Bright ideas

by Joel Crews
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Sally Grimes, chief global growth officer, Tyson Foods
Sally Grimes, president and chief global growth officer, Tyson Foods, Inc. (Photos: Peter Barreras, www.worklifephotography.com)

Sally Grimes’ career has evolved from successfully marketing and innovating macaroni, markers and now meat products. This past year, her career culminated when she was appointed to the executive leadership team at Tyson Foods Inc. by President and CEO Donnie Smith as part of the 2014 acquisition of The Hillshire Brands Company. As president and chief global growth officer, Grimes oversees insights, innovation, R&D, retail sales, marketing services and international strategy with the goal of growing the company’s consumer and foodservice brands.

Tyson Foods not only acquired legacy brands that included Ball Park, Hillshire Farm, Jimmy Dean, Aidells and recently acquired Golden Island gourmet jerky, but the people behind those brands. The corporate courtship to recruit Grimes and several other Hillshire Brands execs was led by Smith.

“As excited as I am about our new brands, I’m equally excited about the combined talent of the two companies,” said Smith last August.

“We all had the opportunity to connect with Tyson leadership during the acquisition,” says Grimes, adding that her decision to join the Tyson team was fueled by Chairman John Tyson’s inspiring vision for the company and Smith’s proven commitment to servant leadership. “Donnie is such an authentic, genuine leader,” she says.

Grimes, 44, didn’t begin her career in marketing, but rather in the banking industry after earning a finance degree from Valparaiso Univ. She went on to earn a master’s degree in business from the Univ. of Chicago, “fully intending to stay on the finance route,” she says, but discovered brand management along the way and a light went on. “This was an opportunity to bring the art and science of business together.” At that time her goal was to run her own business or brand with the resources of a big company backing her. This led Grimes from the Univ. of Chicago to a brand management position at Kraft Foods. While working up through the ranks at Kraft for 10-plus years, she learned many of the skills and gained knowledge she applies every day in her current role at Tyson. Her first brand assignment at the diverse company was on its iconic Macaroni and Cheese product line.

“I launched the first-ever microwaveable Mac and Cheese, Easy Mac,” Grimes says, “which is where my love of brand building and innovation really set in.”

She speaks fondly of the decade spent working and learning about marketing consumer packaged goods at Kraft “in terms of classic consumer packaged goods (CPG) training; that analytical rigor,” and ultimately learning how to build businesses and brands, “but also building teams.”

She remembers Betsy Holden, Mary Kay Haben and Mary Beth West at Kraft as her early mentors in CPG, who also taught her the art of leadership and how to inspire and motivate teams, a skill that would prove vital in her future success.

“Then I got a call to go global,” Grimes says, referring to the job offer to lead the marketing team at Newell Rubbermaid’s writing business, which included the Sharpie product line. “How fun was that,” she laughs. Under Grimes, Sharpie was rebranded from a permanent marker most associated with professional athletes signing autographs, to what she calls “an advocate of self-expression,” and took the marketing effort global, targeting Europe and Brazil.

After more than five years at Newell Rubbermaid, Grimes realized what she learned marketing markers could apply to meat, a leap she never considered until receiving a phone call from Sean Connolly, then CEO of Hillshire Brands Company, in 2012. Grimes remembers Connolly saying, “‘Hey, we’re starting a $4-billion startup. Do you want to be a part of the team?’” She had breakfast with him a few days later and after hearing his plan and vision for the “new” company, Grimes realized, “How many times in your career do you get to be a part of a $4-billion startup?” Her decision was swift. “Literally within days I said, ‘I am in,’” says Grimes, who considered it a privilege to work with Connolly and the leadership team he assembled.

The Hillshire Brands Company days

Hillshire Brands offices
The Hillshire Brands Co. relocated to a Chicago office building before being acquired by Tyson Foods in 2014.

Symbolically, Grimes’ first day on the job was when the Hillshire Brands leaders rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, commemorating its debut as a publicly traded company, independent of Sara Lee’s international coffee and tea business. This was the beginning of a three-year whirlwind for the “new” Hillshire Brands Company, Grimes and eventually Tyson Foods. During that time, financial goals were achieved, new product introductions boomed and the company even moved its headquarters from Downers Grove, Ill., to a trendy office building in Chicago.

With Grimes leading the innovation team, the goal was to grow new product sales to account for 13 to 15 percent of the company’s sales, best-in-class for CPG. “When we started we were at 9 percent,” Grimes says. One year later that grew to 11 percent and the following year it hit 13 percent, and then the acquisition by Tyson ensued.

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