Lessons from the Food Court

Much of my working life has been in and around the food industry.

My first job in high school was working at a small grocery store; I graduated to McDonald’s and then washed dishes in a restaurant, saving most of my paycheck for college.

Once at college, I had a part time job at a convenience store in a small town, and spent my summers at a Hunt Wesson ketchup factory, working the graveyard shift on the sanitation crew.

I still don’t eat ketchup very often.

After getting my BA I worked for industry leaders Nestle, Coca-Cola and the company that manufacturers and markets Sweet ‘n Low. I earned an MBA along the way.

I learned a lot at these jobs and organizations. Allow me to share five major lessons with you during my tenure.

The Jack Trumps, Not Donald

In the food industry, your career is what you make of it. Being a “jack of all trades and master of none” is actually quite valuable, because it becomes the basis for becoming a general manager with broad responsibilities.

I held positions in production, operations management and scheduling, inventory control, finance, sales analysis, marketing and sales. Having that kind of experience is helpful because it doesn’t pigeon hole you to one department or function.

I can’t imagine, for example, having to serve a life time sentence in accounting or quality control. God bless those who “debit and credit.”

The lesson I leanred is that it pays large dividends to keep learning about everything in the company and industry, even if you don’t like the subject. Whatever the subject is, it relates to your business and ultimately you will be responsible for it.

Plans; who has plans?

One of my mentors taught me that if you want to be successful, you have to create a plan.

My experience is that two functional areas actually have written plans. The first is the marketing department, generally responsible for creating revenue. The other is the finance department, responsible for reporting revenue, expenses and profits.

I remain astounded at the number of departments in the companies I worked for that had no plan. That is right, no plan. Not even talk of one.

It wasn’t that the people in charge of these departments weren’t dedicated, caring managers. It wasn’t that they did not want to be supportive of the company. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to have goals.

They did not have plans because the organization was not aligned. This lack of alignment manifested itself in many ways, the biggest one being that the company struggled to achieve both sales and revenue goals.

Every department in a company should have a plan, written down and presented for approval once a year if for no other reason than to make sure it is not in conflict with other departments.

Goals, What Are Those?

If you think not having a plan is idiotic, how about not having a plan and not having goals?

If you are a leader in your organization, ask yourself if goals exist for each department, manager and individual in those departments.

If you are like most of the food companies I worked for, you’re in terrific company because goals never existed. In many cases, those goals are still rambling around someone’s brain.

Organizations need goals. People need goals. Without them, success will simply be based on luck.

Creativity Counts

If there was a mantra I heard a hundred times in the food industry, it was “We tried that and it didn’t work.” I also heard, “That will never work in our industry.”

I am not talking about developing green ketchup or single serve packets of Kool-Aid.

I am saying is an individual with a sense of creativity can turn an industry upside down through selective use of creativity. Howard Schultz did it with coffee and Starbucks. Herb Kelleher did it with travel and Southwest Airlines.

Instead of saying “no” start asking “why not?” That alone can be a creative tool that can change the fortunes of an organization in a short period of time.

Go Upscale or Go Downscale

There are so many “me to” products and services in the middle of the positioning spectrum that they have become invisible in the market.

The Hills Bros. brand of coffee was caught in this trap. It found side by side against Folgers, Maxwell House and many regional brands, including supermarket private labels. Eventually, after having won many battles, it lost the war.

Don’t make the mistake of being squeezed between your competitors. Go up or down, don’t stay in the middle.

Pick one lesson I have shared and work on it to make yourself and your company better. Have a great week.