Anitra Farmer transforms HR at Topco

Lawrence Aylward
Editor In Chief
Lawrence Aylward profile picture
Anitra Farmer: “I wanted to create a space where people felt safe in HR."

The women being honored for the 2019 Top Women in Store Brands epitomize what every company in America wants in an A-list employee, no matter the gender. They are diligent, industrious, committed and conscientious, among other superlatives that could be used to describe them.

Each year, Store Brands and Women Impacting Store Brand Excellence (WISE), a professional development organization, solicit nominations from the private brand industry to identify and honor a select few of these women through the Top Women in Store Brands program, which was created to provide well-deserved recognition for female professionals who have achieved exceptional success and bring a passion for store brands to their day-to-day activities.

For the next several days in Store Brands Today, we will continue to profile the winners of this year’s Top Women in Store Brands. Today, we profile Anitra Farmer from Topco Associates LLC, winner of the Functional Expertise: Corporate Services Award.

ANITRA FARMER IS A CHANGE AGENT. And at Topco Associates LLC, where Farmer is director of human resources and facilities, she has changed the perspective of human resources across the organization, says Danell O’Neill, Topco’s senior vice president of human resources and corporate communications, who along with Topco’s senior staff nominated Farmer for this award, given to a woman who has made a significant professional contribution to her company and/or the store brands industry through her accomplishments in corporate services, including human resources.

Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based Topco is a $14 billion member-owned retail cooperative that provides aggregation, innovation and knowledge management solutions for food industry member owners and customers. Since joining the company more than two years ago, Farmer has helped the business evolve into “a collaborative culture” by redefining jobs, advancing skills and creating new organizational models that have helped Topco better support the cooperative with brands, products and overall solutions, O’Neill says, noting that Farmer has led the charge to change the profile of human resources from operational transactions to strategic business partner.

“I wanted to create a space where people felt safe in HR,” Farmer says. “HR often gets a bad rap of being like the principal’s office.”

Farmer wanted her department to be a “human resource,” which it has become. Shortly after arriving, she sought to gain the trust of employees and leaders alike. She wanted them to tell her about the company’s culture — “the good and the bad,” she says — with the goal of transforming Topco’s high-performing culture through strategy development and building leadership capabilities.

O’Neill says Farmer is turning managers into leaders through her unique skillset of offering gentle but firm guidance.

“She has created an environment of trust and partnership instead of dictatorial and siloed leadership, improving communication and collaboration across the business,” O’Neill adds. “Her approachability and cool-headed way of taking on sensitive business matters has earned the respect and credibility throughout the entire organization.”

Farmer says she wanted to find out from Topco employees, especially the company’s leaders, what makes them tick. Sometimes it requires asking tough questions, but only to help them become better leaders.

“I would ask them about their worlds — what’s exciting, what’s frustrating and what’s challenging,” she says. “I would get them to open up so I could help bridge the gap between what is happening within our business and how it impacts our associates.”

Through her work, Farmer has coached, guided and mentored managers to learn new skills and capabilities, exploring their vulnerabilities and helping them expand upon their strengths to become strong organizational leaders, O’Neill says.

Farmer, who previously worked as an HR manager in the health care industry, says human resources is ultimately about the golden rule.

“It goes back to treating people the way you want to be treated,” she adds.

Other 2019 Top Women in Store Brands profiles:
• Angela LePore of Simmons Pet Food
• Julie Jevins of Albertsons' Cos.
• Lisa Schechterman of Great Lakes Cheese Co.
Jill Truitt of TreeHouse Foods

Editor’s note: To select the Top Women in Store Brands honorees, a committee consisting of representatives from both Store Brands and WISE reviews nominations submitted by representatives within the store brand industry. The committee carefully evaluates the nominations, assessing each nominee’s accomplishments.

The award winners will be recognized during WISE’s annual meeting and luncheon on Sunday, Nov. 17, at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare Hotel in Rosemont, Ill. The event coincides with the opening day of the Private Label Manufacturers Association’s Private Label Trade Show. For more information about the meeting, click here.