CXO Series: Something to Believe in

Tristan Simpson knows who she is and what she believes in, and this thoughtful CMO is leveraging that self-awareness to create a culture of success at a multi-million dollar food brand

“It’s about knowing who you are, and what you stand for,” remarks Tristan Simpson, who serves as CMO of Ready Pac Foods, an $800 million U.S. company that makes convenient fresh meal solutions including prepackaged salads, fresh-cut produce, and sandwiches and wraps. With a national presence and wide customer base in the U.S., Ready Pac Foods has had private equity ownership for more than 9 years by HIG Capital. That is, until the company attracted an international suitor, Bonduelle.

This March, the family-owned French company acquired Ready Pac, making Ready Pac a wholly owned subsidiary of Bonduelle and growing Bonduelle’s, a seven-generation owned and operated company, revenue to more than $3 billion U.S. Simpson now oversees strategic initiatives within marketing, research and development, corporate communications and creative for what is now Bonduelle’s largest division.

Standing out in a big family

“So here’s a quick bio,” Simpson offers, “I’m one of 13 kids, 10 of which are adopted. I’m the third natural born from the top and then there are 10 younger than me who are adopted. Our ages today range from 18 to 51, and what I realized growing up in that environment is that I had to have my own brand. I didn’t call it a brand at that time, but I knew I had to have a voice.”tristan

As she grew her idea of a brand, Simpson made one goal paramount: To deliver some authenticity about who she was as a brand. This has served her well, as she has moved from roles with increasing amounts of responsibility from product manager to vice president of marketing for companies such as Smart & Final, Pandol Bros., Frieda’s Inc., Sun Pacific and more. And this doesn’t even include her current role as CMO at Ready Pac.

“Whether I’m working for Ready Pac or in my past roles at other companies, even in my own personal life, I want to give a piece of me in that experience,” she says. “And that helps me really connect with the companies that I’ve worked for. I’ve been at Ready Pac for more than six years, and I’m inspired by the mission that we’ve set out as well.

“One of the things that we are very clear about at Ready Pac is who we are—our identity is our mission” she says. “And our mission is around giving people the freedom to eat healthier. It inspires us to do what we do every day, and it comes through in ways that deliver that experience internally with our work force and externally with our consumers. Our purpose as a brand is to provide consumers with options, healthy options that when they are in need of something convenient that they can feel good eating, that we are able to deliver that experience to them.”

And it is a mission that aligns well with Ready Pac’s parent company. “This milestone acquisition for Bonduelle is a key step toward achieving our strategic ambition—VegeGo! 2025—to become the world reference in well living through vegetable products,” says Bonduelle chairman and CEO Christophe Bonduelle. “This acquisition will strengthen Bonduelle’s international footprint and dramatically change our profile, offering new opportunities for Ready Pac Foods’ business partners and employees, while delivering significant value to Bonduelle shareholders.”

Invest in what delivers the best ROI

Ready Pac’s employees, Simpson explains, are the company’s strongest assets. “Where and how to make investments is about driving profitability at its core,” she says. “If you look deeply inside an organization, you’ll find that it starts with the people. Yes, that’s probably a little cliché, but it really is less about the product and more about the people, and investing in the time and in human resources around those folks.

“It’s probably one of the most challenging areas, because you are not just dealing with processes and paper work,” she adds. “You are dealing with people, who have emotions and needs and wants themselves.”

Simpson does admit, “That’s something I personally struggled with in my early days here in Ready Pac. I wanted to eagerly get to where we wanted to go so quickly, but I didn’t slow down enough to look at where we were. I had to look at the people on the team, the talent on the team and where to best place those resources instead of just driving for results in that vision. And it wasn’t until I stopped, did I realize that I had to make some changes around that structure in the team, and then set processes in place that I was able to focus them on the vision and set them up to be successful.”

The power of quiet

Like many successful leaders, Simpson credits a concerted effort to build white space in her life to much of her creativity—even though it’s productive whitespace. “Some of the most inspirational thoughts I have are when I’m running—when I’m able to just completely get into a place where my mind shuts down and let whatever comes up rise to the salad linesurface,” she explains.

She takes personal accountability to deliver an environment that also allows whitespace, which gives great ideas space to bloom, and to encourage self-reflection among the Ready Pac Innovation Team. “You need to see where you want to go and keep that vision alive, but oftentimes it’s really hard to just look down at your toes and remember where you are,” Simpson says. She also adds that in addition to developing the right mix of push and reflection time, leaders must also develop a particular type of internal working dynamic.

Simpson advises, “Create an environment that’s safe for people to make mistakes, where they could be humble and vulnerable in that space.” An understanding that while not every idea will be a good one helps teams keep moving and striving. Simpson has observed that this type of internal working dynamic helps employees stop thinking about what can’t be done and start striving for more. Speaking of her team, Simpson adds, “they don’t accept that something can’t be done; they don’t let anything get in their way.”

The third characteristic of a company culture that encourages innovation is a bit of a “survivalist’s mentality.” Simpson explains, “Another thing that I try to hone within my team, and this may come back to my personal experience within my large family, is perseverance.  When it’s a do or die situation, it’s amazing what you actually can come up with.”

Innovations at shelf

Simpson’s process has enabled Ready Pac to create new products that continue to excite consumers and re-imagine product categories. “The chopped salad kits are on fire,” Simpson reports. “They’ve had 52% year-over-year growth and certainly not only with the chopped but also the growth of organics. We were the first to market with an organic salad kit line when we launched that in June of last year, and it has created a new segment within a category that combines the need for organic foods and this huge trend on chopped kits.”bistro bowl

Her team has also taken learnings from social media and launched limited-time offerings with bold or distinctive flavors. “Looking at the success of Starbucks and their Pumpkin Spice latte, and how the brand leveraged that to really get into the spirit of the season,” Simpson says. “We launched a Pumpkin Spice Bistro Bowl last year and repeated it again this past fall. This is our biggest product segment—the Bistro salad bowl line, which includes convenient meal solutions with the fork, dressing and everything included.

“And then upcoming, for summer, we will debut a brand new recipe in Bistro Bowls,” she adds. “I think this is our best recipe yet! It’s a roasted corn and pulled pork Bistro Bowl, which will be first to market with that meat protein, and that’s really about highlighting the spirit of summer. Oh, and we launched a line of organic salads that include superfoods, it’s called ElevAte, which is very focused on functional nutrition.”

Ready Pac is also planning to launch a new line of prepared meals for its grocery customers, which delivers an element of customization to the instant consumption food items. The new line will feature soups and wraps in a kit format that consumers can customize and go. “Our corporate executive chef Jeff Haines has created such a combination of flavors and textures for shoppers to create an amazing meal,” Simpson shares, as further evidence of the team’s eagerness to strive for more. “Jeff works with our research and development team to really deliver that dining experience from a chef’s perspective and then figure out how to actually manufacture that.”

A mixed industry outlook

Some of Ready Pac’s success could be attributed to the shift in grocery shopper behavior, which has benefited companies that supply the perimeter of the store versus the center. But a look at the ready foods market in which the company also plays in shows a mix of positive and negative consumer trends.

Research group Future Market Insights shows strong growth in the ready-to-eat market, driven by factors such as an “increasing population of working women, growing millennial population, busy work schedules, and on-the-go consumption habits are expected to fuel revenue growth of the global ready-to-eat food products market. Also, the increase in disposable income and consumer preferences for healthy and convenient food coupled with the rising demand for snacks and fried food products are expected to further boost the demand for ready-to-eat food products.” The firm is using the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) definition of ready-to-eat food as animal or plant derived food that is cooked, frozen, washed, cooked for hot holding, cooled and processed to be consumed directly or after heating, so it includes segments beyond what Ready Pac plays in, such as the frozen food category.

ready snackFuture Market Insights expects the value of the global ready-to-eat food products market to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 7.2% during the forecast period of 2016–2026 and estimates the market value to be $195.3 billion USD by the end of 2026.

Transparency Market Research warns that although the overall market forecast might show growth, “the negative perception of ready meals among health-conscious consumers is adversely affecting the growth of the global market. Moreover, events such as the horse meat scandal in the U.K. have drawn consumers away from these meals. Such events are increasing the skepticism regarding the purity of raw materials amongst consumers, thereby impeding the growth of the market.”

With its focus on transparency, especially within the social media spectrum, Ready Pac might be able to overcome this growing consumer skepticism, whether the skepticism is focused on ingredients or packaging/eco concerns.

Simpson argues that premiere food companies have stories, especially ingredient stories, that customers want to know about, and sharing these stories not only helps offset any negative messages sent out by uninformed but well-meaning critics but also helps bring the brand to life for consumers. Shoppers don’t automatically know the story behind the quality of your products, she argues, it’s a marketer’s job “to bring that to life for the consumer” and make it relevant to their lives.

Relevancy requires considering all interests

Lastly, Simpson recommends looking outside your market category research to really understand how to make your products relevant. “Don’t get too comfortable within the four walls of this organization,” Simpson once told a new employee. “Keep one foot outside and look at other industries, look at other innovators and stay curious about what’s happening outside of this organization. It’s so easy to get consumed with the day-to-day. Don’t forget what actual life is like, and keep a pulse of the people.”

Sharing one final bit of her authentic self, Simpson shares, “One of the things that my team kind of makes tongue-and-cheek about is one of my biggest source of inspiration: People magazine. It doesn’t mean I’m in love with the content, but I want to know what people are interested in; if people want to know about the Kardashians then that’s what’s in the magazine. You can’t lose sight of the pulse of the people. Remember to keep that one foot out as well as one foot in.”

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October 2020 issue

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