Hershey’s C.E.O. Knows How to Get Americans to Indulge

anastasios pallis

Founded in 1894 by Milton Hershey, an entrepreneur from rural Pennsylvania, the Hershey Company has been making sweets for 125 years. What was once a local purveyor of caramel and cocoa powder is today a $33 billion company satisfying America’s sweet tooth.

Michele Buck is the latest in a succession of chief executives to lead the company, and the fourth in the last 12 years. Some of that turnover has been attributed to clashes between the C.E.O.s and the Hershey Trust, which still controls a majority of the company’s voting stock and funds a K-12 boarding school for children from low-income families.

But since taking over the company in March 2017, Ms. Buck has proved herself an adept steward of Hershey. A native of rural Pennsylvania herself, she spent her career moving through the ranks of the food industry. During her tenure, the company’s stock has risen more than 40 percent.

This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted in New York City.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in south-central Pennsylvania, as did my parents. My mother grew up on a farm with no indoor plumbing. My dad’s parents dropped out of school in seventh grade. My dad was the first in his family to graduate from high school, and he went on to college. He enlisted in the Army because he had to pay for his own college. He ended up being an electrical engineer, and then even once he and my mom were married and we were little kids, he went back to get a master’s degree at night. He was really driven to break out of the mold and do something for himself and make it happen, and that was a really key influence on me. I was raised understanding that you’re going to have to work hard for what you want.

What was your first job?

One of the notable things about me and my childhood was my desire to work. I started working when I was 10, and I worked constantly. I had a paper route first, then I started babysitting. Then I waitressed, which I did off and on through college. I sold Avon door to door.

I wanted independence, and having a job was independence. It was about having money to be able to do things I wanted to do, which we couldn’t afford to do. And I was also about the learning. I loved the experiences of every different job, and what I learned doing it, both in terms of the work itself but also how working with people in each of those different environments made a difference. Waitressing is the epitome of that. People have a bad experience, and how you handle it makes a world of difference.

What did you study in college?

My first major was social welfare. I wanted to give back, work with people, have that positive impact. Then I was an intern at a halfway house for people who were transitioning back to society. In doing that, what I realized was, wow, I like being around people, I like working with people, but doing this every day would be so emotionally draining because I’m so attached. And I decided it wasn’t the right career. So I switched to business.

What was your first job after school?

I was the assistant brand manager for Funyun onion rings, Munchos potato chips, Baken-Ets pork rinds. Then I moved to Cheetos. I loved the work, loved the opportunity to go in and look at how you could really make a difference and seize opportunities and find something nobody had done in the business yet, whether it was a small brand or a big brand.

Then, when I first went to Kraft, I worked on yogurt, a very low-margin business. I found an opportunity to create the first ever kids’ yogurt, which was a creative, innovative thing at the time. Then I had an opportunity to work on Cool Whip, which is a highly profitable business. The question was: How do you sell more? I was able to create a fifth holiday for that brand that they still use today — the flag cake for July Fourth, which was a big new opportunity that drove significant growth.

Was there much discussion of the health implications of trying to sell lots of potato chips back then?

We always are focused on what consumers want. And I think what we’re seeing is that consumers want everything, right? They want some things that are indulgent taste experiences, that are treats. There are other times they want better fuel options. In my role today, what I really focus on is two things. One is transparency, which is how do we be really clear about what we are as a confection company? We’re a treat. People know we’re a treat. They’re not surprised when they look at the calories, right? They get it. Within that, we also look at our opportunity to provide choice. Hershey’s Kisses are one of the best portion control items, with less than 25 calories each. And then also how do we offer other snack choices, which is what we’re doing now as we broaden our portfolio beyond confection.

But you’re not diversifying into kale chips just yet.

Not yet, although we have SkinnyPop Popcorn.

At what point did you move away from being a part of a team to leading a team?

There were a few seminal turning point roles for me when I look at how I developed as a leader. The first one was my very first general management job. I was maybe eight years into my career, and they asked me to turn around a plant in St. Louis making Egg Beaters that was underperforming on every level. I was now leading something that I lacked technical knowledge in, so I had to leverage my leadership skills, my strengths, my visioning capability, my ability to work well with other people, to ask questions and figure out solutions.

I started spending a lot of time down there, at least a week every month. I had to figure out what the issues were, so I really spent a lot of the time at the plant building relationships with the employees. I would work on the line side by side with those workers because I wanted to learn what was wrong. Why is it that we are not performing well? And I thought that the answer lies with these people. I made the employees own the solution. So at the end of a shift, we’d gather and talk about what wasn’t working, why wasn’t it working and what’s the plan we’re going to put in place. And I was able to turn around that plant.

And what was not working?

Well, everything. There were things on the line that weren’t working. Engagement was missing. There were changes that had to be made across everything, from maintenance to training on the lines to better quality inspection. It was efficiency, it was quality, it was everything. There were some people who had to be removed, but a lot of it was just remediation and working with what we had. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had, because I knew I saved those people’s jobs.

What was another one of those turning points?

When I was made chief growth officer at the Hershey Company, we were in need of a fresh direction, a new strategy. I had the chance to say: “Why can’t we be more than a confection company? Why can’t we be a snacking company? Why can’t we have a broader footprint internationally?” At the time, I ran corporate social responsibility, and we weren’t certifying cocoa as sustainable. So we did it. It was a big charge, but it was the right thing to do. Why can’t we commit to 100 percent certified cocoa and figure out how we’re going to get there? When I had that role, somebody coined the term “chief provocateur,” and I liked that because it really was what that job was about. It was questioning the status quo across everything we were doing, figuring out where we could go. What was our bold vision?

What have you done wrong over the years?

There was a product that we developed in one of my roles at Nabisco that was kind of a flash in the pan. It was chocolate yogurt that made it in the marketplace for a while, but just wasn’t sustainable. It was an instance of trying to change the category but not having consumers go all the way with you. I don’t regret it, because if you’re going to push the bounds and take some bold actions, you’re not going to bat a thousand.

With so much focus on social and environmental responsibility these days, what are you doing differently?

That’s what our company was built on. Milton Hershey was acting from a sustainability perspective way back in the day, before it was in vogue. And today we have an aggressive corporate social responsibility program. We are zero waste to landfill. We have committed to 100 percent cocoa certification, deforestation efforts, 100 percent certified palm oil. We developed a human rights policy this past year. We have a feeding program where we have nutritional supplements that we provide for many schools in West Africa. A third of our dividends go to fund a school for disadvantaged kids who have no chance in life short of this.

We’ve debated promoting it more over the years. But we’re a humble company. We’re always careful walking that line.

This article is from NYT – go to source

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