Skip navigation

Real-World Classrooms

Food retailers are becoming more involved in cultivating a new crop of leaders through university food marketing programs. Although food retailing remains a tough sell for many students because of negative perceptions of working conditions in the industry, retailers and their associations seem to be taking a more active role in the development of their future management through various food marketing

Food retailers are becoming more involved in cultivating a new crop of leaders through university food marketing programs.

Although food retailing remains a tough sell for many students because of negative perceptions of working conditions in the industry, retailers and their associations seem to be taking a more active role in the development of their future management through various food marketing programs around the country.

With the transition of the Food Marketing Institute Show to an alternating-year format beginning in 2009, FMI is working with university food marketing programs to develop an educational forum to be staged in odd-numbered years while its traditional booth show will be presented in even-numbered years.

In the first educational forum in particular, in 2009, the focus of the program will be on developing leadership in the industry — a topic that lends itself to the participation of the nation's various university programs. The topic was chosen in part because of concerns that as the population swell of Baby Boomers retires, industry companies will struggle to find enough talented managers to run their businesses.

Over the past few years, additional partnerships have formed between associations, companies and the schools that school officials say are helping foster more interest in the industry among young students and at the same time giving them real-world experience tackling industry issues both from the manufacturer side and the retailer side.

The programs may be helping students overcome some of the trepidation they may have about choosing food distribution, and especially retailing, as a vocation.

“The food industry isn't top of mind when you ask students what's an exciting sector to spend a career,” said Ed McLaughlin, director of the Food Industry Management Program at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. “I think we have to be frank about that, because those of us who understand the industry know how challenging, exciting and gratifying a career in the food industry can be. But that's not a top career goal on most students' list when they are 18 years old.”

The problem is especially acute for food retailers, he explained, in part because CPG companies are often seen as having deeper pockets and more opportunities, and also because their brands are more well-recognized.

“If I say P&G or Campbell's Soup or PepsiCo, every student in the world knows who we're talking about,” he said. “If I say Ukrop's, students at Cornell have never heard of it, or if I say Schnucks or Bashas' or H-E-B, all of which are outstanding companies, Cornell students have never heard of them because they are regional companies.

“The other thing is the work schedule — you start working for the retailers, and you have to work weekends, at least one day, and you have a rotating schedule,” he added. “Students have this image that they are going to be walking around the store with blood on their aprons, and that's not why they spend four years in the Ivy Leagues. I think it's a challenge for the industry to help students understand that there are really gratifying and challenging careers with competitive salaries and challenging work environments. We're working with a lot of retailers pretty closely to help communicate that more effectively to our students.”

Industry Interaction

One of the ways Cornell and other schools seek to spark interest is by getting students to interact with industry executives. Cornell schedules several top-level managers to be guest speakers each semester and often lines up informal discussion meetings with small groups of students during the executives' visits.

This year alone in his introductory marketing class, McLaughlin has scheduled the chief executive officer from Frito-Lay, the CEO from Campbell's Soup, the CEO from Archer Daniels Midland, an executive from Wal-Mart and a leading retail design consultant, among others.

Cornell and other schools around the country also try to send students to as many trade shows as possible, including FMI and the National Association of Convenience Stores Show, among others. Next year Cornell students might also attend the National Association of Chain Drug Stores Marketplace conference for the first time, McLaughlin said.

An FMI spokesman said the association usually has about 100 students from several universities at its annual show in May, where they work in various capacities, such as assisting in some of the educational sessions. In addition, FMI provides a resume center at the show where these students can seek to find jobs with the companies in attendance.

FMI also has a long history — in fact, it dates back to FMI's predecessor associations — of partnering with colleges and universities to offer training to industry leaders. It currently partners with Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo for an annual management operations training session each July, in which about 40 industry professionals participate. It also helped create a program at Portland State University in Oregon for a leadership development session, which the school now runs separately from FMI.

Tom Gilpatrick, executive director of the Food Industry Leadership Center at PSU, said he's seen more interest on the part of industry associations in working closely with the university programs at different levels, from the introductory stage to more advanced training for professionals.

“I think there is a need for education material, particularly on the front lines,” he said. “So I think looking at a multi-tiered relationship between the industry's education needs and the educational community is a smart strategy.”

He pointed out that in addition to FMI, the National Grocers Association, Arlington, Va., also has been speaking with several schools about how to enhance training for its membership.

St. Joseph's Cooperative Program

At St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, the school has long worked with local retailers and manufacturers — and some not so local — to give real-world experience to students and bring the industry into the classroom.

One of the most successful of these programs has been its five-year cooperative education program, in which students spend three semesters working for three different industry companies. The program, launched about eight years ago, has recently been attracting some fresh interest from retailers, including Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans, which has hired students through the program, and Supervalu's Acme chain, which is exploring the possibility of getting involved, according to Jerry Bradley, SJU program administrator. Price Chopper, based in Schenectady, N.Y., has also expressed interest in the program, he said.

Other retailers who have participated include Ahold's Giant of Carlisle, Pa., chain, which has long been involved, and locally based Genuardi's, which was a major participant when the program first began, before the chain's acquisition by Safeway.

On the manufacturing side, with such firms as Hershey, based nearby in Hershey, Pa., and others, such as locally based Lehigh Valley Dairies, students often begin their first semester going on sales calls, and later transition into category management and other more complex areas, such as new-product development. Information Resources Inc., Chicago, and other industry-affiliated companies also have hired through the program.

The cooperative program gives students some store-level experience that can help prepare them for corporate work at the retail level, Bradley said.

“With the retailers, you still have to convince the kids of what other jobs there are out there,” said Bradley. “That's something we're working on now. The students are getting some of their store experiences while they are co-opping, and then the companies are identifying to the kids the opportunities they have when they get out of school.”

He cited Genuardi's for establishing the model for student participation at the retailer level, with the programs at Giant-Carlisle and Wegmans modeled after it.

“They get the kids exposed to all the different departments; they work with the managers, go to meetings, and see what the marketing people do,” he said.

The program has proved fruitful both for the corporations and the students who get involved, Bradley said.

Although students must be sold on the idea of attending school for five years instead of four, the concept of earning money to help defray tuition costs and the prospect of gaining industry experience have helped convince about 16 or 17 students each year to sign up. The current group of participants includes 75 students, or about 20% of the entire enrollment in the school's food marketing program.

Students who complete the five-year cooperative curriculum often end up getting hired by the companies they worked for during school, and at salaries averaging about $49,000, plus bonuses — higher than the average starting salaries for students as a whole, Bradley said. In addition, he said students can earn nearly that much — about $42,000-$48,000 — during the three paid work experiences they participate in as part of the program.

“A lot of them are making $13-$19 per hour,” he said. “That's a major reason why students join the program.”

For the companies that hire these students for a semester, the program provides a chance for them to scout new talent and develop a pipeline of recruits.

“It doesn't matter when you worked with the company — some people go back to the place they worked as a sophomore,” Bradley said. “It works out well for the companies because they identify people and keep track of the students, and it eliminates a lot of the guesswork in their hiring.”

About 65%-70% of the graduates end up working for a company that they worked for during the program, he said. The experience they get — not only the real-world work experience, but the experience of going through the job-interview process as well — prepares them for the interviews they give to land post-graduate work.

In addition to the local work experience, some of the students also spend a semester working abroad for food companies in Ireland. While overseas, students also complete coursework that involves preparing a marketing plan for bringing a product that is sold overseas into the U.S.

“These kids are excited about being in food marketing, and it's spreading over to our students in other programs,” said Nancy Childs, who was recently named chair of the food marketing program at St. Joseph's. “So this is a win-win in ways that we didn't foresee, and it's certainly been valuable for the kids — gives them a way to spread the cost of education, and hands-on industry learning is really where it's at, especially in today's industry, where it's really data-driven.”

St. Joseph's, like the other food marketing programs around the country, also continues to be active in bringing industry leaders onto campus. This year the school staged its first “Food Industry Summit” on campus, where several industry executives, including Food Lion CEO Rick Anicetti, addressed students.

“That created a huge amount of excitement,” Childs said, noting that the school plans to run the event again in the future.

“This kind of activity has a spillover effect,” she said. “These students can look at these executives, and it gives them a new dimension on the industry. I think a lot of students associate retail with hourly wage jobs, so you've got to educate that young adult that retail has a lot more than just the high school summer job.”

This semester, Winn-Dixie CEO Peter Lynch will be speaking with students, and others are lined up as well.

Marketing Competition

Another program that is giving students some hands-on industry experience is conducted by California Polytechnic Institute, Pomona. Next April, it will sponsor the fourth annual Western Collegiate Food Marketing Competition — an event at which teams of students majoring in business, marketing, food marketing and/or agribusiness at different colleges and universities put together 20-minute marketing presentations for a panel of judges.

According to Nancy Merlino, a professor of food marketing and agribusiness management at Cal Poly and the originator of the competition, “It's a real-world application of what they've learned in the classroom and a way to demonstrate how exciting the food industry can be.

“It prepares students for the rigors of full-time employment by having them complete a project that simulates expectations of the real-world workforce by putting all the hours of classwork together for a tangible outcome,” she said. “The leadership skills they exude in the competition are imperative for success. Confidence is what sets apart many employees for a journey to the top of the corporate ladder.”

Merlino said she likes to invite freshmen and sophomores to watch the competition “because when they see it, it turns them on.”

“As a professor, I'm successful when my students are successful and happy in their jobs,” she said.

Although the competition is open to students at two- and four-year colleges from all over the country, the products they develop for their presentations must be marketable to consumers west of the Mississippi or, in a new category that was added last year, to an overseas consumer. Teams can win up to $500.

Of the products developed by the student teams over the years, only one — whose idea originated with a would-be producer — has actually been developed, Merlino said: Frooshi, a sushi roll for dessert.

Other products designed and marketed for the competition have included yogurt-covered bananas; a “tool-kit” containing cookies, frosting and sprinkles; strawberries with whipped gourmet dark chocolate; and a millet bar for export to Japan.

Sponsors of the competition include Kroger, Minute Maid, Hidden Villa Ranch, NuCal Foods and the Western Association of Food Chains. Judges over the years have come from a variety of retailing and manufacturing companies.

What started with five schools in 2005 grew to nine in 2006 and 13 last year. The 2008 contest is scheduled in mid-April on the Cal Poly Pomona campus. Additional details are available at

WAFC is also involved as a primary sponsor for two industry programs:

  • The Food Industry Management Program at the University of Southern California, which it has sponsored by 50 years — a 14-week program for high-potential middle-management employees working for food retailing, wholesaling and manufacturing companies. According to Carol Christianson, executive director of WAFC, these executives, whose average age is 37 and whose average time in the industry is 12 years, leave their full-time jobs for a fall semester to become full-time students at the School of Business on the USC campus.

  • The retail management certificate program, a 10-course college-level program — sponsored by WAFC and its member companies at 110 participating community colleges in the 14 Western states — with a curriculum developed through a collaborative effort among several industry and college professionals that encompasses several business essentials. Although many community colleges offer similar curricula, WAFC endorses and recognizes only those that have adopted courses and guidelines consistent with those established by the association, Christianson said.

According to Christianson, “These two programs provide the food industry a concentrated, accredited curriculum to further develop and retain talented associates. The vast spectrum of students range from entry-level personnel who have not considered the food industry as a career choice to high-potential tenured individuals on track for greater success.”

Executive Training

St. Joseph's executive training programs also are expanding, Childs told SN. The school added an MBA in food marketing about a year ago — augmenting the traditional master's in food marketing with an alternative that includes more coursework in finance, accounting and management in addition to marketing.

“That has been enormously successful,” she said. “We're seeing that approaching 50-50 for new enrollees.”

Another successful program SJU has conducted each year is a training program with the Private Label Manufacturers Association, in which executives in the private-label industry can take a intensive week-long training program that exposes them to many of the same principles that their counterparts who specialize in branded products receive. It has attracted an increasing number of retailers, said Brian Sharoff, president of the New York-based PLMA.

“People in the private-label sector don't necessarily get to study or get to know their own industry,” he said in explaining the need for the program in the industry. “The branded people have lots of programs for understanding brands and brand marketing and image-making and everything else associated with brands, but there are no comparable programs stressing private label.

“So with that in mind, we wanted to put together courses that would fill the gap: No. 1, we wanted them to understand the history of private label — where did it come from, why do we have it — and we wanted them to understand what the current retail landscape is, because private label is intrinsically involved in what retailers are doing, almost by definition.”

The program, which has been in place for about seven years, is structured as a one-week training session. It includes three levels of coursework, beginning with the most basic level the first year, followed by a more complex program that students can take the second year, and a third year that involves role-playing of real-life scenarios in which participants enact hypothetical interactions between retailers and suppliers of private-label products.

Sharoff said the first-year program, known as the core curriculum, covers such topics as supply chain management, consumer trends, retail advertising and promotion of private label, new product development and international private-label trends.

“By year two, we realized a lot of students were interested and wanted more, so we created a second tier called advanced curriculum,” he explained. “That one stresses leadership. It's nice to be smart, but you've got to exercise leadership in your company to make this work — you can be smart but passive, but we wanted smart but aggressive.”

The third year, in which participants act out the manufacturer-retailer interactions, is called Retail Colloquy.

About 400 people in the private-label industry have gone through the program. Although interest at first came primarily from the manufacturer side, recently executive participation has improved, and now the program includes about 40% retailers, Sharoff said.
Addiitonal reporting: Elliot Zwiebach