Future of the food industry is being shaped by experts at USC

USC Marshall preps leaders for key challenges in a rapidly changing environment

February 15, 2018 Julie Tilsner

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Sixty years later, it’s even better.

In 1958, members of the Western Association of Grocers, a trade group for the food and grocery industry in 14 Western states, decided to fund a scholarship that would pay for promising young industry executives to attend business school classes in management, leadership and finance. The ideal home for this program? USC.

Flash forward to 2018 at the USC Marshall School of Business and its Food Industry Management program (FIM), which will welcome its 60th cohort.

“Sixty years ago, Dean Robert Dockson saw a great opportunity when he was approached to partner with industry,” said USC Marshall Dean James G. Ellis. “Thanks to his vision and the dedication of our team over the years, we are now welcoming our 60th FIM class. This is what a successful partnership looks like.”

More than 2,000 students have come through the program since 1959.

“FIM has trained many who have gone on to become senior leaders in the industry,” said Cynthia McCloud, FIM program director and a 1990 FIM alumna.

On the fast track

Students typically have 15 or more years of experience and have proven themselves to be on a company’s leadership track. They come from food retailers and wholesalers (mostly major and regional supermarket chains) as well as from packaged goods manufacturers.

The companies send their best and brightest and then pay for housing, fees and other costs, allowing students to immerse themselves in their studies. Once on campus, the curriculum includes courses in leadership, strategy, marketing, finance and business communication, all taught by USC faculty.

Each semester also brings a roster of industry-leading speakers. This year’s class will meet with Sarah Wehling, vice president and general manager at Costco; Dan Sanders, president of Sprouts; and Valerie Oswalt, president North American Sales at Mondelez International.

“The difference between January and April is profound,” McCloud said. “There’s a polish, and there is confidence. They’ve also learned how to more effectively communicate at an executive level.”

Such polish is paying off for the industry. But perhaps more valuable is the insight that comes from putting about 30 mid-career industry executives from competing companies and industry segments into a room together and asking them to explain what’s coming next.

A changing business

Who would have foreseen buying Whole Foods and changing the way people receive their groceries? Meal delivery, meal kits, etc.? FIM students did.

It’s an investment in people and our industry’s future that is unmeasurable.

Mike Hendry

“Our industry, our customers and our associates are changing rapidly,” said Mike Hendry, executive vice president of marketing and merchandising for Northgate Gonzalez Market. “The FIM program takes vibrant and rising leaders in our industry and prepares them to meet the challenge of those changes. It’s an investment in people and our industry’s future that is unmeasurable.”

Each FIM cohort breaks into teams and works on a capstone project over the course of the semester. Students are tasked with identifying, researching and offering solutions for a problem or opportunity facing the industry in the next five to 10 years.

Students present their findings before a roomful of industry leaders at the end of the semester.

“It’s like our product launch,” McCloud said. “We’re saying to the industry, ‘Here is the next generation of leadership. It would be smart to listen to them.’”

Drag the slider to see a photo of the first cohort and the current cohort

In recent years, the teams’ findings have identified all of the factors currently disrupting the industry: data-analytics, predictive models and artificial intelligence, creating more personalized shopping experiences for customers.

“The future is here,” McCloud said.

In May, the 60th class travels to the WAFC annual convention in San Antonio, where the two top teams will present their research, which today has never been more relevant … and urgent.

“Everything is going to have to move faster and our industry requires more innovation than ever before,” McCloud said. “It’s a brand-new game out there.”

A full scholarship

FIM has become a much vied-for benefit within the food industry for good reason.

“Every student gets a full scholarship to the four-month program, courtesy of the WAFC and its board of directors,” said McCloud, referring to the Western Association of Food Chains.

WAFC-member companies that donate to the scholarship fund include Nestle, Kellogg’s, Kraft, Frito-Lay and others.

“Rather than paying dues, they’re investing in future leaders of our business,” said Carole Christianson, chief operating officer for WAFC.

Graduates of the program agree with that assessment.

“The program propelled me to a successful 40-year career in the industry,” said Kevin Curry, grocery sales manager for Albertsons/Safeway, who also attended the program in 1990. “It allowed me to develop skills and practices that I use today as I try to mentor, teach, coach and learn from others in the industry to assure it will flourish for years to come.”