As a woman in the foodservice industry, specifically in logistics and distribution for a manufacturing company, I haven’t always found myself working alongside other women in leadership roles. That is changing though, as it is for many other areas of the corporate ecosystem. I’ve built a varied and interesting career in foodservice and encourage others, particularly women, to consider making their mark in the industry.
When I look at foodservice distribution, it has changed dramatically over time as the industry and society have evolved. Industry consolidation, category-management initiatives, brokered versus direct sales forces, and channel blurring have all impacted distribution. Without a doubt, an efficient, effective distribution model is a competitive advantage that requires investment, close management and constant monitoring. As a result, opportunities for women within foodservice distribution continue to grow.
With changes come challenges, and how you deal with those challenges is a matter of perspective. If you can embrace learning, engage in constructive conflict, focus on communication, build relationships and assume positive intent, you can overcome nearly anything.
Given the importance of distribution as the path to market and its implications for profit and losses, foodservice distribution will continue to offer many opportunities for career growth. From manufacturing plants to the corporate office, and from warehouses to distribution, the opportunities vary widely and require many different skills—operations, sales, marketing, finance and IT can all be fully leveraged within the distribution function. Identify the right match between your interests, skills and abilities to find the job that’s right for you. And, as you do, here are four key recommendations:
- Be an advocate for yourself. Be an advocate for other women. Mentorship helps increase diversity within management and leadership ranks, and enables a company to better represent the customers they serve.
- When considering a role change, look beyond just advancing the next step up. Focus instead on taking roles that will help you develop new skills that will, in turn, help you expand the contributions you can make to your organization.
- Recognize and accept early on that not everything is going to work out as planned, but keep moving forward. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Instead, beware of standing still and becoming stagnant.
- Ask for feedback often and be ready to learn from it. Take every opportunity to learn from others, regardless of their position relative to yours. Everyone has something to offer.
Advice into Action: My Career Journey
To help illustrate some of this advice, I’d like to share a bit about my personal career journey. Perhaps you can see yourself in it, or maybe it will inspire you to think differently about your current career path.
My career trajectory involved many opportunities, decisions and an unflagging willingness to embrace risk and change. I began in the retail industry, pivoted to restaurant management and then auto sales management, and landed at my current company 23 years ago. My current career is with the Food Service division of Schwan’s Company, which is part of CJCJ Food, Americas.
The path to my current role involved countless steps that allowed me to develop an in-depth knowledge of our business, the industry, and our distribution and foodservice partners. I’ve worked in collections, supply planning, USDA commodities, bids, corporate contracts, HQ distribution sales and, for the past five years, customer logistics. With each successive role, I looked for opportunities to contribute expertise, and also broaden my understanding and develop specific new skills while building on what I already learned.
The common thread throughout many career twists and turns has always been the amazing people I have encountered. I’ve had several bosses and have learned from each of them, even if it was just understanding what qualities did not fit my personal leadership style. I have also been blessed with mentors who went above and beyond what was asked of them. They shared their time and provided valuable insights and inspiration. Some mentors I sought out specifically because of their personalities, knowledge and skills, and others happened organically. Through the years, I’ve engaged in mentoring others as a way of keeping that cycle going. We all need to lift each other up and push each other forward.
I’ve also benefited from working alongside many best-in-class colleagues who took responsibility for getting the work done, while also putting people first. When you can find the balance between a focus on completing the work and caring about the people doing the work, amazing things can happen. Some of the most fulfilling aspects of working in foodservice have been the friendships I’ve developed with colleagues and customers. The winning recipe is always mutual respect, shared experiences and human connection.
CJCJ Food, Americas has a forward-looking approach to business and is committed to being first, best and different. So, it was no surprise when, about five years ago, our Food Service division created a position in support of customer logistics. I jumped at the chance to help create the blueprint for how the new role would function. With a strong focus on distribution, engaging with distributor partners and leading cross-functional teams on major distribution-related initiatives, I embraced this latest opportunity.
Our team has since effectively executed several major projects in support of expanding our business and increasing our profit margins, including a SKU rationalization project that aligned our portfolio needs, improved plant efficiencies and enabled our company and our distributor partners to best use trucks and warehouse pallet positions to serve our foodservice customers. It was not without pain, but our team, distribution partners and customers appreciated the proper planning, high-level communications and actions taken to mitigate issues.
Another key area of focus for our team has been the effective integration of acquired companies into our business model. Throughout the three post-merger integrations that I’ve been involved with, we’ve had a strong cross-company, cross-functional team that developed repeatable processes and plans, held each other accountable and delivered on our goals. Our success involved ensuring all products were fully integrated and sold through our distribution model as part of a complete portfolio. Every detail from labels to customer menus was considered.
Of the many projects I have led within the foodservice industry, rarely did everything go smoothly. When you know everyone on your team has positive intent and is working toward the same goal, your paradigm shifts. You are able to engage, find solutions and overcome obstacles together. It is important for everyone to have a seat at the table and to embrace constructive conflict as it drives better results.
Beyond projects, the heart of my role lies in engaging with our distribution partners to deliver solutions for our customers. The key to achieving a winning collaboration is solid communication, transparency and the realization that people are truly the difference makers. Effective communication enables a company to pivot and respond to dynamic situations—like we all lived through these past several months with COVID-19—and shows your partners you are invested in their success. Never underestimate the power of genuine communication in any aspect of your career or your life.
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