Let’s Chat Markets Special Episode with Lynne Wildman

On this special Let’s Chat Markets episode, Eric Meyer welcomes Lynne Wildman, a featured speaker at HighGround Dairy’s second annual Global Dairy Outlook Conference next month in Chicago! The podcast can be found here, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Subscribe so that you never miss an episode!

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[00:09] Eric:  Welcome, everyone, and thank you so much for listening today to this Special Edition of HighGround Dairy’s Let’s Chat Markets podcast. Eric Meyer here, President of HighGround Dairy and the entire team, whether here in our office in Chicago, or Michigan, Minnesota, California or even New Zealand, are looking forward to assembling in Chicago on June 20th through the 22nd for our second annual Global Dairy Outlook Conference at the Historic Union League Club.

In keeping with the tradition of having a chat before our conference with some of our speakers and panelists to whet the industry’s appetite as to what they should expect when attending next month, joining me today is Lynne Wildman, an Executive Procurement Consultant for SGS Maine Pointe.  Lynne has dedicated her career in the foodservice supply chain world and we are excited to have you in Chicago next month to provide expertise in an area that I always feel was hairy and complex, but had gotten its world turned upside down and then some ever since March of 2020.  Lynne, thanks so much for joining us!

Lynne: Thanks, Eric, glad to be here! Appreciate it.

[01:19] Eric:  Of course! So, I have a pretty vivid memory of when we first met, it was a trip to Nashville with one of your suppliers when you were at Logan’s Roadhouse to meet with you and Charity and the rest of the Logan’s team, and all I remember I was taken aback that in your corporate headquarters, you had a full-blown bar that was right in the lobby of the office! I think it was back in 2010, we were talking dairy markets and talking hedging and I was still working for my former employer. But looking back at the bio you provided us for the conference and, of course, on LinkedIn, you’ve had quite the career in the foodservice industry with some pretty impressive companies over the years. I’m super curious, how did you get into this space in the first place, and talk us a little bit more through your career journey!

[02:08] Lynne: Oh great, thank you. So the bar at Logan—that’s amazing. The bar was a pretty important actual revenue stream for us at Logan so, thus the emphasis on the bar and being creative and innovative and staying on top of what the guests really wanted to envibe in when they came to Logan’s for their experience. That sure brings back the memory—that’s pretty awesome.

So, my career in food service started a little strange. I grew up in Chicago, Illinois and I always kind of leaned towards the agricultural field. My aunt and uncle actually had a dairy farm in Siren, Wisconsin, which is North Wisconsin, near the border between Minnesota, Wisconsin and Canada. I would spend summers up there so I always leaned towards the agricultural field. I also thought at the time I thought I wanted to be a trader so I went to college, I went into the field of agriculture economics, I interned at the Board of Trade and realized that was absolutely not what I wanted to do with my life. And that was the late-80s when I did that so you can imagine what was happening at the Board of Trade in the late-80s—just think about that Wall Street movie. So, I stayed in my field, I was a Chicago kid going to school at the University of Illinois with everybody from 4H and everything like that. But I loved the field and learning about how food moves from conception to the field to the plate. I’m in the business side of agriculture which people just don’t understand anymore today unless you’re really engrained in it such as yourself or myself.

I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I got out of college, so I went and got my master’s and after that, I went to work for Cargill Inc. I was a soybean trader and hedger—bought beans, sold meal and oil—in Iowa, and did that for a little bit. Then, I went to work for KFC corporate in Louisville. They had a role open and it was a senior analyst job. KFC Corporate at the time, when they were owned by PepsiCo, were very involved in the hedging process on their raw materials side. everything from chicken to flour to oil—they were pretty aggressive traders managing their risk and it was a very advanced risk management program. I was there as a senior analyst and that was where I started by purchasing experience. It was really the best of both worlds—the background and the info and the experience I had at the time from a commodities management standpoint and then buying those commodities and learning how to purchase them really just built up my portfolio of experiences. Throughout the years, that took me took different companies and gave me greater experience in different roles and ultimately led me to where I am today.

[05:14] Eric: That’s awesome, what a cool experience. Lots of people when they come up through ag, find those big grain companies like Cargill or ADM and people just really get to spread their wings through that so I appreciate you sharing that.

I spent a few years in dairy and corn sweetener procurement at Sara Lee, and I felt the toughest part of my job on a day-to-day basis was dealing with all the fires I felt I was constantly fighting, whether it be with our production facilities, our co-manufacturers or the suppliers that I managed. You’ve been in this space for nearly 30 years—what has made you so passionate about working on the supply chain side all these years?  You never really wanted to “get out” at any point?

[06:00] Lynne: You know, I think the foodservice supply chain world, you are either in it or you’re not. I think people very quickly realize that this is a passion that they have or they say no there’s no way I want to do this. You know, I tell people in this role, you are a servant to all, master of none because we are so cross-functional in the role. We touch everything from culinary and marketing to finance to accounting to development and operations and you really are a servant to all so you really have to have an inherent passion for people and hospitality because it is all about people—the foodservice side of the industry. It’s really all about people. You can’t lean six sigma people and how they approach the hospitality industry when they come into your restaurant and sit down or order take-out. You just really have to enjoy that side of the business and you really have to like adding value and you have to want to serve others and you have to want to drive strategy and add value and support others. So, you have to have an internal passion for the role. I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to be able to be in positions where I can add value and I can support others and I can use my experiences to drive programs that are going to be very effective for the organization as well as drive really beneficial results through the P&L. On the supply chain part of the P&L, it’s very impactful when you look at everything that potentially falls under supply chain on a very basic restaurant P&L—it’s larger than your operations spend. And so to be able to take that cost center and drive efficiencies and drive value for both the operators and the financial performance of the organization is very rewarding. I have always found a passion for that but, again, I’ll circle back to the people, I’ve been some amazing people in this industry and that, combined with a passion for what I like to do, has just really provided myself a very rewarding, fulfilling career path.

[08:24] Eric: That’s a perfect segue to my next question about leadership and the groups that you have been involved with. So, I know you’ve been involved in a leadership role throughout your career, not just at your respective employers but also industry-wide. Talk to our listeners about your involvement with the National Restaurant Association’s Supply Chain Expert Exchange—I believe it was called the Working Group when you had asked me speak at one of those events in Chicago a number of years ago at the height of a bull market in dairy, and I was always impressed with that organization. So tell us a little bit more.

[08:59] Lynne: Sure. You know, I think part of having spent so much time in the industry and part of having such a passion for the industry is really helping to provide succession planning and also to be able to pass on those learnings to the next generation. So, groups like the Supply Chain Executive Exchange, whether it be the NRA or even panels at conferences like Market Vision or the Chain Gang or the Dot Programs, these different conferences where you really get to network and meet with everybody from the industry. But from a leadership standpoint, it’s really important—and especially so much so today, post-covid, with the next generation coming into the field—of how do we pass on that knowledge and those learnings with all of the different technology advances that are coming our way. It is phenomenal. I mean, I can’t even keep up with the data analysis tools that are available today. I wish I would have had some of those 20, 25 years ago but I can’t keep up because they are ever-changing. So, what I like to do is work with the younger team that are so adapt to doing that data analysis and say: here’s what I’m looking for, here’s what I need and boom boom boom, they put it together. Then we sit down together and talk about how do you look at the data and how do you analyze the data and what is the data telling you based on your experience. So, I think one of the most fulfilling parts of my career is being able to develop and empower and coach others and see them be successful.

You always want to hire people that are smarter than you. It’s a cliche, right, but hire people who are smarter than you, that have those skill sets that you don’t have and kind of add to their portfolio of skills and then let them blossom and to your point, spread their winds, and grow and develop and whatever their career path takes them. So, I do think from an industry perspective it is so important today that we, with the experience that we have and the education we have, especially post-covid, are able to help those younger generations come in and learn from those experiences and help guide them to what can be a really, really successful and fulfilling career. Groups like the NRA, Supply Chain Executive Group, Market Vision, and the other conferences and events that I mentioned, are so important because it’s really about networking and building those relationships and having those people you can rely on within your industry and within your peer set to talk strategy, to talk best practice, to talk about what didn’t work and then how did you get around that. Because again—I’ll circle back—it’s all around people and it’s a people-based industry so having that network and that group of your peers to go to and talk through and work through, it’s really important. I don’t know of any other industry where we have that kind of engagement. I guess because I’ve been in it so long, I don’t know what else is out there but when you ask about what keeps you in there, it’s the networking, the engagement, and the people you meet throughout your time in the industry.

[12:32] Eric: Absolutely. Speaking of Market Vision, John Barone, who had created that conf years ago will be a moderator at HighGround’s Outlook Conference as well so he’ll be here next month. I have just been so impressed with the growth. I provide the dairy outlook for his conference twice a year and it’s, I think, more than tripled in size since I started working with him twelve years ago. It’s just incredible.

Lynne: Absolutely. It’s one of the best, if not the best conference. not only from an industry update standpoint but from a networking standpoint. I think you get more done in that day and a half than you get done pretty much anywhere else. So, not to put a plug in for John but I love Market Vision and it’s a great place to network and the panelist and speakers he gets are top-notch. It’s a wonderful way to spend two days—it’s just so engaging and you nust feel so educated when you leave there. It’s amazing, a great conference.

[13:37] Eric: For those that know me, I can go on and on from my former life in procurement and sourcing about the Great 2008 Cedar Rapids Iowa flood which put the nation’s largest corn sweetener production plant out of commission, or the cost savings project tied to cheese extrusion that failed in production after endless testing, but I’m curious, any specific war story you can share from your past about a memorable event from a crisis at work?

[14:06 ] Lynne: Oh gosh, so I have a couple but I would say the biggest crisis that I remember going through—I’m not going to talk about covid because it’s on its own and is its own other beast and we could go on and on for hours about covid. But, I would say when I was at Darden Restaurants and at the time we had close to 1,300 restaurants. This was back in 1999, Q4 when everybody thought the world was going to end because of 2000 and Y2k, and I was pregnant with my first daughter, due in February. We were on an outing—a team building event, actually—when I first got the call from one of our suppliers, saying that AmeriServ had not paid them. We were like, what, what do you mean? And so we were going through the next—suffice it from that call in November to March/April of 2000—when AmeriServ went bankrupt. Darden had all of their restaurants with this particular distribution system, as did KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and there were a number of other restaurant chains tied to AmeriServ. So we had to transition 1,300 restaurants from AmeriServ to a new distribution platform basically in 3 months. I will say that was probably the most challenging thing we’ve ever—pre-covid—done in my career is move that many restaurants. Some of your listeners may understand or just to put some color on it, the biggest impediment or the biggest thing you can really do from an operations standpoint to restauranteurs is change their distribution network and it’s hard. There are tons of moving parts and pieces that you have to consider and it’s really hands-on and it was very hand-on, boots on the ground. The administrative work that went into setting up items and understanding what items were actually being purchased, what they were for, what restaurants wanted versus what they really needed and all of that—everything from routing to the most minuscule things. That, I can honestly say—outside of some hoof and mouth disease issues which we really don’t deal with anymore, or oil going up to $140 a barrel, or some of these things that you really can’t control—having to transition those 1,300 restaurants in three months time was really learning. I’m a big believer in “never waste a good crisis.” It was tons of hard work, I missed lamaze so I had no clue what was going to happen when I gave birth in February. But as hard as it was, there were some really phenomenal learnings out of it. So, I would say out of every good pulling your hair out, working 120 hours a week, whatever it may be, just never, never miss the opportunity to look for those nuggets within that crisis that will help you somewhere, sometime down the road in the future.

[17:35] Eric: Definitely. What a wild story. Final question: So, you grew up in Chicago and I know you haven’t lived here for some time but you do get to come back often. When you come, when you bring your family, when you come to town, what do you crave the most?

[17:58] Lynne: Well, I will tell you. Late-spring in Chicago is phenomenal. It’s unpredictable, as Eric could probably tell you, but it’s just phenomenal when it’s 70 degrees outside and the threes are blooming and the grass is green. But, yes, I grew up here, my family is still here and I miss going to the White Sox games (I’m a huge White Sox fan). I miss the neighborhood bars and restaurants. Chicago just has so many great neighborhood bars and restaurants to go to. I miss the people—I love the people of Chicago. I love going downtown to the museums, the architecture that’s in the city and even in the outside suburbs. The city just has so much to offer. I miss it and to be honest, I feel bad for some of the things that are happening to the city right now. It’s kind of going through this where do I want to be when I grow up lifecycle but it is such a great city with so much to offer and I do miss it. If it wasn’t for the taxes and other things like that, I would move back but it is up there with the San Franciscos and the New Yorks in places to live. I just love it—the food, the people, the sports, the museums, the architecture and just the vibrance of the city is just what I miss the most. So if everybody is coming into the city and they haven’t been, I really encourage people to explore when you’re here because there is something for everybody in Chicago.

Eric: Yeah, mid-June is just the best time.

Lynne: Absolutely, because it’s not so hot. You know what I mean? July and August can unbearable but I would say May-June is probably one of the best times you could be here.

[19:51] Eric: Well Lynne, I am so grateful for your time today and incredibly excited to have you back in your home town as one of our esteemed speakers and panelists at this year’s HighGround Dairy Global Outlook Conference, thank you.

Lynne: Oh thank you Eric and thank you Rebecca for having me and I really appreciate it and I’m looking forward to seeing everyone in June.

Eric: Absolutely. So, for those who have not registered, I would highly recommend that you visit our website at highgrounddairy.com/conference to take care of that today. Remember, we are going to start the evening of June 20th and go through mid-day on the 22nd. More podcasts like this showcasing additional speakers are set to air in the next couple of weeks, so get registered and stay tuned! Thanks, everyone.