Throughout my career, I have been blessed with getting to know strong, charismatic, and inspiring leaders. Some are quiet, and some are loud. Some are forward-thinking, and some are spur-of-the-moment. All of them are impactful in their own ways. As a business, Cultivate SA works with food companies to improve their food safety through their organizational culture. The most successful changes we help facilitate are the ones where the CEOs are directly involved. One of the questions I am most frequently asked from food safety professionals is, "How do I help my CEO and senior leaders understand that change is needed in our culture?" I often counter this with the question, "Have you asked yourself why changing culture is important to food safety?"
These two questions can have many answers, and I believe it is instructive to hear from CEOs who lead successful businesses about how they tackle food safety. Through these stories, I hope the reader will find answers to these questions by better understanding the challenges and food safety decisions that CEOs must make for their businesses.
The environment is changing for food businesses, and CEOs are constantly having to adapt their business and themselves. For example, the convenience store industry is increasingly dependent on food offerings to meet the needs of consumers as their businesses transition from traditional products like fuel and cigarettes. As another example, food manufacturers and food retailers are seeing new legislative and commercial standards and requirements impact how their business culture helps or hinders food safety.
This is the first of a series of articles in which CEOs will share their experiences and perspectives on keeping their consumers safe and their brands strong. This article features Dennis Vignieri, President and CEO at Birchwood Foods, and Don Zietlow, President and CEO at Kwik Trip, Inc.
The objective of this article series is to improve food safety practices and food safety risk management at food companies worldwide through changes to their organizational cultures. One way to help achieve this is by sharing CEO insights into how food safety has been part of their company history, the challenges that occurred and how they were handled, and what food safety might look like a decade from now.
Birchwood Foods and Kwik Trip: Two Wisconsin Success Stories
Our two featured businesses have some shared characteristics, as do our featured CEOs. Both privately held companies are very successful in growth and innovation. Their head offices are only four hours apart in the state of Wisconsin. Both businesses have storied cultures with clear fingerprints from their CEOs. Mr. Vignieri and Mr. Zietlow both realize the importance of workplace interactions, especially after being designated essential workplaces during the pandemic. They have both built their organizational cultures around a strong respect for people and performance.
Let us take a closer look at both business models.
Birchwood is based in Kenosha, Wisconsin and operates four manufacturing facilities across three states (Wisconsin, Ohio, and Georgia). The newest plant expansion is a $47-million capital investment in Norcross, Georgia—the company's third major expansion since it began manufacturing at this site in 1988. Birchwood is a processor of made-to-order fresh and frozen ground beef patties, meatloaf, and cooked taco meat for retail and foodservice, including for companies such as Wendy's, Taco Bell, and Burger King. The company just won Kenosha County's "Best Place to Work" award, a special recognition of the company's efforts during the pandemic.
Birchwood was founded in 1936 by the current CEO's grandfather, an Italian immigrant who worked in a nearby tannery at the time. Mr. Vignieri says this about his grandfather:
"He decided that he would like to go into business for himself, so he 'borrowed' $35 from my grandmother's cookie jar and then began buying veal calves at small dairy farms on his way home from work. The calves would be processed over the weekend, and then the veal delivered to local Italian mom-and-pop grocery stores."
In the late 1940s, the local slaughterhouse closed, so the CEO's grandfather purchased a 40-acre potato farm and converted the cellar into a processing facility. That same family farm has expanded over the years and currently houses the company's corporate headquarters.
Mr. Vignieri has been CEO at Birchwood since 1994. He grew up in the business, learning from his father and applying his talent to expand Birchwood into the market leader it is today. He is a genuine, empathetic, and respected leader who believes in treating people with respect. He works tirelessly to set the direction for his team and to learn from those around him.
Birchwood learned early on that for its products to have a commercially viable shelf life, the company would need to have an extremely high level of plant cleanliness, along with great process and temperature control. These practices were important to achieve the shelf life necessary to ship fresh, chilled beef for retail sale in Japan, and to be able to ship fresh ground beef every day in the U.S. Designating "shelf life" as the reason for learning proper food safety practices set the stage for expanding excellent food safety practices throughout the organization.
Kwik Trip, Inc.
Kwik Trip was founded in 1965 with a single store in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The first La Crosse, Wisconsin location opened in 1971, and in 1973 the company built a distribution center and moved the headquarters to La Crosse. Over the next two decades, Kwik Trip saw a significant increase in company growth; it had expanded the corporate offices three times, the distribution center twice, and hit the 100-stores mark in 1986. In 1993, Kwik Trip opened its first location in Iowa under the name Kwik Star.
In 2000, the Zietlow family became the sole owner of Kwik Trip, Inc. In 2003, with declining tobacco sales, the company increased its focus on food offerings. By 2005, Kwik Trip realized its food offerings were expanding at a fast rate and that strong food safety systems were needed to manage food safety risk. Dr. Jay Ellingson, Chief Scientific Officer, was hired to develop and manage the food safety and quality assurance management systems, and in 2007, Kwik Trip built a state-of-the-art food science testing laboratory. The company's management system was designed to train and develop employees to protect public health and the company brand in preparation for further food growth and expansion.
Today, Kwik Trip employs more than 34,000 coworkers and serves over ten million customers per week. Kwik Trip, Inc.'s business model is based on vertical integration, which the company defines as, "We make it. We deliver it. We sell it." Hence, the company operates its own training center, bakery, dairy, commissary, health clinics, transportation, and distribution center. Kwik Trip makes and ships 80% of its own branded products, delivering fresh products daily to its more than 800 retail stores. It also recently placed at number 78 on Forbes' Top 500 list of best places to work in the U.S., outranking all other convenience store chains on the list.
Mr. Zietlow has been the owner, President, and CEO at Kwik Trip since 2000. He is genuine, humble, and passionate about the Kwik Trip culture. Kwik Trip's mission statement is, "To serve our customers and community more effectively than anyone else by treating our customers, coworkers, and suppliers as we, personally, would like to be treated, and to make a difference in someone's life." Mr. Zietlow knows all the details of this vertically integrated convenience store company and gives all credit to others. He also listens to those around him and believes in treating everyone with respect.
Mr. Zietlow's philosophy is to share 40% of the company's pre-tax profits with every coworker. As he says, "Everybody said you can't share 40% of pre-tax profit with coworkers, or you will never make it. But I still went on doing that since 1989. Soon after, the coworkers bought into having a clean bathroom, having a clean store, and taking care of our customers. And so, the business grew."
Mr. Zietlow is so committed to having clean restrooms for Kwik Trip's customers that he lists his name and phone number on the guarantee of a clean restroom. "If there's a restroom complaint, they call me! So, I handle all the restroom calls," he says. "Out of the 10 million customers we serve each week, I get two or three calls a week, and that's two or three too many."
Changing Culture to Improve Food Safety—A Never-Ending Journey
As part of its work with food businesses, Cultivate SA helps measure food safety through cultural maturity. We have done so with 114 companies (and counting). Of these, 76% struggle with adapting to change, which is their biggest weakness. Both featured companies started their food safety focus within the last 20 years, and both decided to make changes in reaction to an issue that could have led to losing customers. While this is not unique to the two businesses, there is a lesson for other leaders: find external partners that can help identify potential opportunities for improvement. Both of these CEOs recognized the importance of this lesson after experiencing a food-related illness incident.
Mr. Vignieri is very open as he shares, "I did not think that I was doing something wrong. Ignorance was bliss. It is embarrassing to discover that I was not as involved as I should have been."
Birchwood has faced obstacles that other food manufacturers can appreciate: control of pathogens and finding/training employees who understand food safety. To attend to these challenges, Birchwood has taken a systemic approach to recreating its organizational structure and the culture manifested within it. The entire executive team attended a four-week workshop to learn how to assess the company's current food safety culture, to develop the "Birchwood Food Safety and Quality Assurance (FSQA) Purpose" with well-defined commitments, and to develop the unique Birchwood change plan.
Three key needs were identified as key components of the plan: structure, learning, and communication. A structure was put in place from the top down, starting with the creation of the new position of Executive Vice President (EVP) of FSQA, an equal partner with the other major functions in the company. Benjamin Miles joined as the new EVP of FSQA in 2021. A learning expert was recruited to assist with e-development of FSQA learning, along with long-term improvement of competencies and mindset. Mr. Vignieri delivers an FSQA video message every month. The EVP of Sales owns the process of defining and cascading the message, and the EVP of Operations is accountable for ensuring that the messaging reaches all levels in the plants.
Based on this work, Birchwood's purpose statement has become "…to relentlessly provide safe, quality food made by proud and respected Birchwood team members for the families we serve." In addition, seven "pillars of change" commitments were made by the Executive Team. These include commitments such as celebrating team members who stop the process to correct mistakes, being accountable for everyone's collective behaviors, and integrating food safety and financial performance.
This was a tough change, but regular messaging is starting to drive food safety conversations all the way to the frontline. As Mr. Vignieri says, "We call it a 'food safety journey,' and while we have been at it for a few years, we still have a way to go. But the changes have been significant, and we are excited about the rest of the journey!"
When asked about the future, Mr. Vignieri believes that since the future is a bit unpredictable, one must have faith in the journey itself. This means making sure that the company's internal structure and its overall organizational setup and culture are flexible enough to adapt and improve as situations warrant. "I am sure that new challenges will arise," Mr. Vignieri says, "but I believe the base structure that we have created will provide us with the means necessary to conquer those challenges!"
In 2004, Kwik Trip became aware of some major foodborne illness incidents throughout the U.S. In total, nearly 300 FDA-regulated recalls took place that year. Mr. Zietlow realized, "We do not know what we need to know in food safety, and we have to get our systems in place." Food was growing in the convenience store industry, and regulators were trying to get their arms around this evolving industry. Mr. Zietlow decided at that point to make food safety an integral part of the business. This included creating a new food safety department and adding a scientist to set new standards across all aspects of the company. Kwik Trip hired Dr. Jay Ellingson to lead this initiative. As Mr. Zietlow explained, "Jay's first job was to set the bar for manufacturing, at the support level, at the corporate level, and at the store level. This included food safety, food protection, food science, food regulations, and food security."
The first thing Kwik Trip's new food safety team did was conduct a comprehensive SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis and survey the coworkers. Over the next several years, Kwik Trip made significant investments to improve food safety, including the development of a robust supplier approval process and the development of a science-based testing laboratory to test raw ingredients and finished products, as well as production environments. Kwik Trip also implemented a corporate food protection auditing program and designed manufacturing facilities to exceed regulatory and global food safety standards. Additionally, the company expanded its training program to include detailed food safety and quality assurance training as a prerequisite to its leadership development program.
Kwik Trip considers training at all levels as its biggest food safety challenge. For the future, Mr. Zietlow believes that as the business continues to grow there will need to be more testing of ingredients, production environments, and products, as well as more audits and onsite visits of suppliers. The company also believes that more and better partnerships with regulatory authorities is necessary and has proven to be productive for the industry. "We have to work with the federal government, the states, the counties, and the cities," Mr. Zietlow asserts.
Advice to CEOs and Food Safety Leaders
One thing comes across from both CEOs: they learned how important food safety is to the growth and success of their companies. They also learned that they personally had to change to make their colleagues see why change was needed.
Birchwood's CEO, Mr. Vignieri, advises that CEOs must find the optimal balance between getting involved and letting others do their jobs. Getting involved helps raise the level of importance of preventing or resolving an issue to others in the organization, and of course helps raise the level of knowledge for the CEO. As Mr. Vignieri says, "You do not have to be an expert, but you surely have to understand what your company looks like from a food safety perspective."
Kwik Trip's CEO, Mr. Zietlow, talks about making sure leaders—and in fact, everyone—is committed to the work needed. "If a company is committed to food safety, I think there will be less problems," he says. "It's a huge commitment. You have to invest in the people, the process, the equipment, and the facilities. What we decided to do is to create a fresh delivery to the stores every day so that we have quality food products for our customers at a great value. I think we have to make it, deliver it, and sell it ourselves, and we have to do it all safely. We're a different model than a lot of companies."
Lessons Learned in Food Safety Culture
I began writing this article with the two questions often asked as food safety professionals: "How do I help my CEO and senior leaders understand that change is needed in our culture?" and "Have you asked yourself why changing culture is important to food safety?"
From Birchwood and Kwik Trip, we have some answers:
- Both companies initiated the change to their cultures to prevent food safety risks that would otherwise have hurt their business growth and continuity
- Both companies realized that without outside help, they would not know where to start or how to get the best results
- Both companies became extremely successful at assessing food safety in terms of risk, and they realized that success requires facts and change management.
By getting to know Mr. Vignieri and Mr. Zietlow, we also have answers to how their leadership is creating changes to food safety. They are both CEOs who:
- Believe in treating their people, customers, and consumers with respect
- Believe in actively listening to others and acting on their advice
- Decided to give food safety a place at the executive table
- Learned to be patient with the time and effort it takes to change culture.
In the context of the information presented in this article, food safety professionals may want to consider these thoughts:
- Work with your CEO and senior leaders to find the business answer to the question, "Why must we change culture to improve food safety?" Let them teach you how to speak business, while you teach them how to speak food safety.
- Just because it is difficult to explain why change is needed, do not assume it is not wanted.
- Do not assume your CEO knows. Help the CEO understand and act—that is your responsibility in any food business.
- Build a plan to show the long-term journey. Build in short-term wins that will help your CEOs and senior leaders see how they are winning and keep telling them about these wins.
Thanks to Dennis Vignieri and Don Zietlow for their transparency and willingness to share their stories and to Cultivate SA Editor-In-Chief Bob Lijana for his support on the piece.
Lone Jespersen, Ph.D., is Principal at Cultivate SA, an organization dedicated to helping food manufacturers globally make safe, great-tasting food through cultural effectiveness. She has significant experience with food manufacturing, having previously spent 11 years with Maple Leaf Foods. Dr. Jespersen is also a member of the Food Safety Magazine Editorial Advisory Board.