NAME: Chris Conroy
CURRENT POSITION: Head of Category Leadership, U.S.
COMPANY: Kraft Heinz
TENURE WITH CURRENT COMPANY: 12 years
YEARS OF INDUSTRY EXPERIENCE: 29 years in Category Leadership, 35 years in CPG Sales, Shopper Marketing

GIVE US A BRIEF HISTORY OF YOUR CAREER.

I began in a retail sales role at Helene Curtis selling hair care products at store level to retailers in Central Pennsylvania. As I progressed towards direct selling, I quickly saw the opportunity and benefits of being a consultative partner to my customers. As I moved into Shelf Management and then Category Leadership at Helene Curtis and Gillette, the emergence of the importance of shopper understanding truly struck me as the unlock for strong partnerships.

As I grew further in my Category Leadership career, the focus on understanding the shopper problems to solve with my retailer partners became more and more core to what I did. My experience at PepsiCo cemented the shopper at the center, and at Kraft Heinz, we have truly focused on that principle.

Throughout my management roles, there are three things that I have focused on with my teams:

1. Be great storytellers. Your audience is busy and you must be compelling to stand out.

2. Know the shopper. Anyone can argue with a manufacturer or retailer strategy but it is very hard to argue with the shopper as they are truly in charge of the CPG world, making choices that work for them, their values and their lifestyle.

3. Drive value for the retailers via a simple equation: More People, Buying More, More Frequently.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST LEARNING EXPERIENCE OF YOUR CAREER?

My first role in Category Leadership was an onsite role at a retailer, representing Gillette. I worked in their offices five days a week, bringing the learnings and insights from my company to support the national strategies and tactics my buyer was developing. I learned several things. The first was the importance of understanding the audience; for me this was my buyer and what his goals were, but also the shopper as an audience and how they would respond to the various tactics we would try.

The next was the critical importance of the retailer in the CPG lifecycle, and that they have a separate but critical business model that CPG manufacturers must understand in order to truly be great partners. It is so important to understand all functions of an organization and the opportunities offered by partnering with those functions. This was especially true as I found vital partners within the retailer and manufacturer organizations.

I also learned the importance of telling your story. As an onsite, I was not super visible to my internal Gillette audience. I learned the importance of building and maintaining that connection back to my “home company” and that learning has served me well about the importance of bringing others along, especially those who are not connected to my work on a daily basis.

Also, scorecarding is critical for several reasons:

  • To learn where we are making progress.
  • To allow us to understand the key drivers of performance.
  • To push us to be aspirational to rapidly accelerate results.

Finally, thinking big and pushing the boundaries. I was allowed free reign in this role and created new tools but also different approaches to the business that my buyer then could market within his organization, building his credibility and reputation. It was great to see new ideas take hold across an organization!

WHY YOU’RE EXCITED TO BE PART OF THE CMA BOARD:

The CMA is an amazing resource for some of the most talented people in the CPG world. Category Management people possess a great blend of curiosity, storytelling, data savviness, relationship building and ownership. After my years of learning and experience within the industry, I feel like it is time to give back and ensure that this group is served by an organization that can develop them for the future while supporting their current development needs.

WHAT ROLE DO YOU SEE THE CMA PLAYING IN THE CPG AND OVERALL RETAIL INDUSTRY?

This is such a pivotal time in the retail industry as we fully embrace and are thrust into the omni-shopping world. It will require a whole new skillset built on top of the qualities I listed in my answer above, and the CMA can be at the center of that. Charting the path forward for Category Management by identifying the true impact of AI, retailer ecosystems and the very real impact that those changes have to a retailer’s economic model and a Category Manager’s career is a leadership opportunity that the CMA can fill.

WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING THAT NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED IN THE SHOPPER INSIGHTS DISCIPLINE GOING FORWARD?

We must redefine the role of Category Leadership folks and the jobs they do as the tactical becomes automated. I see a clear need for an even more consultative skillset, people who can see what AI and automation generate and then bring the true human understanding to it. This is a dramatic shift for many in our industry as there is a large part of our population entrenched in manual data analysis and planogram creation. How we help them move down the path of consultative role is key to their continued productivity and the vitality of Category Leadership as a function.

HOW ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT THE NEXT 3-5 YEARS IN RETAIL?

This is the most exciting and challenging era of retailing I have experienced. Decisions must be made quickly and decisively. Understanding where and how to impact shopper’s decisions has shifted to a much more informed moment of truth, with nearly 70% of decisions being digitally influenced. The level of automation and the entrance of AI make this industry super intriguing.

I think retail has just been injected with a ton of fun and exploration as we work together to identify the way to get More People to Buy More, More Often. I see a likely bifurcation of retail, those who make themselves into complete ecosystems, and those who are more traditional but win by being local or unique for their shopper. Each retail model will require a unique set of skills and will require robust knowledge experts to help them navigate the industry.