• Dr. Karen Bartuch

Become a Leader in Marketing (or Anything) by Building Relationships

Vice President of Marketing at KeHE Distribution Ari Goldsmith is a leader first and a marketer second, but it hasn’t always been that way. Throughout her career in marketing at medium to large companies, she learned that both leadership and expertise are important and both have to be earned, but being great at what you do does not make you a leader. And while there’s no shame in just wanting to do one or the other, Ari wanted to leave a legacy of relationship building and career development—especially for other women.

Ari came into her current position at KeHE in a roundabout way: she had worked at the classic Chicago fresh pantry chain White Hen and remained on the team when it was bought by 7Eleven. Meanwhile, the leadership from White Hen had started working for KeHE; after a quick stint at Saks Club Libby Lu, she reconnected with them and got on track for her current position.

In those early career experiences, Ari was able to learn what other departments do, build relationships and innovate through cross-functional collaboration. During the transition from White Hen to 7Eleven, she gained valuable insight that so many young entrepreneurs don’t have: that having more money and bigger operations doesn’t really solve things. Those things you wish you could do if only you had the money can actually be more difficult in a bigger company. But understanding the pressures of a large company has proven useful in her work at KeHE because they are growing through acquisition.

A Legacy of Leadership

While relationship building had emerged as a key strategy for career advancement, Ari was more interested in flexing her marketing expertise until a major life change sparked a moment of reflection. After she had kids, Ari started to question what kind of legacy she would leave; she realized it wasn’t a matter of creating the best logo (though that was what she loved to do), but what she could build into other people that would help them on their career path and give them something they could carry with them forever.

Ari believes that a high-functioning team should be development-focused, with extreme accountability built-in. For her, leadership and learning are very closely related; the perfectionism mentality shuts down innovation and productivity, but striving for ownership, acceleration, and improvement keeps everything moving forward. A leader must give her team enough room to execute at 60% at first, find the holes in their strategy, then shoot for 80% the next time, and so on. Each interaction is a stepping stone towards ownership and accountability so that team members can do the work well (the way she wants it done) with little to no supervision.

“I feel like it’s constantly the leader’s job to hand the bouquet to the people that did the work...and make sure that leadership and executives see who’s behind that curtain.”

Rather than tossing her employees a gift card for their good work, Ari has witnessed more growth when she puts the person responsible in front of the CEO and says “this is the one who did it.” It brings out the qualities of accountability and responsibility to develop them into better employees and more talented professionals. However, she has to be sensitive that not everyone on the team is as interested in moving their career forward as she is!

What’s Working at KeHE

As a company, KeHE Distributors looks out for natural, organic and specialty food trends, understands what the consumer wants and then sources that for retail stores. They listen to consumers and all of their stakeholders to pinpoint what’s valuable and facilitate the right partnerships. The biggest trends Ari and her team have been watching lately merge high protein and plant-based foods with high sustainability, like the Impossible Burger or the Keto diet. (She shares some interesting insights about how social media influences healthy diet choices at 6:38). Specialty, natural and organic pet supplies are also on the up.

What KeHE does differently than many other distributors is provide a space for product innovation at the intersection between retail and wholesale. They facilitate programs that allow buyers to “vote in” brands that aren’t quite mature enough for the market and put new products on display for retailers to see, taste and experience before they buy. They host two trade shows every year where about 5,000 attendees, 800 suppliers and 1,000 retailers collectively decide which specialty food trends will prevail.

KeHE models relationship-based leadership on a large scale in the way they listen to their stakeholders, but also in their internal company culture. The founding value “we thank and honor God in all that we do” hangs on the wall at KeHE and they think of themselves as “faith-friendly,” encouraging their team to fully be themselves. They are employee-owned and involve their employees with large and small decisions, so working there feels like being part of a family business.

Ari is proud to lead a fully female marketing organization of 12 women. When it comes to work-life balance, Ari is excited to offer her employees the ability to grow their family while building their career. She says, “I can be super dedicated and connected to my family...and they can too.” But as to how she does it all, “once I get that figured out, I’ll call you back.” Ari and her husband team up with some outside help on household chores, and she hopes that her kids will see themselves as hardworking and dedicated to their profession, “little bosses themselves.”

Listen to the whole conversation here to hear more of Ari’s stories and learn more about the intersections between leadership and marketing.

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© 2020 by Karen Bartuch