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2022 Rising Stars
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06/21/2022

Rising Stars in Private Label 2022

Our annual list honors those who are moving private label forward while making a name for themselves in the industry.
Zachary Russell
Associate Editor
Zachary Russell profile picture

For the third year, Store Brands is celebrating those under the age of 45 who are rising through the ranks in the world of private label.

The past year has proved to be challenging for those in grocery and retail. From rising material costs, inflation, labor shortages and more, manufacturers and retailers alike are adapting to the new, ever-changing landscape. This year’s Rising Stars list gives a glimpse at how figures in private label are pushing forward and continuing to innovate.

Here are the Rising Stars for 2022:

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Ryan Funa 2022 Rising Stars

Under 45

 

Ryan Funa, Senior Account Executive, Simmons Foods Inc.

Ryan Funa is the Senior Account Executive at Simmons Foods Inc., a company that produces private label prepared chicken products found on grocery shelves, as well as pet food and animal nutrition solutions. Funa assumed his role at Simmons Foods in late 2019, and has since earned praise, being called organized, dependable, action-oriented and dedicated.

Funa has shown his high-level leadership abilities both internally at the company and when detailing with retail customers. He has been praised for his customer service when it comes to business partners, offering a service oriented attitude and willingness to share his knowledge and collaborate.

Perhaps notably, given the ongoing supply chain challenges impacting the grocery and retail industries, Funa has played a large role in optimizing Simmons Foods’ assortment of products, while navigating the changing environment so that customers are still able to receive quality products.

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Katie Jakubowski 2022 Rising Stars

Katie Jakubowski, Senior Category Manager, Topco Associates

Katie Jakubowski has spent five years at Topco Associates, serving as Category Manager of Bakery before becoming the Senior Category Manager of Produce in July 2020. In addition to being described as proactive and detail-oriented, Jakubowski’s skill set can be seen in the success of the Basket & Bushel private brand, which was named a 2022 Game Changer by Store Brands.

As the Senior Category Manager for Packaged Produce, she and her team developed and launched Basket & Bushel’s line of washed, ready to eat fresh vegetables culminating in a 15-item launch in October 2021, resulting in more than $1 million in sales monthly.

Each item in this line is offered in a microwave-safe, micro-perforated bag that allows the product to remain fresher longer (up to 16 days) by reducing the condensation within. This expansion of the brand found at several retailers allowed shoppers to buy fresh veggies at an affordable price without having to worry about spoilage, a critical attribute given the impact of inflation on grocery prices.

Jakubowski’s understanding of the produce business and contributions to the development of Topco’s brand make her a 2022 Rising Star.

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Auburn Sooter 2022 Rising Star

Auburn Sooter, Owned Brand Commercialization Manager- Snacks, Nuts and Candy, Walgreens

Described as having an enthusiastic, entrepreneurial spirit, Auburn Sooter serves as Walgreens’ Owned Brand Commercialization Manager, overseeing the retailer’s assortment of private label snack items. She joined Walgreens in 2019, and assumed her current role in September of 2021, and has quickly earned praise from her supply partners.

Previously, Sooter served Walgreens as Merchandising Process Associate Manager and Project Manager of the Retail & Finance Transformation Process. Sooter worked with one supplier in particular to change the packaging size of a key product that led to an increased bottom line for Walgreens.

The company, Tropical Nut & Fruit, wanted to change the three own brand chocolate nuts from 10 oz. bags to 5 oz. bags. The company had pitched the idea prior to Sooter’s arrival, but it wasn’t until they collaborated with Sooter that the change was impacted, crediting the Rising Star as open-minded, knowledgeable, engaging and creative.

While new to the private label snack category, it’s clear that Sooter’s impact has been felt at Walgreens.

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Michelle Aloi 2022 Rising Star

Under 40

 

Michelle Aloi, Senior Director, Global Sourcing and Innovation, Japan, Daymon Worldwide

Michelle Aloi started her retail career as a Wegman’s associate responsible for setting planograms and keeping shelves stocked. Through her hard work, she quickly rose through the ranks and decided to move to Daymon as she fell in love with private brands. She supported Wegman’s through a number of different roles focused on growing their brand in the fresh departments.

Because of her success as a leader on the Wegman’s account, Aloi was invited to lead the Sourcing team on the newly formed AEON TOPVALU team in Japan. Over the past 6 years, she has continued to grow as she built a private brand sourcing program for one of the world’s best-known retailers.

When Aloi took on the challenge to build a new sourcing structure for AEON, she jumped in 200%. She quickly developed strong relationships by spending one-on-one time with key decision makers. She also built a team of sourcing managers from scratch and continues to lead them in developing new sources of supply for AEON from around the world.

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Brianna Bitzer 2022 Rising Stars

Brianna Bitzer, Own Brand Lead, Meijer

For the past two years, Brianna Bitzer has played a vital role in further developing Meijer’s private label assortment. Those who work closely with her know she is an expert at her job and many own brand leads within the retailer look to her for her expertise on systems and processes.

Among her accomplishments is single-handedly working to implement a full package overhaul for the consumables area at Meijer. She was able to dissect each package design to ensure its products conveyed the value and quality of the Meijer brand to its customers. Key to this was breaking down the components of each package to ensure each was a part of the same brand story. She worked cross functionally with each merchant area, packaging, legal and vendors to align everyone from concept to shipment.

Communication is also a strength of Bitzer. Known as a top-notch communicator whether in person, on the phone or emailing, she knows how to communicate to any audience and is able to bring everyone along on projects that she is working on. Everything she does is at 110%. Every single day she works to drive business
whether it’s assisting the analysts, working with the vendors or comp shopping.

A member of the Meijer team since 2014, she joined the retailer as an inventory control analyst. Two years later she was named a product flow specialist and moved to her current position in March of 2020.

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Erin Butler 2022 Rising Stars

Erin Butler, Private Brands Business Manager, Casey’s General Stores

Creative, innovative, focused and ambitious are a few of the words used to describe Erin Butler, the Private Brands Business Manager of Casey’s General Stores.

Butler joined the company in June of 2020 after spending over six years in leadership roles at Kum & Go. Casey’s General Store is known for hot foods like pizza, as well as own brand food and beverage items, which Butler plays a pivotal role in overseeing.

Butler’s most recent achievement has been developing the private brand ice cream program at Casey’s. After considering her supplier options, she chose a partner that was flexible to fit her creative vision for the company. Butler developed creative product names, innovative packaging designs and even a proprietary flavor profile variety. The program has exceeded even the supplier’s expectations, and future line expansions are expected to continue the growth of the program, especially with the arrival of summer.

Casey’s has expanded its prepared foods and private label products rapidly in recent years, and Butler’s expertise is a large reason why.

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Stephanie Chien 2022 Rising Stars

Stephanie Chien, Director, Own Brands; Deli, Foodservice and Bakery, Albertsons

At Albertsons, Stephanie Chien leads the innovation portfolio for the company’s deli, foodservice and in-store bakery items that are carried under the Signature Cafe, Signature Reserve, O Organics and Artisan Breads brands.

During the past two years, Chien led her team through many challenging pivots in an effort to keep business moving forward. Source of supply and ingredients have been an ongoing challenge in her categories and she has continued to work with supplier partners to deliver new products.

In addition to leading the launch of many new items in Albertsons’ selection of private label products, Chien has done the hard work of developing processes to streamline getting projects to shelf.

One example is Albertsons’ ReadyMeals that was recently launched. She developed the commercialization process, process flow mapping including inputs from a vast cross-functional team including product development, quality assurance and product management.

Chien is a strong people leader always leading with diversity, equity and inclusion in mind. She is very strategic, empowers others and is an outstanding trainer when it comes to developing others.

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Chelsea Garrow 2022 Rising Stars

Chelsea Garrow, Brand Manager, Harbor Wholesale

Chelsea Garrow is credited for developing Harbor Wholesale’s brand, Mountain Fresh, working tirelessly to create a brand that is on-trend. Mountain Fresh has resonated extremely well with the company’s customers and consumers alike with the premium grab and go products in crowd pleasing varieties.

Knowing the consumer and isn’t afraid to try new things, she is constantly innovating to ensure they have the right products available to meet their needs. Mountain Fresh is impacting the way consumers think about convenience stores as well as other on-the-go retail locations. It gives them a new exciting option that can draw additional consumers into their stores.

During her tenure as category manager for Harbor Wholesale, she saw an opportunity to create a brand that was meant to satisfy on-the-go consumers looking for premium quality ingredients, satisfying every appetite. She worked on the development of the product line, graphic elements, branding guidelines, and digital presence to create what is now a double-digit growth brand.

Garrow is a visionary that sees opportunity, creates excitement within the organization and brings the vision to life.

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Tenley Fitzgerald 2022 Rising Stars

Tenley Fitzgerald, Vice President of Marketing, Yes! Apples

Since joining the Yes! Apples team in June 2020, Tenley Fitzgerald has developed the organization from the ground up. Her focus has been implementation of a multi-pronged strategy of working with retail partners and developing and managing various campaigns via social media, email, public relations, direct marketing, partnerships and sponsorships.

Fitzgerald also initiated and led the development of the Yes! Apples e-commerce channel where customers can purchase 9-count boxes of apples directly from the farm. This is the first direct-to-consumer apple brand of its kind. Beyond its e-commerce channel, she seeks out new retailer partners, including regional chains, e-commerce and grocery delivery.

She also created and leads Yes! Apples’ partnerships with 1% for the Planet, National Young Farmers Coalition, The Giving Grove, and Cornell Small Farms. Fitzgerald advocates for women in business, especially produce, taking care of and protecting the planet, creating an inclusive food system, and building community and connection through great-tasting apples.

Fitzgerald has taken a trade-focused organization and evolved it into an all-things-consumer brand, which continues to grow. Using the power of branding and marketing to connect with consumers and share stories about Yes! Apples grower partners and the high-quality apples they produce, her mission is to get consumers excited about apples, help them find and try new varieties, and find
new ways to incorporate them into their day-to-day lives.

A trait that allows her to stand out is her creativity in developing new ways to reach existing and prospective customers, educating them about New York apples and how they differ in taste versus those grown elsewhere. A New York native who grew up on the shores of Lake Ontario, she brings a unique perspective on apples grown in the rich soil of this region of the Empire State.

She is a true advocate for sustainability, leading the charge to reduce plastic in packaging used as well as focusing on highlighting recycling efforts.

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Morgan Drummond 2022 Rising Stars

Morgan Drummond, Senior Director of Private Label, Misfits Market

Morgan Drummond brings a unique passion for innovation to the world of private label. Her experience as a product developer and food scientist has set her up to successfully balance the art and science of developing products. In 2019, she was recognized for becoming the world’s eighth certified Extra Virgin Olive Oil Savante and uses her knowledge to consistently maintain rigorous quality standards.

Drummond managed key categories that were impacted by COVID-19, such as pasta and oil. Working in a challenging environment, she led complex strategies and solved serious supply chain issues. She fought to keep product stocked for her consumers in an unprecedented time. Her “above and beyond” attitude and collaboration skills worked in her favor to be successful and shine during the height of the health crisis.

She is lauded as a wonderful mentor and has successfully developed six assistants into category managers Drummond recently joined the Misfits Market team after more than 10 years at Whole Foods. There, she held several key positions including senior category merchant, exclusive brands: meals; and director of sourcing, private label: dairy, frozen, specialty, prepared foods and bakery.

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Matt Kramer 2022 Rising Stars

Matt Kramer, Our Brand Senior Category Manager, Kroger

Matt Kramer leads a team of private brands category strategy managers that are responsible for product and brand development across a third of the categories in Kroger stores. His leadership has played an integral role in the company’s private brand success.

He was instrumental in developing industry leading strategies and growth plans for innovative Simple Truth plant-based products across more than 200 categories. Kramer quickly recognizes business opportunities and drives results through innovation. He is a tremendous influencer in the business, always volunteering to lead initiatives and problem solving across multiple platforms.

He consistently and passionately demonstrates leadership across multiple parts of the organization. He inspires his team to stay engaged, motivated and to be highly successful.

Kramer has been with Kroger for more than 15 years. He joined the company in 2007 as a category buyer. He has held several positions including analyst, category manager and category strategy manager.

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Ashley Vance 2022 Rising Stars

Ashley Vance, Manager, Owned Brands, The Fresh Market

Ashley Vance has worked tirelessly over the past two years with The Fresh Market’s vendors and distributor partners - leading the charge with the company’s supply chain partners. This has allowed the retailer to maintain proper inventory levels for center store own brand items.

She also stepped into a larger role to help manage supply chain issues finding solutions with vendors and distributor partners to help all sides overcome the daily challenges. As a result, the company maintained stock levels on its The Fresh Market brand items when some national brands were out of stock. Her vigilance in talking to vendors and creating a solution that worked for them and The Fresh Market resulted in avoiding a $750,000 revenue shortfall.

Vance is known for being tenacious & relentless in getting answers to a pending PO or delay in a PO. She is willing to make phone calls to vendors, the company’s supply chain and distribution partners to find freight solutions or complete a transfer on time for The Fresh Market stores. She is also proactive, working on forecasts, increasing PO’s, and communicating to vendor partners about upcoming promotions for own brand items to get ahead of the need.

With several years of experience working with various brands and retailers, Vance joined The Fresh Market in 2018.

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Marley Whitmore 2022 Rising Stars

Marley Whitmore, National Buying Director, Aldi

Marley Whitmore is described as a merchant who is collaborative, accessible and straightforward. She has a singular focus on bringing the best products to Aldi’s customers and at the best value.

Utilizing industry data to quickly make decisions, this technique allows Whitmore to avoid being paralyzed by analysis and get innovative new products to market quickly. She has an understanding of Aldi’s core customer and the factors that motivate each person who enters the grocers’ stores and ultimately makes a purchase.

Whitmore joined Aldi in 2014 as a district manager based in Florida. Four years later, she headed Down Under where she served as an area manager for Aldi Stores Australia. In 2020, she returned to the United States taking her current position as the retailer’s national buying director.

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Dana Renfro 2022 Rising Stars

Dana Renfro, Category Manager, Yesway

Supplier partners that work with Dana Renfro have high regard for her ability to drive sales and profits, and applaud her for building strong consumer engagement through her strong rapport for the companies she works with. She is analytical, a strong negotiator, and has proven adept at learning the business.

In less than two years, she has grown from being a category associate to category manager, leading one of the most important categories in the industry for the 14th largest convenience store chain in the United States. Renfro has P&L responsibility and oversees all aspects of the packaged beverage category, including pricing, product selection, marketing, promotion, contract negotiation and planograms.

She negotiates with supplier partners to drive innovation into Yesway’s cooler sets and delivers increased sales and margin for more than 400 Yesway and Allsup’s stores. She helped lead the development of 20 own-brand SKUs within packaged beverages that generate the highest gross profit in the vault. Yesway has a line of spring, alkaline, vitamin enhanced, and sparkling waters. She also helped develop Allsup’s branded purified water allowing the retailer to have a solid good, better and best approach to an important category.

Renfro has delivered a profound impact on Yesway and Allsup’s bottom line. She has driven the successful outcome of multiple projects, and has quickly shown proficiency in a broad range of categories before earning the packaged beverage desk. She helped launch Yesway’s private brand products, elevated the loyalty program to include fuel rewards and incentives, and introduced innovations to the cooler doors in stores across nine states.

On top of all of this, she has been able to negotiate major contracts, launch scan-based programs, and deliver consistent sales increases in her categories year over year.

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Kylie Brienza 2022 Rising Stars

Under 30

 

Kylie Brienza, Category Manager, Wakefern

Serving as Category Manager at Wakefern since April 2021, Kylie Brienza has been praised as an incredible asset to the Own Brands team, and a “Jill of all trades” for her ability to multitask.

In her brief time so far in the role, Brienza has amplified Wakefern’s private label presence in several ways. First, she spearheaded a new project management tool for the Own Brands team that will help the Category Managers and cross-functional teams track new product launches. She helped develop a project management tool in Smartsheet that keeps all new product launches on track and has implemented an automated system to minimize the manual updates.

Brienza also created a process for buying commodities, such as sugar and wheat, that helps Wakefern act on market changes quickly and analyze the impact. She created a means to show the direct impact of the market price increase or decrease and the impact it will have on the business.

Finally, she organized the Own Brand division’s first candy/sweets workshop to develop new private label items. Based on her achievements so far, it’s clear that Brienza is making a name for herself as a Rising Star in private label.

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Austin Groesser 2022 Rising Stars

Austin Groesser, CEO, Big Dipper Dough Company

Austin Groesser is the only CEO on this year’s Rising Stars list, making a name for himself in the Under 30 category as the leader of Big Dipper Dough. The company, co-founded by Groesser and Daniel Fuller in 2015, sells edible and bakeable cookie dough products, and is offered as a white label product that can be found at some of the country’s top retailers under their private label brands.

Found at more than 3,000 stores in 40 states, Big Dipper Dough, under Groesser’s leadership, is also in the process of licensing a fast food brand to sell the product at retail, showing no signs of slowing down for the upstart company. Groesser, who graduated high school in 2013, sells, manages, promotes and handles all social media for the company, showing versatility in his role.

As Big Dipper Dough continues to expand its reach under private brands, Groesser’s leadership is deserving of recognition.

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Hunter Standridge 2022 Rising Stars

Hunter Standridge, National Account Manager, Stout Stuff

As National Account Manager, Hunter Standridge manages multiple account relationships in the pet care category for Stout Stuff, a company he has spent four years with. In the role, he has excelled working with top retailers on private brand pet items, while earning praise for his attitude and enthusiasm for business and communication savvy.

Over the last 18 months, Standridge successfully developed and managed the launch of a line of premium private brand pet grooming items for Walmart. He managed this project from end to end, even powering through the supply chain challenges that many are facing. Total retail sales of this program will translate to $10M+ on an annual basis according to Stout Stuff.

Under his management, the Walmart account has tripled. In his work with both Walmart and Tractor Supply Co. managing private brand items, Standridge has proved himself to be an asset for the company, as 2022 expects to be a record year for Stout Stuff’s major accounts.

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Kelsey Russell 2022 Rising Stars

Kelsey Russell, OwnBrands Product Brand Manager, SpartanNash

Kelsey Russell has been working with SpartanNash’s OwnBrands team for nearly five years, and has quickly risen in the ranks to become the Product Brand Manager, overseeing large categories within the grocery department. She also leads supplier sourcing, promotional planning, product development and marketing efforts for SpartanNash’s private brands, studying how to showcase the products the best possible way, and then executing.

Among her achievements, Russell led the efforts to reformulate and improve the Our Family Potato Chip Program and drive loyalty with SpartanNash customers. Since her efforts on this initiative, the company saw a double digit lift in wholesale sales dollars with the chip line, highlighting the robust success of the program under her leadership. Russell helped SpartanNash reach a massive sustainability milestone as well, as her management of the compostable coffee pod business helped save more than 17 tons of plastic from landfills.

Russell has been described as a team player who uplifts her co-workers and gives them the support and tools they need to help move the Own Brands category forward. For these reasons, she is a 2022 Rising Star.