Carlisle native Michele Buck was named CEO of The Hershey Company in March 2017. After a year of leading one of the world’s top food manufacturers, Buck spoke with the Cumberland Valley Business Journal. Parts of this interview have been condensed for clarity.
CVBJ: Can you start off by telling us a little about your experience in the Carlisle area? I cannot think of another instance in which someone this local is running a Fortune 500 company. How did growing up here shape your experience?
Buck: I have deep roots in the area. My grandparents and my parents grew up in Newville. My grandparents dropped out of school around the seventh grade and were raised by their older siblings. My parents went to high school in Newville and maybe had 16 or 17 kids in their graduating classes. My mother grew up on a farm that had no indoor plumbing, and my dad was the first in his family to graduate high school. He went into the service to pay for his college education and then after he was married, went on and worked at night to get a master’s degree.
So I start with my parents who, I think, were really brought up in environment that required resilience and a hard work ethic. They moved to Carlisle, and I was born in the Carlisle hospital and went through the Carlisle school system and I think got a great education. I think Carlisle is a great place to grow up, a wonderful town with good people and interesting dynamics.
I really enjoyed growing up there, it’s a great place to raise a family with enough activity, but not too much. Occasionally, we would venture out way up here to Hershey — the whole 45-minute drive to visit the park or tour the chocolate facility. I laugh about that, but people ask ‘how did Hershey change since you were here’ and the reality is I really didn’t’ venture out that far on a frequent basis. Back then, we really did spend a lot of our time right there in Carlisle. Dickinson College is also an interesting dynamic that brings an influx of interesting people; the Army War College was also a great, interesting influx, at least for me, having classmates that had come here from different environments.
Obviously I went to school for undergraduate locally at Shippensburg, and again got a great education there, then worked for a while in government at the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue in Harrisburg for a couple years, so I was still in the area for my first job out of college. It was a great experience being a fiscal analyst and having a chance to analyze legislation for both revenue impact as well as policy impact, and serving in a group that was doing a little bit of internal consulting for the senior leadership at the Department of Revenue.
That was a fabulous work experience, a lot of responsibility for a pretty young age, and at that point I decided to go get a master’s degree and that’s what took me out of the area for the next 20 years or so.
CVBJ: What was your learning curve like as an executive?
Buck: I look at my path as a continuous evolution of learning and growing and experiencing different things, and I really do think it was that path of a lot of different steps that allowed me to be ready. That really does go back to my parents and how I was brought up and having that foundation.
But then I was on a journey of leaning experiences. Certainly my first job out of college was a learning experience, and then I chose to go get a master’s degree, because I thought that would give me more knowledge, but also just open up more avenues where I could uncover what possibilities existed in the work world. So that was a great experience, I moved to North Carolina, went to University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. I went there because it was a top ten business school, I think number 8 at the time, but I also went there because I liked the culture. It was known for being a school where teamwork was really valued, it was not a school with a lot of elbow-y competitive edge, which I think given my upbringing would not have been a good fit with some of the places I looked at.
So then I looked at what’s the best job coming out of business school, and I went to Frito Lay and chose marketing as a career, and that was yet another learning experience. Building on foundations and strengths, but also growing and learning about living in a different place, being around people who had grown up — in business school and in Texas — from all different places, because people had come from all around the county in those work environments.
Then I came back to the East Coast, and I’d say each move and each job I took was a progression of learning and being around different people, leaning different skill sets. And then later in my career, I started branching out to get different experiences in terms of the actual work I was doing. So I had focused on marketing as my functional backbone, but once I got maybe 10 years into my career I took my first general management position, and that was a great way to learn to manage more broadly beyond marketing but actually manage a full business. I had a manufacturing plant that reported to me, which I had never done before.
That was the start of many different experiences where I learned that if I really branched out and went after an experience of higher learning and growth, it developed me more as a person. Managing the plant, it was a teamsters union and a plant that was in trouble and was going to be shut down, but I worked with the team there to turn the plant around, and that was one of the most rewarding things I did in my career in part because I knew the impact it would have on the lives of the people who worked at the plant, and in part because it was out of my wheelhouse, and that really intrigued me with continuing in my career to take other assignments like that.
I was given an opportunity here at Hershey to manage a lot of functions I had never managed before, like research and development, which are the scientists who develop the technologies around our products, and we needed to kind of reinvent that area. I took that on because I thought I could apply all my basic skills to things like that, so I’ve had a lot of those great experiences, and I think that learning and growth are part of who I am as a leader. I really believe in inspirational leadership.
I’m very relationship-focused; I like to be out with people. When I took over as CEO one of the first things I did was listening tours with people throughout the company, at all levels in the company, and I think some of those elements of my leadership style are grounded in who I am and how I was brought up.
CVBJ: When you were named to the position, one of the things that was mentioned was your leadership in expanding Hershey’s offerings beyond chocolate, with the acquisition of beef jerky and some other products like that. Where do you see that going in the future in terms of Hershey’s market share and trying to diversify?
Buck: Let me start by saying Hersey is a great company and got to be a great company by its leadership in confectionery, and that is at the core of who we are. We are the No. 2 snacking player by virtue of being number one in candy, because of how large the candy market is.
What I see in terms of our future is that when I came on as CEO I established the vision of us being an “innovative snacking powerhouse,” and that starts with continuing to win on our core confection business because it is our bread and butter and where we make the bulk of our money right now. However, all of the capabilities that we have as an organization relative to taste science, distribution, manufacturing knowledge, consumer insight, those are all transferrable to other types of snacks.
So consumers are snacking more — snacks are a growing segment within food — and by virtue of us being the leader in confection we have a lot of capabilities that are extendable to total snacking. So our vision is really about capturing more of consumers’ snacking occasions, and we’ll do that by looking at opportunities where there are usage occasions we aren’t hitting currently.
For example, the bulk of our portfolio is in the “sweet indulgence” category, but we recently purchased Amplify brands, which is Skinny Pop, and that gets us into better-for-you savory. We’ve also purchased other companies — barkTHINS which is a great better-for you snack-able product, Brookside, Krave [beef jerky] as you mentioned, so that’s really the vision.
CVBJ: There was recently a new or expanded facility announced, in Luzerne County – do you see a physical expansion of Hershey’s production footprint going along with that, and how rapidly would that happen?
Buck: Yes, we’ve been fortunate enough to have consistent growth on our core brands — Hershey’s, Reese’s, Kit-Kat, Kisses — and those brands have posted single-digit growth year after year after year, and as a result we have been fortunate enough to find ourselves in the position of needing more capacity.
So earlier this year we invested in a new Reese’s line in one of our facilities here in Hershey, and we are now breaking ground for this new Kit-Kat line in Hazleton as we speak.
CVBJ: Is that growth fueled by the domestic market, and have you also seen an increase in your international share as well, what does that makeup look like?
Buck: So our profile from a global basis, we are still primarily a U.S. domestic organization. I would say that is where we have scale and we’re continuing to make significant investment here. At the same time we do see an opportunity in the international markets, particularly in the emerging markets where there is high population growth and high growth and movement of consumers into the middle class, which then creates purchasing power.
So we have businesses in development in China, India, Brazil, and have scaled businesses in Canada and Mexico, but are not as scaled as the US business — but we have significant market shares. The U.S. will continue to be our number one priority because of the scope and scale and profitability of the business in this market.
CVBJ: I know trade policy has been in the news a lot and I don’t know if you have any idea of how something like that could affect Hershey’s growth — I don’t know how much of your raw materials are sourced domestically or what that supply chain looks like but I assume there’s a significant movement of goods into and out of the U.S.
Buck: We are definitely staying on top of all regulatory environments, and we have people on the ground in Washington, D.C. and have the connections to work with our legislators to make sure we communicate to them what’s important to us. We’re really pleased that they have always done a great job of representing our interests.
That doesn’t mean we will always win on every topic and every matter, but as you know there are a couple of things in the current legislation right now – the proposed tariff on steel and aluminum products is probably the hottest one right now — and like other US manufacturers we do use steel for our plants and will use it for plant expansion, and we use aluminum for product packaging.
We require food grade aluminum that we can’t get in this country right now. So we certainly understand that could have an impact on the entire economy, and impact beyond us, but we are constantly focused on what we can do.
Throughout the years, it’s our job that if something does change, to work to figure out how to work through those changes and figure out offsets in our business to continue to grow.
CVBJ: What are the challenges and advantages of continue to grow Hershey’s production footprint in the U.S.? I know there was a question a couple years ago of where some new production would be built and it ended up being built here, in Dauphin County — where do you see that going in terms of your ability to keep the blue collar base of Hershey in the U.S.?
Buck: About 85 percent of our business is done in the U.S. and about 85 percent of our production in done in the U.S., so we have a general overarching strategy of having our production located in close proximity to where the products are actually sold. So I would anticipate that we would continue to have strong investment as we have in the past because that has been our strategy of lining that up.
We have certain cities where we have a particularly strong manufacturing presence, certainly right here in Hershey as well as Stuarts Draft, Virginia, Hazleton, Robinson (Illinois), there are a number of cities across the country that are particularly important to us and where we make a significant amount of our products.
CVBJ: How have you also managed the acquisitions of some of the healthier snack options — where have consumer trends gone on that in recent years, is the trend still toward more health-conscious options, and do you know where you see that going in the next couple years in terms of consumer preference?
Buck: Snacking is growing, and we’re seeing snacking growth on both ends of the spectrum. If you look at growth rates in the indulgent categories and the growth rates in better-for-you, more health and wellness oriented categories, you see growth in both.
So it’s really interesting. Certainly consumers have started incorporating more health and wellness snacks into their repertoire, but they also continue to want to treat themselves. We feel good about the fact that consumers know and understand that Hershey’s confection is a treat – and that they use it in the way it’s intended. I think candy overall is less than 2 percent of the caloric intake in a consumer’s diet. So the way that we look at it is we see continued opportunity in indulgence, and we try to offer a variety of products so that consumers have choice when it comes to portion control, and that they know it’s a treat so it’s not a surprise when they look at the ingredients in a candy bar.
But at the same time we have opportunities to participate when consumers are looking for a better-for-you option, maybe it’s a meal replacement option. That’s why we have interest in those categories as well because we can grow more. We’re interested in creating long-term shareholder value, for our company, our shareholders, and our communities, and by participating in both we think we can maximize the opportunity.