True pros

Lawrence Aylward
Editor In Chief
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They are energetic and enthusiastic. They are self-assured as well, but also humble. The 2018 Top Women in Store Brands possess a collective can-do attitude. And while they are proud of their accomplishments, including this honor, they will be the first to tell you that they couldn’t do what they do without others, especially their co-workers and peers.

They aren’t just top women in their profession. They are top professionals in their profession.

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.

This year’s categories of recognition include seven functional expertise areas: innovation; marketing/merchandising; operations; research and development/quality assurance; human resources/information services; supply chain/procurement; and sales. There are also two lifetime achievement awards given to women who have achieved impressive professional and personal accomplishments during their impactful careers in the private brands industry.

The award winners will be recognized during WISE’s annual meeting and luncheon on Sunday, Nov. 13, 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 this year’s honorees ...

Nancy Cota/Albertsons Cos.

Upon hearing she was receiving such a distinguished award, Nancy Cota says she was “honored, overwhelmed, thrilled and super excited about it.”

And then Cota, the vice president of own brands, product management, innovation and brand management for Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons Cos., quipped, “I feel like I’m supposed to retire.”

That’s how a “lifetime achievement” award might make you feel. But make no mistake, Cota, who has worked in the grocery industry for 45 years, isn’t going anywhere.

Cota not only excels at private brands development, but she is one of the most benevolent people you might ever meet. Several years ago, Cota and her husband Kevin adopted three children who are now all 20 years old and in college.

“We have made the commitment to get them through college,” says Cota, who also has four adult biological children. “So I have several years before I can retire. And that’s OK.”

It’s also good news for Albertsons Cos.

“There is no one more committed to our private brands than Nancy,” says Geoff White, president of Albertsons’ Own Brands, who nominated Cota for the award.

How committed is Cota? When Safeway launched its Open Nature store brand in 2011, Cota, who worked as a vice president for Safeway at the time and spearheaded the launch of Open Nature, took it upon herself to market the new store brand. Cota, who was driving her motorhome across the country on a family vacation, covered the vehicle with Open Nature signage. She also stopped the motorhome at various Safeway locations to hand out samples of Open Nature products.

How’s that for taking one for the team?

Cota’s list of accomplishments is impressive; she has left her mark all over Albertsons’ private brand catalogue. White says she was the key leader in the development of Albertsons’ Primo Taglio, Waterfront Bistro, Signature Café, Debi Lily, Open Nature, Signature Reserve and O Organics lines. They are achievements, for sure, but Cota is also forging ahead, according to White.

“Nancy’s primary responsibilities are to provide leadership in continuous, incremental and game-changing product innovation and renovation for our portfolio of Own Brands products,” White says. “She oversees the strategy and concepts behind the development of new brands or product platforms from idea through launch.”

When asked her biggest accomplishment, Cota laughs. “I’ve survived,” she says, noting her lengthy tenure has endured many corporate changes. For instance, Cota was with Safeway when Albertsons acquired the retailer in 2014. Seriously, though, Cota has made a tremendous impact on the industry.

“I feel like I have left a little legacy in many of the products in our stores,” she says. “It’s always nice to feel like you contributed.”

Cota is also a mentor. “She is always focused on training, coaching and developing her teams,” White says. “Many individuals that have worked for Nancy have taken on larger roles both internally and externally.”

Cota has always believed it’s about the team. She feels that if she can help make someone better, then everyone will benefit.

“We are a team, and we all support each other,” she says. “Certainly, I wouldn’t be able to have accomplishments if it weren’t for all the great people I work with. I never lose sight of that.

Kimberly Giryluk/Lassonde Pappas and Co.

Kimberly Giryluk will soon retire after 30 years with Lassonde Pappas and Co. Giryluk, vice president of research and development for the Carney Point, N.J.-based private brand beverage manufacturer, is going out on top by receiving one of WISE’s most prestigious honors.

“What I’ve loved about the company and have been able to say for so long is that it’s never boring, and that there are always challenges and opportunities to be innovative,” Giryluk says. “This is what has kept me engaged.”

Giryluk, of course, has helped drive that innovation. In nominating Giryluk for the award, Lassonde Pappas and Co.’s Director of Research and Development Lauren Smith points out that Giryluk led her team, of which Smith is a member, in developing and launching 124 new products in the last year. Giryluk is also responsible for developing an astounding 3,500 formulas in her career at Lassonde Pappas and Co.

“If you’ve drank a private label beverage in your lifetime, then you have been touched by Kim Giryluk, which is truly why we are nominating her for this award,” Smith says.

Working with the company’s senior leadership, Giryluk oversees and supervises all development and innovation efforts by the company. She is responsible for creating an environment that fosters innovation, leading employees to work collaboratively with all teams to execute projects that generate cost savings and quality improvements to products and manufacturing processes, Smith says.

When Giryluk first began at Lassonde Pappas and Co., she says private brands was a “me-too business.” Now retailers want companies to show them potential products that are innovative and interesting, she states.

“And that has been really fun,” she adds. “We have worked with some awesome customers that are all willing to think outside the box with us.”

When Giryluk came to Lassonde Pappas and Co., it was a small company known as Clement Pappas (Lassonde Industries purchased the company in 2011). Giryluk was the first product development manager the company hired, beginning her career there as a special project manager. Smith says Giryluk is credited “with building the backbone of the private label cranberry sauce manufacturing supply in the U.S. through formula optimization and processing improvements,” which led to Lassonde Pappas becoming the No. 1 producer of cranberry sauce in the country.

“It has been amazing to watch the company grow over the years,” Giryluk says.

Smith says Giryluk has also been a leader in formula cost optimization. Giryluk has saved the company more than $50 million in formulation savings throughout her career.

“It has been a challenge, but that’s what our team of scientists enjoys most about it,” Giryluk says. “How can we come up with a premium product and still make it a cost-effective product that consumers are willing to purchase? We are also constantly looking at how we can offer the best value for our customers.”

Outside of work, Giryluk is passionate about helping others. A mother of three, she has also fostered many children and is even working to be a certified counselor to help others.

Leah Lambrakis/Simmons Pet Food

It’s no wonder that Leah Lambrakis is so passionate about her job as vice president of research and development and innovation for Simmons Pet Food. She loves animals and is the proud owner of two dogs that she calls family members. Her love of animals fuels the love she has for her career, and is why Lambrakis is being celebrated with this award.

“Leah has exemplified the leadership required in research and development,” says Rick Shields, Ph.D, the senior vice president for the Siloam Springs, Ark.-based company’s U.S. private brands, who nominated Lambrakis for the award.

Lambrakis has spent her entire career in animal nutrition. Her first job was at the Toronto Zoo, where she worked as a nutrition research assistant. At Simmons Pet Food, Lambrakis leads a team of 25 scientists across the company’s wet, dry and treat divisions. She has personally created and formulated more than 1,000 pet food products during her 19-year career at Simmons Pet Food. Today, her team manages a portfolio of more than 3,500 pet food and pet treats products.

“It’s very exciting because it’s always changing,” Lambrakis says of the pet food industry. “We are always learning and discovering.”

Lambrakis has embraced her role because she empathizes with today’s pet owners, who treat their furry companions as family.

“We are pet parents,” she says. “And the industry has had to react and respond to that. It’s not just about the food we are feeding [our pets] … there is an emotional connection.”

Shields notes that Lambrakis’ team was instrumental in launching new dry pet food formulas that contain inclusions and real meat as the first ingredient.

“Leah works to assist all departments with the complicated process of formulating pet food while meeting the high demands of our customers,” Shields adds.

Lambrakis says private brands are flourishing in the pet food industry. Store brand pet food products aren’t just national brand equivalents, she says, but unique offerings representing individual retailers’ commitment to the category.

“We are extremely proud to be part of that growth and innovation,” she says. “When a retailer comes to us and says [it] wants to make [its] brand unique and special, we want to be part of that journey and development. I can tell you my team gets extremely motivated and excited when it has a new formula to create — a new brand to design and define based on the store brand’s philosophy.”

There have been challenges. Recently, Lambrakis and her team had to reformulate about 850 individual formulas in 18 months to comply with new pet food nutrition regulations.

“Leading that effort and coordinating that effort was very challenging,” Lambrakis says. “But I couldn’t have done it without my team. I am where I am because of my team. They are the people who make it happen.”

Robin VanDenabeele/Fresh Thyme Farmers Market

Robin VanDenabeele is a student of innovation. The director of private label for Downers Grove, Ill.-based Fresh Thyme Farmers Market is constantly looking for inspiration to create new and different products. The results of her studies are evident in Fresh Thyme Farmers Market’s private brand catalogue, where innovative products abound from organic kombucha to double crème brie to plant-based cleaners. 

From May 2017 to April 2018, VanDenabeele successfully launched 769 private brand items. With the help of Private Label Category Manager Shane Sherrell, she has grown the retailer’s dry grocery private brand market share to 26.5 percent since joining the company in 2015.

“I couldn’t have done it without the support of the merchant leaders, category managers and especially the executive leadership team at Fresh Thyme Farmers Market,” VanDenabeele says.

She calls the private brands industry “an open book,” citing an array of opportunities.

“If you work hard and ask the right questions, you can find almost any item that will meet or exceed quality and consistency against most national brand equivalents,” she says.

While innovation can come from a trend, it also must be pursued. VanDenabeele calls this the “hunt for innovation.”

“Keep in mind that suppliers are not knocking the doors down in the private label world to get new business. You need to hustle to make this happen,” VanDenabeele says, noting she and her team attend various trade shows across the country to find “the next best item with the next best supplier.”

VanDenabeele received two nominations in the category for her award from Ivan Manfredi, CEO of Italian supplier Emilia Foods Srl, and from Simon Cutts, director of grocery for Fresh Thyme Farmers Market.

“Robin has created a well-known store brand with an outstanding selection,” Manfredi says.

Cutts says Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, under VanDenabeele’s leadership, has been able to quickly and profitably convert customers to the retailer’s own brand and attract new customers to its private brand categories.

“Fresh Thyme is growing and our brand is
growing because of the work of the merchant teams and the private brands team working together,” Cutt says. “Robin has helped foster the open collaboration that every company strives for within a private
brands program.”

VanDenabeele says the retailer, which operates 74 stores in the Midwest, offers private brand products with taste profiles that surpass those of the mainstream brands but at a lower price and with a promise of high-quality and pure and simple ingredients.

“I want our customers to be excited about connecting with the brand,” she says.

VanDenabeele’s zeal for private brands is surely driving that consumer connection.

“From an enrichment standpoint, I love learning about emerging industry trends, meeting with new and existing suppliers, and learning about ingredients,” she says.

What new innovations might we soon see next from VanDenabeele and Fresh Thyme Farmers Market?

“That’s a secret, but I can tell you we are not slowing down and the private label team will continue to bring innovation to the industry,” she says.

Stephanie Harris/Food Marketing Institute

While she is honored to be named one of this year’s Top Women in Store Brands, Stephanie Harris, the chief regulatory officer and legal counsel for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) says the reward is a reminder that she is fortunate enough to work in the “wonderful and unique” world of private brands.

“The private brand industry has seen a significant boost in its presence over the past few years, which has also provided me with new opportunities to help companies understand the regulatory requirements associated with expanding their operations,” says Harris, who has spent four years with FMI, an Arlington, Va.-based trade association representing the retail food industry. “Private brand manufacturers often don’t have the same budgets as the national brands, so every regulatory burden that I can help mitigate for our members will make a meaningful difference in their operations.”

Harris’ primary responsibilities at FMI include drafting and submitting comments on federal proposed rules facing the food retail industry, interfacing with federal administration officials on behalf of FMI and its members, and educating FMI’s membership about new regulatory requirements, compliance and implementation.

“Stephanie regularly meets with federal and state government officials and stresses the impact of regulations on private brand businesses,” says Doug Baker, FMI’s vice president of private brands and technology, who nominated Harris for the award. “These meetings are critical to the growth and development of the private brands industry. Our industry wouldn’t be able to flourish without Stephanie’s ability to explain the impact of regulations on the private brands industry to officials clearly.”

Harris says she always wanted to work in the food industry, especially food law.

“I work in an industry that provides safe and affordable food to people every day — utilizing new forms of technology, experimenting in new types of retail environments and surrounded by hard-working people,” Harris says.

FMI member companies operate nearly 33,000 retail food stores and 12,000 pharmacies. Its membership includes food retail venues from across the spectrum. Part of Harris’ job is to educate members on the regulatory requirements of regulations like the Food Safety Modernization Act, update them on the Nutrition Facts Label and how to implement new disclosure standards for foods containing bioengineered ingredients.

“For most regulatory changes, FMI has been involved with both the early legislative stages as well as the rule-making process with the agencies, so I often try to provide context and rationale about why an agency is making certain regulatory changes to help our members better understand both the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of the regulation,” Harris says.

While Harris works in the legal end in of the industry, she’s as “foodie” as a foodie can get.

“I’d say it’s safe to say that food drives me, especially in the context of the complex supply chain and ecosystem that gets food to the grocery shelves every day,” she says. “It’s really pretty amazing.”

Kasey Sheffer/Retail Business Services, Ahold Delhaize USA

When the parent companies for Ahold USA and Delhaize America merged, Kasey Sheffer was charged with analyzing several private brand lines so they could transition seamlessly within the two retail groups’ grocery operations, which include Stop & Shop, Giant Food, Giant Martin’s, Food Lion, Hannaford and Peapod. It was a challenging and demanding assignment, to say the least.

But according to Juan De Paoli, the senior vice president of private brands for Retail Business Services, a services company created from the merger to drive synergies and provide services for Ahold Delhaize USA’s grocery brands, Sheffer was the epitome of grace under pressure in completing the task. It’s a reason that Sheffer, director of private brands product management for Retail Business Services, is being honored with this award.

“In perfectly executing this immense project, Kasey displayed astounding leadership abilities and skill,” says De Paoli, who nominated Sheffer for the award. “Under Kasey’s leadership, the private brands team met ambitious goals.”

Sheffer, who is based in Retail Business Services’ Carlisle, Pa., office, says her role allows her to balance analytics with creativity, a task she has embraced.

“It’s about understanding what consumers are looking for and [discovering] their unmet needs,” she says. “It’s about having the opportunity to serve them in that white space and then being able to see that come to life through A to Z.”

De Paoli also cites Sheffer’s ability to drive innovation, which Sheffer often thinks about away from her office. For instance, when Sheffer shops for her family at the local grocery store, she becomes a student of her profession — searching for items that don’t exist that consumers might need.

“If there is something I need, other consumers might need it as well,” she says. “When I think about innovation in the space of private brands, it connects back to making sure we are applying that level of new thinking to how we are running the business side.”

Sheffer says being named one of the Top Women in Store Brands is “an eye-opening experience.”

“It makes me more mindful of how powerful an impact a supportive manager can be,” she says. “For the first time in my career, it helped me realize that I’m impacting others, even if in a small way. I just hope that the impact I’m making is parallel to how I attempt to approach my work, which is with competitive grit but also with camaraderie. I really think that winning together is a lot of fun.

De Paoli is thankful to have Sheffer on his team. “She is recognized across the industry for her knowledge and steadfast commitment to expanding the private brand scope,” he says.

That commitment emanates from the private brands industry, Sheffer says. “I don’t know if there are any other industries where you have the soup-to-nuts ability to influence like the way you can in private brands,” she says. “That has been really inspiring to me.”

Crystal Butler/Encore Associates

Crystal Butler made a quick and positive impression shortly after she joined Encore Associates as director of product and category development in 2016.

San Ramon, Calif.-based Encore Associates is a sales and marketing firm that specializes in store brand product development and the launch of new items into the grocery industry. In mid-2017, Butler was given the opportunity to direct the general merchandise seasonal business for a major grocery retailer.

“Crystal immediately saw the potential of developing a cohesive private label category and product strategy, and developed an own brands strategy across more than 10 unique categories,” says Linda Nordgren, CEO and president of Encore Associates, who nominated Butler for the award. “She created own brand seasonal icons and developed designs for over 300 products.”

Butler also formed a global team of domestic and international suppliers of the products, which ranged from dining and drink ware, plush items, table clothes, kitchen towels and novel accessories for each season as well as the holidays. She traveled to Asia twice to meet with factory representatives to ensure the retailer’s own brand collection met all quality and design expectations consistently. 

“Her inspirational leadership defined the own brands product strategy, kept the team on focus and delivered a stunning, innovative new growth business,” Nordgren says. “Crystal’s leadership was the foundation for the team’s achievement.”

For Butler, it was all in a day’s work. And while thankful for the recognition, she credits her team for getting the project done.

“I might be the driving force of this, but it really takes the support of all the other teams we have to work with to make this happen,” Butler says. “I’m very proud of [the honor] for sure, but it definitely couldn’t happen without teamwork. I want to share it with everybody.”

Butler, who has been in the grocery industry for 26 years and in private brands for 11 years, says her favorite part of her job is “starting each season fresh by creating concepts, researching trends and working with retailers and factories to bring those creative ideas to life through product development, packaging, supply chain, retail operations and merchandising.”

Butler also likes the challenge of teaming with retailers to help them differentiate. 

“[Retailers] really have a great opportunity to differentiate if they have quality own brand items,” she says.

Butler puts the onus on herself to stay up with
and ahead of trends to help retailers differentiate. She has embraced what private brands have become and will become.

“Crystal’s passion for developing quality, on-trend products is coupled with her desire to create an exceptional customer experience — an experience of joyful discovery each new season at the grocery aisle,” Nordgren says.

Vicki Smith/TreeHouse Foods

When Vicki Smith began her work life at 12 years old — she cleaned her neighbors’ homes — she adopted a hard work ethic and a customer-first attitude.

“Every single job I did was customer-focused,” Smith says. “I always wanted to make other people’s lives easier.”

Today, Smith is the enterprise resource planning (ERP) business architect of finance for Oak Brook, Ill.-based TreeHouse Foods, a food processing company that produces private brand packaged foods. She is still all about making lives easier — in this case her co-workers at TreeHouse Foods. It’s why Smith is being honored with this award.

Last year, the company announced its TreeHouse 2020 restructuring program, a multi-year plan to fully integrate the business and reduce its cost structure in order to invest in market-differentiated capabilities to serve the evolving needs of its customers that are focused on and committed to their own brands. As part of that program, Smith was charged with kicking off and leading a transformational initiative for the finance and accounting department called S/4HANA Central Finance, a new and cutting-edge SAP (systems, applications and products) application that harmonizes, streamlines and centralizes near real-time financial information from all of the company’s ERP systems.

“It is a central hub for information and reporting,” says Alexis Ward, the ERP information technology director of SAP at TreeHouse Foods, who nominated Smith for the award. “With central finance, TreeHouse Foods will have the right data in the right place at the right time. This will enable us to tighten our controls, spend more time doing high-value work and enhance our employees’ experience. Vicki has been instrumental since the start of this project. Her knowledge and expertise is helping make sure this project is done correct and runs smoothly.”

Smith is not bragging when she says she has “a unique skill set.” She does. It helps that she loves what she does.

“I understand the business and the processes, and I can design and implement technical solutions for people,” she says. “I embraced the challenge.”

Ward says Smith, who has spent six years with TreeHouse Foods, has partnered with the company’s finance and accounting teams to build solutions that are reliable and accurate.

“She is an expert in SAP finance and making it work in the store brands industry,” Ward says.

Smith, who previously worked for two branded companies, says she enjoys the store brands industry because it offers “true entrepreneurship.”

“I just like the newness of it all,” she says. “It’s always changing.”

Ward says Smith is one of the key reasons TreeHouse Foods continues to have successful information technology implementations.

“Her work ethic, drive for success and partnership with the business has helped give the finance organization at TreeHouse Foods the tools to run our business productively,” Ward says.

Heidi Knapp/Whole Foods Market

Heidi Knapp moved from Keene, N.H., to Austin, Texas, in 2007 with a desire to work for Austin-based Whole Foods Market. Fast-forward 11 years, and it’s evident that the retailer is glad that Knapp moved to town and came knocking on its door for employment.

Knapp is the senior logistics analyst for Whole Foods Market’s exclusive brands, comprised of its 365 Everyday Value line and Whole Foods Market items. When Whole Foods was acquired by Amazon last year, Knapp was presented with the challenge of quickly incorporating its exclusive brands onto

According to Chris Wood, senior coordinator of logistics for Whole Foods Market’s exclusive brands, Knapp pulled off the assignment without a hitch. It’s why Wood nominated Knapp and why she was selected for this honor.

“Heidi’s role of providing key product information for the exclusive brands was instrumental and made the launch of over 1,600 items onto possible, almost overnight,” Wood says. “Her composure, drive and attention to the many details to execute this accomplishment was an inspiration to others, particularly given the incredibly quick timeline.”

Knapp was eager for the opportunity to lead the project.

“I looked at it as a great way to get our items out to even more consumers” she says. “I was ecstatic.”

Wood says Knapp is “organized, flexible, creative and always dependable” in helping work through any challenges.

Knapp says she never felt overwhelmed about the project.

“I look at big projects like this as fun and challenging,” she adds. “I take pride in ownership of anything that is handed to me. I want to do a really good job.”

While the project was “a whirlwind,” things have settled down some for Knapp. “This past summer, we focused on tightening up processes and procedures,” she says.

Knapp looks back on her big move to Austin. Her kids were grown, and she wanted to pursue the bucket-list item on her list: working at Whole Foods Market.

“I moved down on a wing and a prayer to find a new journey,” Knapp says. “I’m glad I did.”

Click here to see photographs of the Top Women in Store Brands.