Interview with Becky Wahlund from Land O’Lakes

By: Erik Jones

Featuring: Becky Wahlund, Director of Test Kitchens and Consumer Affairs @ Land O’Lakes Inc.

What is your job at Land O’Lakes?
I am the director of the Test Kitchens and Consumer Affairs. I have two Marketing support groups that report to me. Consumer Affairs is easy to understand because it’s the function that answers the consumer and customer complaints or inquiries. We provide solutions, answer questions, solve problems, and at the end of the day we want to build loyalty.

The Test Kitchens is a group that provides support for Marketing. So anytime is food involved, we’re involved in the project. We have lots of different ways of supporting initiatives; new product development, packaging innovation, packaging directions, also developing content for websites including recipes, articles, frequently asked questions, ingredient information, blogs, and more. We also have Standard Operating Procedures that we develop. We use our products in the applications that the end users would use them in, whether it’s a consumer, a K-12 operation, a healthcare dietician, or a restaurant operator.

What are the main responsibilities in your current job?
I am responsible for leading these two teams. Part of what I do is write an annual business plan. I look at what our internal customer needs are going to be based on their business plans. Then I write my plan on what we are going to deliver to help those marketing plans be successful.

I am responsible for the overall structure of the department; what skillsets we need, what roles need to be filled, do we have the right people in the right positions.

I am often involved in more strategic level projects. So when we are looking at platform level development as opposed to an individual product, I’ll be brought in to support that development. If we do some marketing research on a broad view on a particular segment, then I am brought in to work on that cross functional team.

The other area of my job is to be a goodwill ambassador for Land O’Lakes to the industry. I represent the company, especially the Test Kitchens and Consumer Affairs, at industry events and conferences. And I am often a spokesperson doing PR on TV and radio when there is food content involved.

What’s the best part of your job? The worst?
The best part? Well, I have two answers to that. One is the variety. We do so many different things that no two days, months, quarters, or years are alike, which I find fun. I love learning new things, experiencing new things, and getting opportunities that many jobs don’t have. So that’s one thing I really like. The second thing is I love having an amazing team. I have worked really hard to develop credibility within the organization and the industry for my department, and I love having a team that rocks. They know what they’re doing and they’re good at it. That credibility gets reinforced with every project we work on.

So, that’s two things that I like…what’s the worst? You know what, to be perfectly honest I just don’t love the yearly HR requirements, the performance reviews and all of that. It is part of the job, but it really isn’t something I love to do. I believe that performance feedback should happen often and on an ongoing basis. It’s more effective that way. You’re at a meeting, something happens, you want to talk about it after the meeting, and you get it resolved and you brainstorm ways to improve and do it better instead of waiting for some quarterly or yearly review. Having to stop once a year and go through a very systematic process…I just don’t love that piece.

Please summarize how you got to where you are today?
I have always loved cooking and baking, and especially baking from my childhood on. I baked with my mother, my grandmother, and I even had a friend that on summer days off we’d always be baking. It was really fun. So I’ve always enjoyed food. Also, I always did very well in the math and sciences in school. So it was a very natural combination. I have an undergraduate in Food Science with a minor in Business from the University of Minnesota, and then I actually was hired by Land O’Lakes for an internship my last semester in college. I finished my internship, and they had me keep coming to work every day. Finally a position opened, and I was hired permanently in the Test Kitchens. I worked in a number of different roles in the Test Kitchens.

After 13 years I decided I wanted to understand the business side more, so I went back to school to get my MBA at night while working during the day. I had an internal internship in marketing here at Land O’Lakes, and was then hired full time in marketing. I spent the next 7+ years in Marketing at Land O’Lakes. Then I was asked to do that whole “full-circle” thing, come back in the leadership position over the Test Kitchens, and pick up Consumer Affairs, and I’ve done that since. So that’s how I ended up where I am. Which is kind of fun because the role I’m in now really marries those two passion areas: my interest in food, and my knowledge and experience in the business side of the equation. Those together make me more effective in this role than if I just had one or the other.

What advice do you have for me as I begin my career?
Never stop learning. Whether it be formal learning or informal, taking additional classes, exploring new fields of study like business, or deep diving into some area of the food world that you’re interested in or that would benefit whatever food company you end up working for. Never stop learning, and the other thing is don’t be afraid to do something new and try something new. I think about what happened for me, where I was very competent and good at what I did in the Test Kitchens, and I could have just stayed in that role, but I knew going back to school and trying something new would benefit me and the company in the future.

What are your current career goals and aspirations, and how are they different from when you began your career?
That’s a really interesting question because I’m getting to be towards the end of my career. At least, I’m on the other side of the curve to you! So I think I will stay in this role at Land O’Lakes. My goals will be to never stop growing, learning, and trying new things. I want to always be more effective and adding benefit to the company. Saying yes to things that are maybe a new and different experience for me. For example, I’ve just accepted an advisory role to our Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee. Things like this are fun, and help me to avoid being stagnant. The other piece for me is figuring out what is my next step. If I’m here for another 5-10 years then what do I do? If I end up “retiring” from Land O’Lakes I can’t see myself doing nothing, so exploring what would be next: teach, volunteer, or work for a non-profit? I don’t see myself leaving in the next few years, but I know I’ll leave sooner than later and it will come fast because your whole career goes fast, you blink and it’s over! When I was young and new in my career, it was all about understanding deeper to build my knowledge.  Now it’s more about broadly understanding different parts of the company and outside of the company.

How do you measure success in your current role?
When my internal business partners are satisfied and even delighted by the work that my team delivers, then I think we’re successful. When we can do such a good job at what we do that we delight our internal customers, and also our external customers. I think about Consumer Affairs, when we delight a consumer, and exceed their expectations, make them smile, when they contact us with a problem and we have a solution, then we’ve succeeded. And of course when we help the company meet its commitments and meet the target numbers that have been planned out then of course we’re successful, but personally I think it’s more about delivering and over-delivering to customers.

Are you a member of any professional organizations? How have professional organizations helped you in your career?
I am a member of a number, although not the RCA. I am a member of IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals). Earlier in my career it was a wonderful place to learn about new ingredients. They’ve changed their emphasis, so it isn’t as true now as it was. It is still a great place to network with likeminded people and influencers. So the people influencing consumer; chefs, cookbook authors, teachers, etc. Now it is the one organization where I have the opportunity to interact with peers in the industry, other people who are responsible for test kitchens. I am also a member of SOCAP (Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals). This is really kind of the same thing. When I was newer in this role and it was my first exposure to consumer affairs, it was a place where I could go to learn the language and the jargon, find out what were other companies doing. Networking with my peers in the industry gives me an opportunity to send out an email to ask questions when I need help finding a solution. Finally, a local organization FCSP (Food and Consumer Science Professionals). This is a local organization that has learning sessions to educate, where I can recruit consultants, interact with students, and share my experience and advice with younger professionals who may be just starting their careers. This also gave me the opportunity to take on leadership roles early in my career where I could learn leadership and management skills that I could then bring to my job, like running committees or events.

What outside-of-work or extracurricular experiences/activities do you enjoy?
Well I love to cook and bake! I am still always baking! I love spending time with my kids, I have two grown kids who are both married, and I have two grandchildren. I also spend time with my parents. I’m a very social person, so I spend time with friends and travel. I volunteer at my church. I love gardening and reading.

What do you think is the most important thing you do, or the most important part of your job?
My team represents the viewpoint of the end user, either the consumer or the distributor/chef/operator. We use the equipment they use, the ingredients from the same sources they use, the same techniques and tools. Our job is to represent them. If you think of consumer affairs, we’re the consumer’s voice into the company. We hear from consumers if something is working or not working. For example, this lid isn’t working and here’s why. Or this product is loved but they wish it would do this, or it came in a different size.

Would your boss agree?
I think so, but that’s a good question to ask her. But I think she would.

What’s one thing you wish you would have done differently?
You know, I am unusual because I’ve been with the same organization for 34 years. I think it may have benefited me and made me better-rounded if I had moved organizations. There were times when I did interview outside the company, I did look.  But there was always an opportunity within Land O’Lakes that was more intriguing than anything I found elsewhere. That was part of the reason I stayed was that I have been able to move around within Land O’Lakes. I change departments, roles, responsibilities. Just about the time I started to think “time to start doing something different,” a new opportunity presented itself. I don’t regret not leaving the organization, but if I decided today to change organizations it would be hard. I actually had an interview once where the person who was interviewing me, I had been with Land O’Lakes about 15 years, said, “Well I’m not going to hold that against you.” That really struck me because I never thought it would be held against me. I think today’s new graduate is going to move companies many times.

I am getting a minor in Nutrition in addition to my Bachelors in Culinology; what other disciplines would you suggest studying to maximize my value as an employee?
Business. Whether you’re for-profit, non-profit, public stock company, or co-op, it’s all about business. Understanding the whole financial piece, the marketing piece, there is much to be gained by learning about business. Often those of us in the art and science based programs, the business piece isn’t a part of our education. And yet you still have to understand accounting, bookkeeping, marketing yourself. There are elements of business that are applied everywhere. Especially as you move up in an organization, the expectation is you do understand the business side.

There are many opportunities that go beyond the traditional roles of culinary arts. Manufacturing, sales, R&D, test kitchens, etc. There are many opportunities in this industry beyond just cooking. That said, I think time in the kitchen benefits you because you understand the world from a chef’s viewpoint, and that helps bring credibility.

Interviewed on: Date: January 26, 2016

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