Introducing the 2017 Top Women in Store Brands


“Run to the fire; don’t hide from it.”

This quote from Meg Whitman, CEO and president of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and former CEO of eBay, doesn’t need to be deciphered. It also speaks to Whitman’s achievements in the business world.

The nine women comprising the 2017 Top Women in Store Brands (TWISB) know exactly what Whitman is talking about. They run to the fire; they don’t hide from it.

Each year, Store Brands and Women Impacting Store Brand Excellence (WISE) solicit nominations from the private brand industry to identify and honor a select few of these women through our TWISB 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.

This year’s categories of recognition include four functional expertise areas (marketing/merchandising, operations, research and development/quality assurance and sales) as well as two achievement categories, the Innovation Award and the Sparkplug Award, the latter of which is being bestowed on two winners this year.

In addition, there is the Lifetime Achievement Award, given to a woman who has achieved impressive professional and personal accomplishments during her lengthy career in the private brands industry.

The TWISB honorees will be recognized during WISE’s annual meeting and 
luncheon on Sunday, Nov. 12, 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, visit

Now, onto the winners ...

Lifetime Achievement Award: Cathy Crabtree-Kelch/Vi-Jon

In her 36-year career at Vi-Jon, Cathy Crabtree-Kelch rose from the title of compounder to chemist and eventually to vice president of research and development.

“It’s different everyday,” says Crabtree-Kelch when asked what is the one thing she likes about research and development. “I like new opportunities and challenges. And you get that in research and development.”

Crabtree-Kelch began her career at St. Louis-based
Vi-Jon, one of the nation’s oldest private brand personal care manufacturers, in 1981 as a compounder at Vi-Jon’s Cumberland Swan facility in Smyrna, Tenn. From 1981 to 1993, she progressed in her career to chemist and was instrumental in the development of mouthwashes, dental rinses, cough and cold liquid preparations, deodorants and antiperspirants. She was appointed to vice president of research and development in 2012. Crabtree-Kelch is responsible for formulation development, process development, technical services and frontline customer support for personal care and household private-branded products. She leads a group of 31 scientists.

“Cathy has been influential in the formulation of over 200 items, ranging from shampoos to skin care,” says Alice Clark, Vi-Jon’s vice president of human resources, who nominated Crabtree-Kelch for the award. “She generated cost savings through novel formulations and has made a great impact on Vi-Jon’s success and its employees.”

Crabtree-Kelch says she likes the unknown and putting a known to it.

“When you work in private brands, especially from a product development perspective, you’re given the challenge that you need to develop a product for the consumer that is of as high quality as possible,” she says. “But it has to be of value. So it’s wonderful to take that opportunity to look at these products in the marketplace and figure out how I can re-engineer them to provide that value to the consumer.”

When she began for Vi-Jon in private brands in 1981, Crabtree-Kelch says the level of quality wasn’t as high as it is today. Products were developed that were regulatory compliant and safe but sold strictly at value.

“Now retailers want their private brands to be of higher quality than any of the national brands,” she adds.

Crabtree-Kelch thoroughly enjoys when a private brand she has helped developed beats a consumer brand in a consumer study.

“That is just a great feeling,” she says.

Clark says Crabtree-Kelch is valued by Vi-Jon at every level of the organization, from operations to sales.

“Cathy devotes time and energy into developing talent within the organization,” Clark says.

Crabtree-Kelch would have it no other way.

“It’s about paying it forward, right? I’ve been blessed in this business,” she says.

Research & Development/Quality Assurance Award: Julie Woods/Sam’s Club

Julie Woods has only spent 1.5 years at Sam’s Club as director of product development for private brands, but she describes her short tenure as “rapid-fire excitement.”

Woods has had a tremendous impact on the revitalization of the Sam’s Club Member’s Mark line. In April, Bentonville, Ark.-based Sam’s Club announced the 20-year-old line’s renovation, which will touch about 1,200 products — including 600 new products — in food, beverage and general merchandise by the end of 2018.

Cinda Stricklen, director of quality and assurance for Mars Petcare North America, nominated Woods for the award. Stricklen worked with Woods on private brand items with the revamped Member’s Mark line.

“Julie and her team have successfully developed hundreds of items to relaunch Member’s Mark,” Stricklen says. “Her efforts have resulted in a significant increase in penetration and sales.”

Before the relaunch, one goal was for Member’s Mark to achieve a 20 percent penetration in the next three to five years. That goal has already been achieved.

This is Woods’ first foray into retail; she spent several years in the ingredients sector and in consumer packaged goods. She says coming to Sam’s Club “felt like the logical next step in my progression.”

Her team has worked closely with the Sam’s Club merchant team and other departments to meet the wants and needs of the warehouse club chain’s members.

“A lot of work is involved in evaluating our existing products, deciding what we are happy with and what we want to elevate,” says Woods, who oversees nine product developers. “We’re not just playing with our food, we’re perfecting it.”

Stricklen says Woods has a broad skill set and is highly regarded in the food industry as one of the leading product developers.

“It’s such a fun and exciting career,” Woods says. “Every day is different, and you get the chance to be involved in so many facets of the [research and development] process. There is never a dull moment.”

Woods is also enjoying retail.

“At Sam’s Club … we can point to a product that the general public is using and say, ‘I helped create that.’”

Innovation Award: Simona Faroni/G.S. Gelato

In 1996 Simona Faroni and her husband Guido, now the co-owners of G.S. Gelato, moved to the Emerald Coast of Florida from northern Italy where they were born and raised. They did not speak a word of English.

But they had a plan — one of which American dreams are made of. Utilizing Guido’s extensive background in food and Simona’s knack for marketing and sales, the couple vowed to bring gelato, an Italian ice cream, to America. Their goal was to create, produce and distribute authentic Italian gelato.

There were some unforeseen challenges and it took some time to get the business up and running, but the couple did not give up. Simona, who was learning English but still didn’t speak it fluently, would go to restaurants and educate chefs about Italian gelato. Guido created the product for the chefs to sample. Soon, Fort Walton, Fla.-based G.S. Gelato became a burgeoning business.

While beginning in foodservice, G.S. Gelato extended its business to private brands for retailers about 10 years ago.

“Today, we custom tailor programs and products that are a perfect match for retailers’ needs,” Simona says. “If we have to design different flavors of products, we do that. Our innovations and capabilities and the fact that we have total freedom in creating anything that the customer wants in respect to a gelato product has given us an edge in the industry.”

Business is strong. At the end of July this year, G.S. Gelato had already done as much business as it had for the entire year in 2016.

Stephanie Schultz, marketing coordinator at G.S. Gelato, nominated Simona for the Innovation Award, noting her dedication to making sure the company’s private brand customers “have the best, most innovative product on the market.”

“Her passion for crafting the best ingredients into extraordinary products and providing customers with the best possible product on the market is the fuel that drives the company,” Schulz says. “Simona does her research, but also has an eye for innovation.”

Innovation is challenging, but Faroni doesn’t think of it as being a task.

“We haven’t posed the question to ourselves of how hard is it to innovate,” she says. “We just do it. I don’t think we know any different.”

Supply Chain/Procurement Award: Kim Fromme/Save-A-Lot

As a category manager at Save-A-Lot, Kim Fromme is on a mission to provide the retailer’s customers with products at the best value and at the best price.

“It’s just a passion for what I believe in — the consumers and what we provide them in the long term and how we can help them,” says Fromme, who has been with Save-A-Lot for 18 years and oversees product selection, package size, supplier sourcing and artwork development for the retailer’s private brands.

Peter Kroner, partner with the Marketing Concepts Group, a marketing agency that has done business with Earth City, Mo.-based Save-A-Lot for many years, knows all about Fromme’s devotion and intensity to her job. They are reasons he nominated her for the Supply Chain/Procurement Award.

“Kim understands the importance that integrity, professionalism and honesty play in the world of procurement today and certainly lives by and exemplifies the role of what a strong woman who is truly passionate about our business can accomplish in her career,” he says.

If someone has a problem with how Fromme is performing in her job, it is probably Fromme herself.

“I want to do everything up to my potential to the point of being hard on myself,” she says. “I want to succeed 100 percent.”

Fromme also understands that success often hinges on taking risks, something she is not afraid to do. Save-A-Lot’s consumer base consists of consumers on a very low income, so Fromme has to be conscious of that when it comes to procurement. But at the same time Fromme says she sometimes has to take risks on procuring products that might cost a little more.

“If it’s the right item and the consumers will buy it despite the income bracket, it’s a risk we have to take,” Fromme explains. “We have to provide that product. Sometimes you have to step out of the box and say, ‘OK, I get who we are, but our consumers still want this product.’ So we do the best we can to provide them with that quality.”

Kroner cites Fromme’s intuitiveness for spotting trends in packaging and product innovation, not to mention her ability to understand customer needs.

“Management continues to go to Kim to help manage and lead a category in stores that is in need of improvement, and Kim has consistently stepped in and guided each category to positive sales and profit gains,” Kroner adds.

Operations Award: Karen Kaminishi/Albertsons Cos.

Karen Kaminishi took on a tall task recently in leading her private brands team to comply with the Food & Drug Administration’s new Nutrition Facts Label. And this undertaking was in addition to Kaminishi’s primary responsibilities, which are to lead Albertsons’ product management team for all store brands in produce, floral, meat and seafood. She is also accountable for new-item innovation, project management to get new items from concept to store, category management and sales into Albertson’s 14 divisions.

In nominating Kaminishi for this award, Albertsons’ Nancy Cota cited Kaminishi’s “incredible effort” on the Nutrition Facts Label because of the company’s many divisions and banners doing proprietary private-branded recipes in deli, food service, bakery and produce.

“Karen took on the management role in working with our teams in regulatory, product development, product management and the division’s leadership teams to develop solutions to meet federal deadlines on calorie information for consumers,” says Cota, Albertsons’ vice president of own brands product management/fresh departments, who is Kaminishi’s direct supervisor.

Kaminishi says the project had tight deadlines, high volume and multiple work streams so it was challenging to coordinate all of the moving parts.

“The key was understanding the scope of work, our backstage and retail processes, and aligning resources both internal and external,” she says. “I played the role of connecting teams, setting priorities and ensuring needs were met.”

In her daily role, Cota says Kaminishi has provided leadership and helped grow major fresh categories such as frozen, refrigerated, commercial bakery, produce, and meat and seafood. Cota says Kaminishi has also played a large role in growing the retailer’s own brands, including O Organics, Lucerne, Signature, Open Nature and others.

“She holds herself and her team to very high standards and has been a huge part of reinventing categories, driving innovation, brand redesigns and identifying growth platforms for our portfolio of brands at Albertsons,” Cota says.

To Kaminishi, innovation includes elements of satisfying shoppers’ needs as well as providing them with “surprise and delight.”

“We have strong brands in our own brands portfolio, and we are always looking for innovation that will build our shoppers’ trust in these brands,” Kaminishi says.

No doubt that Kaminishi has a knack for the business.

“I’m third-generation grocery, so I guess you can say that I grew up in the business,” she says. “There is a team of people behind each product we offer, and it represents all of our passion for what we do.”

Sales Award: Linda Lee/C.H.Guenther & Son Inc.

Linda Lee loves sales. She loves the process of negotiation, the people involved and her company’s products, of course.

Lee, private label sales manager for C.H. Guenther & Son, is good at sales, too. Just ask her boss, Jim Beard, who nominated her for this award.

“Linda’s passion for the business, entrepreneurial spirit and ability to build strong relationships has proven her to be a winner throughout her entire career,” says Beard, C.H. Guenther & Son’s national sales manager of specialty and private label.

Lee is in her 20th year at the San Antonio, Texas-based company that supplies grain-based products, gravies, seasonings, sauces, baking mixes and other value-added food products for private brands. She is in charge of store brand sales management nationally for supermarkets and value retailers. She also oversees requests for proposal bid submissions and analysis.

“The business has changed a lot over the years, and it’s really great to see store brands being more accepted,” Lee says.

Even after 20 years, it’s still exciting for Lee to gain a new customer or have a hand in the development of a new product to sell. It always will be.

“You have something you take from an idea and go through the process for it to become an actual product … and then you see it on the shelf and hopefully watch it sell,” she says. “It’s very gratifying.”

Lee previously worked in private brand sales for Williams Foods, which was acquired by C.H. Guenther & Son in 2008.

“Linda has been highly successful in the expansion of our customer base, achieving significant new points of distribution through multiple new product launches leading to the penetration of additional categories of the store brands business,” Beard says.

“We have grown the business a lot of ways just by working with customers to develop and grow their store brand programs,” Lee Moore says. “I like to identify trends and customer voids and then work with customers to develop a strategy to bring an item to market.”

Beard says Lee is the ultimate professional.

“It’s about being professional in everything you do,” Lee says. “You are true to yourself, true to your company and true to your customers.”

Marketing/Merchandising Award: Rachel Kirkpatrick/Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA

On this morning, Rachel Kirkpatrick is having a cup of coffee. What did you expect from the product commercialization manager for Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA, which supplies coffee for private brands, retail and food service?

Kirkpatrick confesses that she loves her coffee — but not as much as she loves marketing and merchandising the coffee products of Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA, for which she is receiving this award.

“It’s just fascinating to me,” says Kirkpatrick, who is responsible for coordination of all new store brand product launches and product redesigns and also manages the division’s business-to-business advertising support and annual trade shows.

Clearly, Kirkpatrick’s co-workers think highly of her skills. She was nominated by not just one but two co-workers for the award.

Clay Dockery, division vice president of the Suffolk, Va.-based company and Kirkpatrick’s direct supervisor, says Kirkpatrick took responsibility to quickly educate herself on all of the components and personnel needed to launch new products when she joined the company’s private brand team nearly four years ago,

“She organized a team to identify best practices in new item launches and effectively created an internal and external communication vehicle for new product launches,” Dockery says. “This has improved our commitment to first ship date by almost 30 days. … Rachel’s process has been recognized by several retail customers as an example of best-in-class product launches.”

Natalia Suarez, Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA’s director of application development and support, who also nominated Kirkpatrick for the award, says Kirkpatrick also selected and implemented a workflow solution to help specifically with packaging label reviews with the supplier, the purchasing department and the customer.

“Rachel has taken it upon herself to not only follow a process but ensure the process is reviewed to be efficient for all parties involved,” Suarez says.

For Kirkpatrick, it’s all in a day’s work. She has a job that keeps her hustling and bustling, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I feel like it’s something new every day,” she says.

Kirkpatrick prides herself on her efficiency.

“You can get things done and be efficient or you can get things done just to pass the time,” she says. “But when you are really, really busy, it’s important to not cut corners but to cut out irrelevant steps as much as possible. … You have to keep up and making things more efficient is the best way to do that.”

It’s an exciting time to be in the coffee segment, says Kirkpatrick, who has worked at Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA for eight years.

“It has been really interesting with things like ready-to-drink coffee coming out,” she says. “There is more variety, and people want something new and different. … It’s neat seeing the trends come about, and where they are going to take us.”

Sparkplug Award: Katie Kraus/Topco Associates

Topco Associates needed a spark to fuel the success of its new Simply Done brand. They found that person in Katie Kraus.

Kraus began at Topco in January 2015 and began working on Simply Done, a non-food and general merchandise brand.

“I was brought on because of my experience in consumer packaged goods. I had a previous history in non-food national brands, so I was especially hired for this initiative,” says Kraus, who is also responsible for a portfolio of private brands distributed to nearly 50 regional grocery retailers and wholesalers nationwide for the Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based company.

Nancy Antol, corporate communications specialist for Topco Associates, nominated Kraus for the award on behalf of the organization and its leadership team. In nominating Kraus, Antol says Kraus ensured a smooth launch for Simply Done internally by leading a monthly update of the brand that provided visibility to key issues.

“At the highest level, Katie led the brand strategy and positioning to garner the attention of Topco’s board and operations team members to get their commitment to remove non-food items from their mainstream brands and jointly support the launch of Simply Done,” Antol says.

Kraus says it was crucial for the success of Simply Done to get Topco’s partners to give up their store brand names and agree to aggregate 700 non-food products under one name.

“We needed to have a brand that they felt very comfortable with and felt was strategically positioned for what it should be in their stores,” Kraus says.

To develop the brand, Kraus analyzed research of over 1,000 mainstream millennial shoppers. Kraus, who has a master’s degree in consumer behavior, is fascinated by what makes consumers tick — why they buy what they buy.

With the launch of Simply Done, Kraus inspired retailers to stop non-foods leakage from the grocery channel to the mass and club channels, Antol says.

“Simply Done will be over a $320 million brand at retail in 2017 and this would not have been achieved without the thought leadership that Katie has provided to Topco members,” Antol adds.

Kraus says being labeled a spark plug is “a genuine reinforcement to the importance of taking a little bit of risk to try something different.”

Sparkplug Award: Deanna Dorrance/Ace Hardware

In January of this year Deanna Dorrance was promoted to global private label brand manager at Oak Brook, Ill.-based Ace Hardware. Clearly, Dorrance made a quick impression in her new role as she was nominated by Angela Bagdasarian, the company’s associate global private label brand manager, for this award.

“Deanna has used her positive leadership skills to challenge others to better themselves by pushing them out of their comfort zones,” Bagdasarian, who reports to Dorrance, wrote in nominating Dorrance for the award. “She has helped influence others to learn more about their roles within the company, and to understand our retailers and connect with them via store visits and meetings.”

For Dorrance, who has been at Ace Hardware for 10 years, it’s about making sure that everyone, including herself, pushes the boundaries to avoid complacency.

“I try to work with others in a way to get them to do the best that they can do,” she says.

Dorrance has a big job. She is not only in charge of Ace’s domestic and international divisions but also for Ace Wholesale Holdings. She is responsible for defining, executing and managing the vision of Ace Hardware’s private brands, a $1 billion global portfolio with seven brands and over 10,000 products.

Dorrance has been busy this year leading the charge to complete the Ace brands packaging refresh with a new and sleek design that is more consumer friendly. It has been a five-year project.

“I’ve worked closely with our design team … telling them our vision and helping them execute,” she says.

Dorrance appreciates working at Ace Hardware, which has stores in 60 countries, for many reasons, one being that the company encourages its employees to find time to train for the betterment of themselves and the company. Dorrance has been involved with a new training initiative at Ace called Future Leaders. In the program, employee groups are challenged to solve real company problems by working within different departments.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with my daily job,” Dorrance says. “It’s just an example of Ace trying to train everyone and connect them cross-functionally with other departments.”

To Bagdasarian, Dorrance’s involvement in Future Leaders and her willingness to help across channels provides a spark for other employees to be the best they can be.

“She leads by example as she herself pushes herself to exceed,” Bagdasarian says.