Chris Kiser is the new CEO for Allens. Based in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, Allens began as Allen Canning Company in 1926. With a mission to feed the world through great tasting, affordable and high-quality vegetables, including anchors like Popeye Brand Spinach, the company has remained focused on the same core values that were set when the company was founded. In recent years, the family-owned company fell upon hard times and is emerging from bankruptcy. Kiser was named CEO in early 2014 and started at the job March 1.
You’ve been in leadership positions before. What’s different in your new job as CEO of Allens?
The one thing that’s becoming obvious is the importance of getting folks across all the functional groups aligned to the purpose and goals that will make the company successful. Organizations are dynamic and diverse and the functional teams by the very nature of their work have different mindsets and sometimes those goals can conflict. Getting the entire organization aligned to the key deliverables required to drive the turnaround has been a major area of focus for me.
In a company with the deep history and connection to the community as Allens has, how are you adjusting as “the new guy”?
So far, everyone has been extremely welcoming to me. The company was in bankruptcy and was going to be sold so I wasn’t sure what I might find when I arrived. The associates have responded very well and I am very appreciative for their warm welcome.
Plus, I grew up in north central Missouri. I like this region. It’s similar to where I grew up and in many respects it feels like home. People in Northwest Arkansas are extremely family-oriented and very welcoming.
The risk as a CEO is that people only tell you what you want to hear. What advice do you have for finding safe and honest sounding boards?
I’ve learned that lesson already. I don’t think people are consciously trying to be disingenuous, but the truth can be illusive sometimes. Organizations can allow themselves to believe things that may not be supported in the data or facts. What I have learned is when I’ve got questions or seeking clarity on an issue I go to different levels and different places across the business— making sure I get the perspectives from several vantage points. I have come to appreciate more fully the power of the collective IQ.
I am focused on being candid and direct with the team about our challenges and progress. We’re a small company and I believe I have be authentic.
What long-term trends are you seeing in the packaged food industry?
One of the biggest trends in food in general is flavor and texture. The Baby Boomers are still a very important consumer base, but at the same time, the Millennials are starting to express more of their needs and desires on food and beverage manufacturers.
Increasingly, Millennials’ attitudes are affecting what’s on the label and how labels are structured. They seem to want cleaner labels with fewer preservatives and ingredients they don’t understand.
Vegetables have never gone out of style, but vegetables are cool again. Vegetable consumption is viewed as an important part of a healthy diet. That trend plays well into what we do. We take products at the peak of freshness and pack them so families can bring them home.
What’s your favorite Allens product?
I love all of our products but I am especially fond of our Italian style green bean. It’s a flat green bean that’s seasoned. It’s delightful.
What’s something you wish you had known when you were just starting out in your career?
The main thing, looking back, is to keep everything in perspective. You’re not running a sprint. You’re running a marathon. I am reminded every day how important it is to make sure, early in your career, that you take advantage of every cross-functional training opportunity that you can get. If you sprint your way through, you run the risk of missing key learning opportunities that will equip you for future success.
Are you finding new ways to listen to the customer at Allen’s?
The first 45 days we went on an extensive customer road show. We talked about the new company mantra, “It’s a new day. It’s a new Allens.” We spent a lot of time listening to customers and kept what we learned in mind as we have built the 2015 plan. We have met with more than 100 customers — in all channels of distribution including chains, independents and schools. Our focus has been on making sure we understand what is important to them. It was invaluable for me to get that feedback so early in my tenure.
How do you see technology intersecting with the packaged food industry?
In just about every aspect of our lives, smart phone technology makes it easier to interact with the consumer in almost real time. The manufacturer’s ability to connect with customers and consumers and to respond in a timely manner is faster and easier than ever.
While technology is making it easier for everyone to get information, I’m not sure that’s the magic. The real magic is likely more about finding the right balance between speed and value of the message. The world is increasingly less about the control of information and more about what to do with it. Technology in many ways is leveling the playing field.
How do you balance the tradition of a vintage brand in a contemporary marketplace?
We’ve been doing a lot of work on how to protect the heritage of the brand and, at the same time, bring it into today and make it fresh again. We’ve been doing work on our corporate branding. What do we want to be? How do we want the marketplace to see us? It is key to our turnaround and a major focus.