2020 Top Women in Store Brands: Meet the winners

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2020 Top Women in Store Brands: Meet the winners

By Dan Ochwat - 10/23/2020

The pandemic may have crashed the celebration, but the importance of the award and reasons to come together and recognize a new, exceptional class of Top Women in Store Brands could not be greater.

Since it began, the Top Women in Store Brands recognition has honored women across expertise — supply chain, marketing, corporate services, manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers and more. Leaders from across all of these positions are the ones who have come together during COVID-19 to ensure that consumers have the products they need.

The women selected here were chosen by a panel consisting of representatives from WISE and Store Brands magazine. The categories include six Functional Expertise winners in corporate services; marketing and merchandising; operations; research and development/quality assurance; sales; supply chain/procurement, as well as award winners in Innovation, Lifetime Achievement and a Sparkplug award.  

Due to the pandemic, the in-person event this year will be replaced by a virtual celebration held Nov. 12 as part of the Women Impacting Storebrand Excellence (WISE) annual meeting.

The honorees are:

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Jill Dearing, vice president of private brands, C&S Wholesale Grocers

A shining example of leadership in the store brand space, Jill Dearing is a leader and mentor, who is committed to her organization, and the growth of private brands.

At C&S, Dearing collaborates with sales, merchandising, procurement, category management and the company’s more than 3,500 independent retailers to execute a vibrant multi-brand strategy. She is an immovable piece in the own brands machine, generating new sales opportunities and driving profits. In fact, through her leadership, the private brands business saw sales grow more than 16% over the past year, reversing four years of negative sales growth, and private brands have become a key pillar at the company as it has outpaced sales across the rest of the C&S business.

Additionally, Dearing has embedded the importance and value of private brands across the commercial sales organization and equipped the team with the analytics and tools to further maximize sales growth, according to Meg Mitchell, vice president of customer experience at C&S. “Whether she is reading the latest trends in our industry, talking to retailers, listening to suppliers, mentoring employees and/or being active in the community, Jill keeps her finger on the pulse of ‘what’s next’ for the company and this industry,” Mitchell said.

And she’s been doing that her whole career. Prior to C&S, she spent 15 years at Supervalu and on the agency side. She’s previously been honored with a Progressive Grocer Top Women in Grocery Award, a PLMA Salute to Excellence Award in Product Innovation three times, and was named one of the Path to Purchase Institute’s 2016 “Who’s Who in Marketing” and is an active member of the St. Louis Retail Design Institute.  

Kelly Sosa, senior vice president, commercial division, C&S Wholesale Grocers, said Dearing has invigorated private brands at the company. “She understands the emotional connection, the importance of overall quality, and ultimately the value that must be delivered to the shopper,” Sosa said. “In order to position our brands appropriately in our marketplace Jill spent her first few months in-role traveling the country to understand our retailers, their competition, and our shoppers. She quickly evaluated how we could win in this space based on in-depth field analysis and broader strategic thinking. This approach was key to turning around the growth trajectory of our private brands business within one year of joining the team.” 

Mitchell agreed. “Jill’s passion for private brands stems from her desire to help our communities,” she said. “As a working mother of two, Jill has always recognized the need for an excellent product that anyone can purchase at a fantastic value. Specifically, in grocery Jill fights for private brands because she believes that every person out there deserves to have high-quality food options for themselves and their families.”

This care for communities extends beyond C&S and into philanthropy. Dearing helps create lesson plans and work directly with local schools and teachers in Africa, specifically serving on the mission field in Malawi, a landlocked country on the southeastern side of Africa that has been ravaged by HIV/AIDS. Dearing serves in a region that has a massive number of adolescents who have been orphaned and left without a chance at a secondary education. She is even using her space planning and computer-aided design experience to help draw plans for a new school that’s expected to be built.

Innovation

Laura Kind, vice president of brand strategy, Wakefern Food 

Wakefern’s complete transformation of its store brands last year, developing the sleek Bowl & Basket line for foods and the elegant Paperbird line for non-foods was a true example of innovation in the industry. Laura Kind came to Wakefern in December 2018, tasked with streamlining the company’s ShopRite private label into these new brands. Kind oversaw a team of marketing managers devoted to creating the marketing strategy and packaging behind the brands.

Following the successful launch, Kind was promoted to vice president of brand strategy at the retailer, now overseeing marketing and brand strategy for all Wakefern banners and brands.

Prior to her arrival at Wakefern, Kind spent time in brand development at Jet.com, Ralph Lauren and Nautica Sleepwear, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdale’s. With experience like that, it is no surprise that the new Wakefern store brands executed an elevated appeal, and Kind couldn’t be prouder.

“The opportunity to have been the head creative and marketing leader on this strategic initiative for Wakefern that has been so positively received by our customers makes me very proud,” she said. “We are well on our way to our targeted own brand sales penetration.”

In her new overarching role of Wakefern banners — 51 member families operating 354 supermarkets — Kind has a new exciting project underway to lead the in-store and digital experiences for meal solutions and meal planning. A pilot program is set to launch in three ShopRite locations this month.

“The concept will provide a seamless digital experience in-store as well as the ability to have meals delivered straight to your door,” she said. “This concept comes to us directly from customer data and feedback that looks to provide not only recipe ideas and easy-to-put-together meals, but also deliver on a [quick-service restaurant]-like experience, but with the freshness and quality that we are able to provide at ShopRite versus true QSR retailers.”

Customer data and research also helped drive the innovation of the Bowl & Basket and Paperbird lines, and Kind said it plays a big role in developing innovation. She said a robust data and analytics department that can slice the data to determine shopper behavior is step one.

“The innovation happens when you intercept that data, brainstorm, create, brainstorm again, recreate, push the boundaries, activate, analyze and then go back and do it again,” she added. “Innovation is the connective tissue between the data and the customer. It’s the art form where you integrate data with intuition.”

Kind added that the dialogue between retailer and customer is more important than ever. “As we say to our customers at ShopRite, and wholeheartedly mean it, we are ‘Helping you get it together, together.’’

Supply Chain/Procurement

Katherine Chin, senior director of strategic sourcing, Albertsons

Responsible for the sourcing and supply chain operations for Albertsons’ own brands team, Katherine Chin manages competitive costs for its store brand products, ensures that service levels outperform internal targets and helps the sourcing team scour the world for innovative new products.

Additionally, Chin is heading up Albertsons’ commitment to have 100% of its store brand packaging be recyclable, reusable or compostable. She oversees a team of 35 supply chain and sourcing professionals in her department.

But it has been working through the supply chain issues of COVID-19 that has her truly proud of her work. “Working through COVID-19 is an experience I’ll never forget,” Chin said. “Our team’s work has been critical in bringing supply to our stores during the extraordinary demand. We had to devise creative solutions to provide what was needed. I was happy to have played a part in what I hope is a once-in-a-lifetime event. While the work was tough, it was extremely satisfying to know that our efforts to secure additional supply actually helped our neighbors put food on the table.”

Don Davidson, vice president of strategic sourcing at Albertsons, said Chin was instrumental in quickly identifying the need to establish a different communication protocol to handle the constant change in demand in stores. By the first week of March, Chin set up a command center to be a central point for defining any and all private brand supply issues.

“During the past several months, we really came together as a company and helped solve some of the most pressing supply challenges,” Chin said. “Our flexibility with suppliers truly opened up supply options for Albertsons Companies that were absolutely needed to not only solve for supply challenges but also expedite the timing of receiving supply.”

Marketing and Merchandising

Krista Daly, director of marketing, Marathon Ventures

Krista Daly has been with Marathon Ventures for about 16 years, launching bold products like its artisan nut products and other packaged snacks. “We’ve been on the forefront in terms of creating products that are not only better-for-you but super flavorful and delicious,” she said. “We’re the best at what we do, and I’m very proud to be a key driver of our company’s efforts in promoting our clients’ store brands.”

Marathon is proud of Daly, too. John Larsen, president of the company, managed Daly at a previous employer and invited her to join him at the company. He said she has played the unofficial role of “Chief Innovation Architect” at the company, moving its artisan snack nut line into bold areas with its store brand product. Take, for example, the company’s Everything Bagel Cashews and other nuts that have garnered recognition from Store Brands’ Editors’ Picks, Progressive Grocer’s Editors’ Picks and at the Sweets and Snacks Show in Chicago.

Marathon Ventures is based in Bellevue, Neb., and has been operating for more than 100 years. Daly has given the company new life, having previously served in roles that managed product development, public relations and account management, before becoming the director of marketing.

Now, she works closely with executive management to put innovation and responsiveness at the center of Marathon’s market strategy, and she works closely with product development teams to bring new snack ideas to the category.

“Not that long ago, store brands leaned super conservative and were more followers versus leaders. That is certainly not the case today,” Daly said. “Store brands are recognizing they are every bit as relevant to consumers, if not more so, than big brands. We’re actually seeing our clients utilize innovation more and more to help differentiate their store brands and boost consumer loyalty. This really drives home the importance of retailers partnering with suppliers who can bring interesting ideas that engage and delight consumers.”

Operations

Christine King, director of client services, Daymon

At the largest agency dedicated to private brands, Christine King oversees Daymon’s top center-store client portfolio, connecting with top-level manufacturers to develop new business and sales opportunities for them, while doing so working across a wide range of cross-functional teams internally — analytics, creative services and more than 40 embedded teams across many different business units. She helps keep them all together.

King has been with Daymon for more than 11 years, actually first recruited by them out of Oklahoma State University. She left briefly to work for Danone Group and large regional retailers before coming back to Daymon in 2013. She said she loves her job because everyone shares the same vision and is dedicated to developing and driving brands.

“I love having a voice, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the company gives me the autonomy to innovate solutions tailored to my clients’ needs,” she added.

A project that she is proud of leading is an enterprise-wide effort to develop a sales model that tracked and measured Daymon’s activities against key client-selling objectives. It was launched in 2019 and, in its first six months, with more than 150 selling objectives, had been deployed across 75 clients and 28 retailers.

King’s role has incredible reach and returns. The company’s top five clients as the result of this process saw more than a 50% success rate against their selling initiatives.

In her role, King is a great leader, according to Kyle Patterson, vice president, Daymon. He said she is an excellent listener, exceptional with sharing market insights or best practices, a mentor to associates and “embodies characteristics of putting in the time, effort, passion and integrity that propels what store brands associates should strive to demonstrate to continue to propel industry growth and affinity.”

Research and Development

Jackie Caplinger, coordinator of supplier quality, Whole Foods Market

Jackie Caplinger came to Whole Foods Market after years spent on the manufacturing side. In fact, it was while attending a supplier discovery event 14 years ago that she learned about the retailer and fell in love with how it presented its core values, quality standards, its multi-stakeholder model, and how it manages supplier relationships.

“I was pretty blown away,” she said. “It set me on a personal mission to become part of something that was destined to change the world of food as I knew it.” Caplinger officially joined the retailer in 2007 as a regional quality assurance specialist for the eastern third of North America and Europe.

In her role now, she’s responsible for supporting the supplier quality maintenance and improvement efforts across multiple divisions within Whole Foods, a huge challenge as the retailer continues to grow internally and also network with Amazon’s global quality team. She also is managing a group in the age of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Caplinger handles it with aplomb. Vincent Orr, senior analyst, for Whole Foods, said she has helped grow and lead the supplier quality group into what could be considered a very new world of compliance. 

“She built a team of highly skilled and knowledgeable professionals who continue to set the standards for one of the most successful store brands in the country,” he added.

Caplinger said Whole Foods is close to implementing a program that will bring all of their local, regional and global suppliers into common data systems, making it easier to review and assess verified Food Safety and Quality programs, a program she’s very proud of. 

“This has been a wish of mine for many years, and we’re finally reaching the apex of the initiative,” she said. “It’s been a huge undertaking with lots of hurdles along the way, but the team members are absolute troopers and we are seeing that encouraging light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Sales

Phyllis Johnson, senior director of own brands, Catalina USA

New to Catalina but not the store brands industry, Phyllis Johnson has more than 25 years of experience working in a variety of own brand positions for various retailers, own brand suppliers and industry organizations.

Johnson joined Catalina in February 2019, recruited by Wes Bean, senior vice president, global network. The two had worked together when he was leading own brands at Southeastern Grocers. 

“He had an exciting vision for own brand growth at Catalina and I wanted to be a part of the journey,” she said. Johnson said she enjoys collaborating across functions to help Catalina’s retail sales teams deliver strategic value to their retail partners. The company uses near real-time analytics and insights to grow its portfolio of more than 25 retailer clients with private brands that account for $52 billion in annual U.S. sales. 

For Catalina, Johnson helped develop a suite of solutions to help solve own brand challenges for its retail clients — and then no bigger challenge than COVID-19 struck. She said the team quickly pivoted to react to how buying patterns shifted during lockdown.

“With brand-name supply chains broken, more than 75 million shoppers bought own brands for the first time — creating a decade’s worth of trial in a few weeks,” she said. “Utilizing our unparalleled Buyer Intelligence Database, the team produced several own brand playbooks that addressed specific shopper behaviors during lockdown.”

These playbooks provided Catalina’s retail partners with tailored solutions that enabled them to connect to the right shopper with the right own brand message at the right time, Johnson added.  “Based on this success, we plan on taking an ongoing consultative role with playbooks tailored to retailer-specific own brand challenges.”

Bean himself said Johnson quickly turned retailer private brands into one of the most visible areas of the company. He also lauded her for looking into expanding own brands beyond retailer clients and said she has a great way of drawing in young talent to the field and mentoring them.

Corporate Services

Kelli O’Neill, assistant corporate treasurer and senior director of finance, TreeHouse Foods

Kelli O’Neill has been leading the treasury operations, capital markets activity, supporting the mergers and acquisitions, and working on capital management at
TreeHouse Foods, a leader in private label foods.

But O’Neill doesn’t stop there. She has pitched in to develop finance and accounting talent, launching a talent development team in the finance department, developed a mentor program at the company and created a Finance Functional Competency Handbook. O’Neill is the essence of a team player.

“There is always opportunity to enhance processes, develop talent and make a difference,” she said. “I have grown in my career by not sitting idle and always taking advantage of opportunities to work in the grey, gain new experiences and drive the business forward.”

Nearing nine years with TreeHouse, O’Neill was recruited to the company when it was just shy of $2 billion and helped participate in the company’s pivot to $6 billion. Additionally, she helped see the company’s portfolio optimization return to around $4.5 billion. Her first seven years were in finance roles and then in corporate development and treasury.

Talking about a project she’s proud of, O’Neill cited the completion of a high-yield bond offering, extending the company’s debt maturities, reducing out interest expense and providing liquidity for future strategic use. “We launched the bond following strong Q2 results and went to market in late August when there is traditionally very little activity in the market,” she said. “The interest in our bond offering was very strong and we were able to upsize the value of the bonds, while also securing the lowest rates in THS history.” 

Over the last year especially, O’Neill has taken on several responsibilities at the company, managing debt leverage and making recommendations to the board of directors on refinancing, working with corporate strategy to author the company’s capital allocation strategy that serves as a guiding light as TreeHouse continues to be an industry leader. Possibly, the most important part of her job is helping the executive leadership team navigate through the crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus.

Sparkplug

Kathleen Helm, senior manager, private brands, E&J Gallo Winery

Only in her current private brand position as senior manager since April, Kathleen Helm has sparked the E&J Gallo Winery private brands business by working closely with its retail partners to identify strategic, financially viable opportunities and then helping build fully established private brands from those opportunities.

A highlight from this year — developing Target’s Rosé Bae. “It’s no secret that consumers love Rosé wine, so we set out to create a brand that speaks to a specific shopper by focusing on what’s trendy in both design and [with] a catchy, playful name,” Helm said.

That brand launched around Valentine’s Day and has continued to sell, exceeding expectations throughout the year, she added.

Helm has been on Gallo’s private brand team for four years and with the company for more than 10 after being recruited out of the University of San Diego, and it is the retail customer interaction that drives her — a culture set by the company. “At Gallo, we focus a lot on our purpose of serving enjoyment in moments that matter, and that goes beyond just serving but really centers on service leadership to our customers and, ultimately, serving our consumers,” she said.

Helm loves interacting with customers and developing brands. It also doesn’t hurt that “the category is on fire,” she said.

Case in point, Gallo represents the second-largest private brand wine company in the United States and has successfully grown in store brands by more than 40%. Helm has had a hand in launches for Target, Kroger, Aldi and more. She is said to demonstrate a thorough understanding of the entire category and maintain an acute awareness of consumer trends, package design concepts, brand positioning and marketing.

Store brand wines may be working to catch traditional wines in CPG, but Helm is certainly helping lead a charge. As Dennis Carr, vice president, private brands, for Gallo, puts it: “Kathleen is a constant professional who tirelessly promotes the value of store brands by helping customers build thoughtful brands that target their own fan base, generating real results.”