November 17th Interview: Sarah Blackmon, Launch Team Manager, Chick-fil-A
Sarah was interviewed by Andrew Knust, 2nd year MBA student at TCU.
AK: Take me through an average day.
SB: My team partners with our menu development leaders and my team is responsible for launching any new test items or rollout items from a supply chain perspective. So my normal day is often a lot of meetings from a lot of different perspectives: meeting with different stakeholders, meeting with different project owners, understand where they are and what they need from us. I spend time strategizing about goals and what actions need to be taken to meet those goals. And then, because I lead a team, a lot of it is around supporting my team members and understanding what they need- making sure they’re set up for success.
AK: On an aside, I’m interested in the launch of new products. What kind of turn-around time do you see from going from concept of a new product to actually putting something out there? I know Chick-fil-A just launched a new breakfast sandwich.
SB: That’s a great question, I don’t know that I have a great answer on how long that would work because I’m fairly new to this arena, We always test items before we launch them, so now we’ll be testing other items in 3-4 different markets. We’re getting feedback on those; we’ll regroup and decide if we’ll launch it chain-wide. I would say we have already laid out everything we’re going to test and launch for 2017. We try to stay proactive in that, in laying out our roadmap.
AK: How much cross-functionality goes into that? I imagine marketing has to have a pretty strong say as well as supply chain.
SB: Our category leaders sit in marketing, so they’re really driving it. We’re partners with them, but there’s also partners with culinary (the chefs that are designing the product), there’s partnerships with our insights group, with the feedback and the financial analysis of whether it’s a good decision or not, and then just within supply chain there’s all kinds of partnerships. So there’s the sourcing of new products, there’s inventory management & trying to forecast what we might be selling, and then the distribution and logistics piece as well as supplier quality. Sometimes that means bringing on new suppliers or new production lines, partnering with them to make sure that all of those critical tasks are met.
AK: I guess this next question can tie into that last bit- how do you balance your previous role in Enterprise Social Responsibility with sourcing new vendors and increasing what you require from existing vendors?
SB: For one thing, Chick-fil-A has our ‘Not at Chick-fil-A’ list- making sure we’re not developing or using products made with any of these ingredients that we’ve determined that we do not want in our food. We have our ‘Suppliers Code of Conduct’ as far as social responsibility goes; that we’ll only work with suppliers who are willing to meet those standards.
AK: So there’s a trend going now where consumers are more interested in the background of their products. What do you anticipate the future of that being for both the industry and for Chick-fil-A?
SB: I think consumers are demanding transparency, and that’s what we’re delivering. You know Chick-fil-A has fresh ingredients, and we often invite consumers to get a back-stage tour where they can see the back of the restaurant and see how everything’s prepared. We also are really focusing on our healthy menu items, so while Chick-fil-A will always sell our ‘hero’ products (the chicken sandwich, waffle fries, and milkshake), we’re also offering healthy options so that people have choices. So while you have the indulgent, amazing products that have been around since our inception, we also have healthy options: the egg white grill, the superfood side, and the salads. We’ve seen a lot of growth in those categories.
AK: Okay. That’s probably more towards the trend of Americans eating healthier?
SB: Yeah, and the choice part is important. It’s not that you always have to eat healthy, but to be able to go out and have healthy options. I’m a mom; often my kids get nuggets and fries, but they can also get grilled nuggets and fruit. It’s nice to be able to have that as options.
AK: Transitioning into more of a student-focus, what’s a bit of advice that’s helped you get to where you are now- either for the social responsibility or the supply chain role?
SB: I think in the leadership realm in general, it’s really to jump in & even if you’re not sure you can do it, to have faith in yourself and move forward. I think sometimes we’re paralyzed with fear, “I’m not ready for that position” or whatnot. So a) get yourself as ready as you can be, and b) when the opportunity presents itself then go for it 110%. Learning as you go can be a big part of it.
AK: I saw that you were a packaging science major at Clemson. How do you think that influenced your career path, transitioning from technical supply chain to a more macro focus?
SB: So I have a packaging degree and spent the first 12 years of my career in the packaging industry. I came to Chick-fil-A to source packaging for them, and then opportunities just grew. I think it’s a mix of being able to focus on the details and get the tactics done but then also be able to lift up and see strategically, look from a 10,000-foot view. So it’s just being able to switch between the two, whether you’re in the valley in the weeds or you’re on top of the mountain looking at the horizon and seeing what’s coming next. I think that’s both for social responsibility but also for any strategic leadership role.
AK: Social Responsibility has such a wide net… I can’t even imagine just trying to focus in, how do you study ‘just’ social responsibility?
SB: Right, when I started in that position and we started this new department, we basically started by brainstorming all the social responsible things Chick-fil-A could focus on but realizing we couldn’t focus on all of them because if you try to focus on all of them, nothing is going to get done. You have to have your priorities, and that’s where we decided to focus on three pillars. We have food, which is the healthy and sustainable options; waste, which is reducing our food, packaging, and energy waste (and that’s where more of my expertise came in due to my packaging knowledge); and people, which is providing an outstanding work experience for the team members who work in our restaurants, expanding our positive influence in our communities, and strengthening our internal culture as we grow. You can’t focus on everything in social responsibility; you have to start and then think about ‘you get X initiative across or pretty close to the goal line, then you bring in the next one’. So it’s a constant road mapping of when things move closer to the right, you bring new things in from the left.
AK: So how did you end up sourcing most of these projects? Was it mostly top-down, or did you talk with people who report to you and get a more ‘wide-range’ feel of what to work on?
SB: So it was a very cross-functional team; we brought in the SMEs from about 13 different areas and that was the team that met monthly to identify and prioritize what we should be addressing. From that, then we went to our strategic leaders; you had bottom-up but then you also had top-down in looking at and trying to make sure that we were getting information from both sides.
AK: Last question- for students who are interested into breaking into the restaurant industry, what kind of advice would you give them to differentiate themselves?
SB: I think we’re looking for leaders, so people who can look strategically and can look two years out but then I also think for students to demonstrate their leadership abilities before ever getting to the interview process, getting involved in their local organizations. But I also think it’s people who have a wide breadth of knowledge, so it’s not just looking for one pinpoint; the restaurant industry has a lot of moving pieces, so you need to be able to work in all those different areas in order to understand and influence change.
AK: That would make sense, going into those meetings with 13 different SMEs and being able to talk to each of their points.
SB: Right. It’s never like I needed to be an expert in their areas (that’s why they’re experts in their fields), it’s being able to understand their viewpoint & where they’re coming from and understand the challenges they’re trying to address.
AK: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day!
SB: My pleasure!