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11/02/2021

A profile of the winners: Top Women in Store Brands 2021

Meet the nine winners that made great strides across the private brand industry, despite the pandemic.
Dan Ochwat
Executive Editor
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Since it began eight years ago, Store Brands and Women Impacting Storebrand Excellence (WISE) have highlighted key women across the private brand industry, awarding leaders making a huge impact across many facets of the industry.

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In supply chain, marketing, finance and more, eight of the 2021 class of selections are moving store brands forward amid continued pandemic challenges. The ninth recipient, a Lifetime Achievement Award, recognizes the life and commitment of a woman who brought unmatched passion to her life and role in private brands, even as she battled a difficult illness.

Her’s is a career and level of inspiration everyone in the private brands industry should aspire to reach. 

The nine awards include three specialty winners — Lifetime Achievement, Innovation and Sparkplug — and six Functional Expertise Award winners. The winners will be recognized during the WISE annual meeting on Nov. 4, and it will be presented virtually this year. Registration is open for the event.

Meet the 2021 winners:

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A few months ago, Hein passed away from Cystic Fibrosis, which she had been challenged with most of her life, but never let it slow her passion and drive for Whole Foods Market and serving shoppers.

She spent seven years on the exclusive brands team at Whole Foods and 17 years in total at the health-focused chain with more than 500 stores. Hein’s contribution to own brands included ideating and executing more than 90% of the retailer’s body care items. Two noteworthy developments include: the 365 Suncare line (without homosalate) and an upcoming 365 topical CBD launch. Both mark the first of their kind at Whole Foods and the natural grocery space.

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Hein played a significant role in the history of Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value brand, a more than $2 billion brand. During her time, she led the exclusive brands portfolio for body care and beauty at Whole Foods, including the 365 brand, Whole Foods Market and Azalea. Hein oversaw category strategy, assortment planning, promotional planning and supplier partnerships within exclusive brands. She was accountable for the financial performance of assigned categories in partnership with her global category merchants, and partnered with suppliers to develop and execute meaningful programs as well as meet quality standards. 

Heather Salzgeber, exclusive brands category merchant at Whole Foods Market and a longtime co-worker and friend of Hein’s, said most people that encountered Hein never knew that she had a health condition because she never let her lifelong struggle with Cystic Fibrosis slow her down. In fact, it motivated her to do more and make the most of the time she had, both in her personal and professional life.

“Over the 15 years that we worked together she became one of my best friends, and I would often suggest that she ‘take it easy.’ She would reply back, ‘life is too short not to go after what you want.’ She continues to inspire me and all of her work family at Whole Foods Market every day,” Salzgeber told Store Brands

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In Hein’s career in store brands, she also notably created an industry-leading face mask line that transformed the category at Whole Foods, created an aromatherapy program, a hair care line, a bath and body line, oral care, and so much more. Hein has been a recipient of six PLMA awards, and has won several team member awards internally at Whole Foods for her leadership and excellence.

“We miss her deeply, but being able to honor her in this way allows us to share some of her proudest accomplishments and the special person that Sam was with the industry,” Salzgeber added. “Thank you for helping to keep her memory alive."

 

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For more than 20 years, Corkery has been innovating at CVS Health, particularly in store brands, a department that may have seen its most innovative year yet at the company. From May 2020 to April 2021, Corkery oversaw a team that launched the Live Better by CVS Health line of better-for-you and better-for-the-environment products, as well as the men’s store brand Goodline Grooming Co.

On the way are two more private brands: One + Other and CVS Beauty Brand. Corkery is powering store brand innovation at CVS Health and doing it with a partnering and conversational style, her colleagues described. Over her two decades with CVS, Corkery helped create a team dedicated to store brands, now 60-people deep, and store brands now make up 23% of all products sold at CVS stores. 

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Her fingerprints can be seen on early launches such as Glam Squad and ones like Live Better, which filled a whitespace of exclusive, transparent wellness products in sun care, baby care, herbal supplements and more. The line brings convenient and affordable access to popular and emerging ingredients such as ashwagandha, turmeric, elderberry and valerian root and includes options that are USDA-certified organic, non-GMO project verified, gluten-free, cruelty-free or vegan.

Similarly, with Goodline Grooming Co., Corkery innovated to develop a store brand that fills the whitespace opportunity of men’s grooming. Her team collaborated weekly with a diverse panel of 90 men to build out a line that was high quality, intuitive, uncomplicated and approachable. 

“CVS has always been a place that has brought many exciting new challenges, year after year,” Corkery told Store Brands. “I believe that every role that I have had over the years has prepared me for this position in store brands; leading a team of people in developing our brand portfolio. This role is the perfect marriage of art and science — researching, ideating, developing and measuring how our brands resonate at the shelf,” she said.

“I gain the most from the people around me,” Corkery added. “This may sound cliché, but anyone who has worked with me will tell you that I derive the most satisfaction and pride in collaborating with my team, my peers and the broader enterprise."

 

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At Weis Markets shy of two years, Gregas transitioned into her role as private brands manager at the start of the pandemic and immediately made an impact by coordinating product availability from current suppliers and sourcing new ones, all in an effort to maintain the Weis Markets private brand presence on shelves in the face of increasing demand. 

A colleague of Gregas said she handled that task while taking on more responsibility for the entire private brands team, a great example of an industry sparkplug.

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Weis Markets is a mid-Atlantic food chain in Sunbury, Pa., operating 196 stores with more than 23,000 employees in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, Virginia and Delaware. As the private brands manager, Gregas oversees 6,500 private brand items across the entire store, including new item development, packaging design, and managing those key supplier relationships — ones she’s quick to shout out.

“What I love most about my role at Weis is the people. Our Weis team works together to achieve our goals while supporting each other and having fun along the way. We also have great vendor partners that make day-to-day communication and exploring new initiatives more enjoyable,” she told Store Brands. “I feel fortunate to be able to collaborate with such a great group of people, both internal and external. Working as a team is what ultimately leads to success for all of us.”

In those working relationships, Gregas makes a difference by using her influence when meeting with the merchandising team to spot trends in the industry and make suggestions on new item development product placement.

She also works on pricing to ensure that the Weis private brand team goals are met or exceeded. In her short time with the company, Gregas has adapted quickly into more of a leadership role and has become a trusted resource to the merchandising team during recent category reviews.

Gregas transitioned to her role of private brands manager after beginning as a sourcing specialist, all during a difficult time during the pandemic.

The chain is not letting up when it comes to private brand innovation, either. 

“Our team has made it a priority to focus on innovation and new item development,” she said. “We have been able to do so while working through the many challenges that the industry has faced over the last year. We have remained committed to the continued growth of our brands and that is something I am extremely proud of."

 

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In the last year, Ofri’s had a hand in more than 1,100 new and converted own brand SKUs to hit the market, touching 11 departments and within three powerful brands: Paperbird, Bowl & Basket and Wholesome Pantry. She oversees a team of more than 30 associates in private brand development, category management and operations, and steered them all safely.

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Battling issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ofri led her team through 33 workshops with detailed category analysis and input on how to navigate challenges the safest way possible. The team manages the full go-to-market process for own brands at Wakefern, and it’s no surprise to hear how much her team means to her and how much she cares for the consumer.

“I am extremely fortunate to have a group of passionate, hard working and consumer-centric individuals who make my job possible. Without them, this award would not be possible,” she told Store Brands. “This past year and a half has been a challenge for most people, whether those difficulties revolved around day care, job stability, illness, it’s made us all stronger as a people. During this pandemic, Wakefern’s procurement team, Own Brand included, spearheaded a COVID Resurgence project back in the summer of 2020, in an effort to keep products on-shelf, and the families of our consumers fed and healthy.”

Unique to Wakefern, in her operational role, Ofri also established a platform called Wakefern Engage that helped keep new and prospective store brand suppliers involved in Wakefern’s initiatives, including compliance scorecards and ways to meet new suppliers. She leveraged her expertise in project management to lead the creation of a database to track all Wakefern Own Brand items at each stage of the pipeline.

Ofri loves developing own brands and the power that product brings to the shelf. “There is something amazing about the ability to create a private label product, to then see it on shelves, and be able to feed it to your family and friends. The fact that we sample each and every item is not only a perk — and one of the most unifying activities for my team — but an extreme honor that I have as well,” she said. “We have the opportunity to take the voice of the customer, and in these sensory cases represent the customer ourselves, to tweak each and every recipe to ensure the highest quality and best taste of our products."

 

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Keeping store shelves stocked with cheese during COVID-19 was not an easy task, and Shirkey told Store Brands that she’s most proud of working with the internal cross-functional teams at Great Lakes Cheese to work through the daily challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Each day presented a new challenge requiring us to navigate differently, redefine process, establish quick alternatives, and be nimble, creative and resilient,” she said. “We did all this through hard work, integrity and a passion to keep our customers’ shelves stocked with cheese."

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Great Lakes Cheese is a premier manufacturer and packager of natural and processed bulk, shredded and sliced cheeses for foodservice and private brand programs. The company has eight state-of-the-art facilities across the United States, with plans to add a ninth in the fall of next year. For Shirkey’s part, she leads a supply chain team of 52 people, overseeing more than a billion pounds of cheese a year.

Shirkey has played a major role building out the supply chain at Great Lakes Cheese. During the pandemic, she worked very closely with customers to keep the American food supply chain stable. Her efforts have also been recognized by Great Lakes Cheese. Out of 3,500 individuals at the company, Shirkey earned the Founders Award in 2021, an honor that reflects the legacy of founder Hans Epprecht’s hard work. 

Epprecht’s motto: “Hard work, honesty, integrity. That sums it all up.” Epprecht built the company on those values and Shirkey earned the award for efforts that reflect those values. A colleague said she is beloved by her team, peers and is a daily role model for the values the company strives to reach.

 

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In her role, Renn has successfully managed nearly 80 associates across five teams during what is arguably one of the most unique and difficult periods of retail’s long history. Renn leads the company’s commercial finance, print production, commercialization, sales analytics and accounts receivable.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say the last 18 months, between a pandemic and supply chain disruptions, have been some of the most tumultuous I’ve experienced,” she told Store Brands

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During the last year, not only did Renn find ways to proactively and positively engage a team that went from 100% in-office, to remote, to a hybrid model, she drove impactful initiatives like reducing Refresco’s concept-to-shelf timeline from 166 days to 121, and helped guide the finance team through massive commodity challenges, which ultimately led to successful negotiations on price adjustments for over two dozen customers, and improved the company’s cash flow by applying more focus to AR to ensure Refresco received timely and accurate payment.

At Refresco, the world’s largest independent bottler of beverages, Renn also negotiated a more equitable contract with its third-party analytics company, integrating the company’s print production group, and participated in pricing discussions with its largest store brands customer. She’s a bonafide leader touching many important aspects of Refresco’s work — and she loves it.

“My role at Refresco is continually changing, which keeps things exciting,” she told Store Brands. “I’ve benefited from strong leaders that have taken a genuine interest in my professional development. As a result, I’ve been able to take risks that have allowed me to acquire new skills and develop in broad areas outside of a traditional finance background.”

Renn said in late 2019, the company finished a critical phase in a project called “Re-wire to Win,” which was focused on shortening commercialization project times. “Because Refresco’s commercialization process starts with an idea and ends at the first manufacturing run, almost every group in our organization is impacted. We made a commitment to reduce project time by at least 35%. As Q1 2020 was coming to an end, we realized we had to act quickly to keep our project on track,” she said.

“Our team’s agility was on display,” she added. “It would have been easy to use the pandemic as an excuse to underdeliver or delay our commitments, but our team isn’t built that way. By the end of 2020, we had reduced project life cycle time by over 50%, and in 2021, we’ve achieved improvements approaching 63%."

 

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Since Conwell has been part of Sofidel, the fifth largest tissue producer in the world, the company has seen its private label business grow double digits with a CAGR of 50% a year since she joined the team nearly four years ago. 

That’s impact. In her role, she supports the private label sales team with guidance, analytics and vision for the company’s growth platform in the United States. Conwell’s been in sales her whole time at Sofidel, also bringing experience with time at Clearwater Paper, Irving Consumer Products and Kraft Heinz.

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But her current role as senior director of sales at Sofidel is her “dream job,” she told Store Brands, “developing the paper business for a company who is a newcomer to the U.S. and has invested heavily in new greenfield paper making and converting sites.”

She also discussed the importance of serving the paper industry during the pandemic, when tissue paper was scarce. “Paper is an essential item, and during the past 18 months with the pandemic, it has been extremely rewarding and challenging to help get our paper into the hands of consumers,” she said. “In this role, what I love the most is collaborating with our retail partners on their store brands programs and working with our internal Sofidel team to execute and deliver results. My role also allows me to provide coaching and mentoring to my peers in sales and share my knowledge and experience with over 35 years selling store brands.”

Conwell’s natural sales ability and leadership skills have molded her into a “coaching” manager that the company’s junior managers aspire to reach, a colleague at Sofidel described. Conwell’s focused efforts have enabled the company’s partners in retail to grow private brand shares to new heights and bring new innovation to the category.

The company has been awarded several new customer labels over the past year, she said, successfully launching the new business segments, and they’ve expanded their offerings on new and innovative items with current partners.

 

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Working on the regulatory affairs team for Albertsons Own Brands since 2018, Ahmed oversees multiple areas across the organization and is considered the resident expert on driving the retailer’s USDA-mandated Bioengineered Labeling work across all Albertsons products. 

To Ahmed, it’s also the work she’s most proud of, telling Store Brands, “Albertsons Companies is on track to successfully implement all aspects of the regulation, and we’ll be one of the first in the industry with a 24/7 fully automated BE customer response line."

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Ahmed identified products for Bioengineered Labeling and worked through an internal database to capture accurate information, compiling a master sheet of products containing Bioengineered ingredients, developing work streams and a critical path to compliance.

It’s that kind of passion that Ahmed brings to the critical role of regulatory affairs, working behind the scenes to ensure products are safe, accurate with allergens and safety information, and true to what the consumer is expecting from an Albertsons private brand product. In her role, she manages daily regulatory activities including identification, interpretation, and implementation of all applicable federal, state and local regulations. These include product standards of identity, package label requirements, claims identification and validation to comply with regulatory requirements, and she reviews regulatory activities conducted by contract manufacturers.

Ahmed runs point for the Menu and Scale Labeling work, including Albertsons In-Store Process Optimization project, ensures regulatory compliance, and works to avoid private brand product recalls that can result from non-compliance to product and packaging regulations.

The Albertsons In-Store Process Optimization project is an effort to make product compliance in stores more efficient, accurately rolling up ingredients to finished products and paving the way to clean up approximately 38,000 constituents in less time. The “Roll Up Deployment” functions for the project include an ingredient statement, ingredient maintenance and formula maintenance, resulting in the average approval timeline for finished products to go from six weeks to five days including regulatory approval.

 “I am fortunate to work for an innovative food company,” she said. “But if I had to say what I love the most, it’s my team. Albertsons has a diverse and inclusive culture that brings together a great mix of talents and perspectives."

 

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Gliding into the role of chief merchant in September of last year, Taylor has been with Dollar General since 1998, taking on roles of increasing responsibility across the organization over her time.

In 2019, in fact, she served as SVP of channel innovation, leading a charge behind DG’s newest concept store pOpshelf, and in 2014 launched the company’s non-consumables initiative NCI, which brought added seasonal, apparel, home, stationery, party and toys to Dollar General stores.

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“NCI was such a hit, we explored developing a retail concept that would focus on those NCI learnings, successes and insights while offering a differentiated retail concept, and thus, pOpshelf was created and launched in 2020,” Taylor told Store Brands.

“We’re addressing an unmet need in the market — value in the fun, discretionary categories,” she said about the program. “We are pleased with the initial results and feedback, so much so that we plan to increase from 30 stores by fiscal year end to 50. We celebrate pOpshelf’s first anniversary this October, and we can’t wait to see what the future brings.” 

As EVP and CMO, Taylor has been continuing Dollar General’s innovation around store brands, launching, reimagining and rebranding top own brands at the chain including Drive MXD, an automotive maintenance and detail brand, Pro Essentials in hardware, Shavely’s in razors, 3-2-1 Party, and the clean-label premium hair care line Root to End.

“I love the ability to deliver real impact by giving communities access to affordable, quality products and offerings,” Taylor said. “This wouldn’t be possible without my passionate, dynamic team at DG that’s laser-focused on bringing an exceptional shopping experience to our customers. We listen to our customers every day, and we continue to innovate to help them save time and money while shopping at our stores.”

Taylor added that Dollar General is primarily focused on its brick-and-mortar locations. The retailer operates 17,426 stores in 46 states. However, the company has implemented digital solutions into its customer’s journey to enhance the DG shopping experience, she said. 

“It’s always exciting to continue to activate around ideas that will only deliver more of what our customer wants,” she said.