes about what people are looking for in foods and beverages and how they shop for those products?

DC: I have really enjoyed that portion of the job: the ability to be a student of the game, both from the way different chains operate to the way natural and organic specialty stores fit into the portfolio. The things that differentiate the smaller ones and the way the consumer is so enamored with that type of retail format has been fun to see.

PG: Finally, and speaking of fun, what do you think are some products from the time of KeHE's founding 70 years ago that still resonate with today’s shoppers? 

DC: People talk about foods that are the same foods they’ve had in their families forever – enjoying things that remind them of the past. If you play a little deeper in that and think about milk and cheese, those continue to be staples in the pantry and refrigerator. The fun part for me is how those have taken to changes, like how milk also includes soy milk and almond milk now. People are using more forms because of dietary alternatives that are needed or because they believe something may be healthier for them. Frozen foods, too – people had TV dinners for convenience, and the increase in frozen foods is still about convenience, but it has pivoted to healthy and less-waste opportunities.

Ultimately, we want our products to be worth leaving home for and want our foods to tell stories as part of our food-forward strategies. Instead of ‘thinking outside the box’, think what’s inside the box. We work with our retailers to think differently about what’s inside that box.

KeHE distributes natural and organic, specialty, and fresh products to more than 31,000 natural food stores, chain and independent grocery stores, e-commerce retailers, and other specialty products retailers throughout North America. With more than 6,800 employee-owners, KeHE is a Certified B Corporation. 

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