Sally Grimes, chief global growth officer, Tyson Foods
Sally Grimes, president and chief global growth officer, Tyson Foods, Inc. (Photos: Peter Barreras,

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.

|||Read more: Balancing act|||
Balancing act

Sally Grimes
Whether marketing and innovating markers or meat, "what doesn't change is starting with the consumer," Grimes says.

When she isn’t brainstorming and team-building in Springdale, Ark., Chicago or at the company’s Shanghai office, two teenagers keep Grimes and her husband (a CEO for a publicly traded company) grounded at home. She’s a self-proclaimed hockey mom to her goalie-playing son and a dedicated supporter of her cheerleading daughter. “I’m the only cheer mom working on her laptop in the stands,” she jokes.

“We have a full and fulfilling life,” she says of her family, all of who are foodies and enjoy trying new cuisine in addition to traveling the world. In fact, the Grimes clan has a destination bucket list that includes visiting the Seven Wonders of the World together, with just one left: The Great Wall of China.

As a marketer, travel serves as a source of inspiration for Grimes. After recently visiting Machu Picchu in Peru with her family and seeing the salt mines and the region where the first known dehydrated meat was made, the connection to her career was serendipitously affirming.

“Food has always been pretty integral in my life,” says Grimes, a proud first-generation Indian-American. With a mother who was a dietitian, “Food was at the center of everything in our Indian culture,” she adds.

Shifting gears

In her third year with Hillshire Brands, and after the well-publicized bidding war and eventual acquisition of the company by Tyson for $8.5 billion in 2014, Grimes made the transition to Tyson.

Donnie Smith, CEO, Tyson Foods
John Tyson's vision for the company, along with CEO Donnie Smith's approachable style made bringing together Hillshire Brands and Tyson executives easier.

Besides Grimes, several other executives from the Hillshire Brands leadership team were retained and became part of a blended management reorganization with the company Smith coined “Tyson 2.0.” Bringing together the two companies’ executives and managers was made easier, according to Grimes, by Smith’s “amazingly approachable style.”

There was quickly a sense among the merging Hillshire Brands team members that they were embraced by the much larger parent company. Andy Callahan, former president of Hillshire Brands’ retail business, was tapped to manage Tyson’s retail consumer brands; Tom Hayes, former chief supply chain officer for Hillshire Brands, was appointed leader of the combined Tyson and Hillshire Brands foodservice businesses; and Mary Oleksiuk, former HR officer for Hillshire Brands, took over Tyson Foods’ HR responsibilities.

The marriage of the complementary companies meant combining Tyson’s extensive operational expertise with the brand-building and innovation expertise of Hillshire Brands. Grimes recalls her first visit to Springdale to tour the Discovery Center at the Tyson Headquarters: “I was like a kid in a candy store,” she says, because of the Tyson capabilities and the enterprise-wide commitment to innovation.

“The word “innovation” isn’t just part of a title or department at Tyson, it’s part of the vision statement,” she says, and not just the responsibility of Grimes and her team but the entire company.

The two companies also shared core values that made the merger more seamless. An emphasis on integrity, putting people first and work ethic were among the important attributes of both companies that were made stronger when Tyson made the deal. “It’s been a really, really nice marriage,” Grimes says.

|||Read more: Looking back and ahead|||
Looking back and ahead

Sally Grimes accolades graphic
Grimes' talent for innovation and leadership haven't gone unnoticed. Click image for larger view.

Some of the lessons Grimes learned from the early days at Hillshire Brands included assessing what worked in previous years and what didn’t — she calls it “slowing down in order to speed up.” This meant getting to know their target consumers better. Remembering the importance of execution was another learned lesson. The best strategy or most innovative product is wasted if the execution falters, if, for example, distribution is a weak link. So deeper insights and exceptional execution became the pillars that worked then and still do. Grimes talks about “measuring what is meaningful and cultivating a new mindset,” which for her means encouraging a sense of curiosity and inquiry among her team and instilling empathy for consumers to solve their problems.

Two cities, one mission

Maintaining two offices for the merged companies, with the former Hillshire Brands Company’s still-new headquarters in Chicago along with the Springdale office, is part of the future plans for the company. Members of Grimes’ Growth Team are located in both cities, in fact, and there is no plan to isolate Hillshire Brands and products from Tyson Foods. To ensure the teams are operating as one unit, plenty of virtual meetings and video conferencing occurs regularly, and a “shuttle” runs between the two offices using a Tyson-owned jet, which allows key team members to commute back and forth in under 90 minutes. Grimes typically makes the commute from Chicago to Springdale twice per month.

Grimes acknowledges the two companies include different business models. “A commodity (business) model is different than a CPG model,” but with the shared vision and core values, the plan is to leverage both models to take the company to the next level.

In the last four months, the marketing, innovation and R&D teams from both companies have realized how a CPG-based company and a commodity-fueled powerhouse like Tyson can combine efforts to create a flurry of new products and innovative ideas. After recently coming together and looking at the potential of the assets, capabilities and brands that both companies represent and combining efforts, more than 300 ideas were born. Those ideas were combined, refined, consumer reviewed and quantitatively researched and are now part of the innovation pipeline. Grimes says this is where the rubber meets the road for the two companies because neither would have come up with these new ideas without the benefit of the other company’s expertise. “That’s a great example of what Tyson 2.0 is all about,” she says. “I don’t feel like I have to go out there and acquire new capabilities or new brands or new technologies. It’s all here; it’s just about reimagining it.”

Rigorous rollouts

Whether marketing and innovating markers or meat, “what doesn’t change is starting with the consumer,” Grimes says. “Everybody knew Sharpie as a permanent marker; everybody knew Jimmy Dean as sausage or Ball Park as a hot dog.” The challenge in all those cases was to imagine these products in a broader sense. For example, transforming the image of Ball Park to represent “guy food for better guy times,” she says, which opens the door from a marketing standpoint to a flood of marketing and innovation opportunities. Similarly, when thinking about Jimmy Dean as more than just sausage, but as a comfort-food experience, the branding potential spikes, and it is that potential that motivates Grimes.

Hillshire Brands products
Hillshire Snacking's "Small Plates" feature combinations of meats, cheeses and crackers. Grilled Chicken Bites feature single-serving portable packages of bite-sized chicken strips with dipping sauces.

Reimagining possibilities for Grimes and her team means assessing current trends and what is hot in contemporary food culture today. At Tyson, gathering data and assessing consumer needs is achieved as part of what is known as its Demand Map, blending the art and science of innovation. This approach divides consumers into segments to define them in terms of who they are, why they eat and what they eat.

In terms of mining sources to determine trends, Tyson taps many consumer research firms and applies logic and market intelligence to the findings of its many partners. Grimes makes a distinction between “big data” and Tyson’s “smart data” approach, which incorporates the art of applying intuition to the science of data collection. It was this approach that led to the development of some of the newest products under Grimes’ leadership.

In September, Tyson will roll out a line of beef and pork jerky products under the Ball Park brand. In mid-March, Andy Callahan, president of retail packaged goods, discussed the new line during a presentation at the Consumer Analyst Group of Europe (CAGE) conference.

“We are going to disrupt this category with a product that is flame grilled, which is differentiating within the category,” Callahan said. “Therefore, it will taste better, and it will provide a tender differentiating opportunity,” which was affirmed during test marketing. “Our customers are extremely excited about this opportunity,” Callahan added.

The new line features five flavor profiles and capitalizes on Ball Park’s No. 1 position in the beef hot dog segment. The flavors include: Bourbon BBQ Beef, Original Beef, Peppered Beef, BBQ Seasoned Pork and Teriyaki Pork.

When Hillshire Brands acquired Golden Island, it also adopted its kettle-cooking method used to create its beef jerky, while a flame-grilled process is used to manufacture its pork variety in the line. The new Ball Park products, Grimes says, are a different formula and a different approach but utilize elements of the Golden Island technique. “We’ve learned from that process,” she says, which is proprietary and delivers a more tender product.

The snacking segment is another area for new product introductions. Also slated for national distribution in July is the Hillshire Snacking “Grilled Chicken Bites.” This line features a single-serving, portable package of bite-sized chicken strips with dipping sauces in multiple flavors. Additionally, Hillshire Snacking’s “Small Plates” feature combinations of meats, cheeses and crackers, including four salame choices with gourmet cheese.

Breakfast is still another area of emphasis and is the day part targeted by the new line of Jimmy Dean Simple Scrambles, which will be available in three flavors. The microwaveable Scrambles will be merchandised in the refrigerated case and require just enough preparation to give consumers a sense of “fresh cooking.”

“This is an example of creating a category that doesn’t exist,” Grimes says. “It’s for the consumer who wants to put a little of herself in it,” referring to the limited preparation of the meal. Within the bowl-shaped package is a pourable container of two liquid eggs designed to be added to Jimmy Dean Sausage and cheese that is also in the bowl. Simple Scrambles (including Applewood Smoked Bacon and Cheddar; Sausage and Cheddar; and Meat Lover’s Sausage, Bacon, Cheddar) is made for consumers to combine, heat and eat.

|||Read more: Growing gourmet|||
Growing gourmet 

With a mission of becoming the innovative leader in food experiences, the Tyson 2.0 approach includes continued development of the Tyson legacy brands (including the Tyson brand and Wright brand), just as Grimes did with the Hillshire Brands Company’s network of brands. Even today, the gourmet line of products she was responsible for growing while leading innovation with Hillshire Brands are far from the back burner. Fourteen legacy Hillshire Brands plants were included in the acquisition by Tyson and operate under the leadership of Donnie King.  

Bruce Aidells

Bruce Aidells

As an example, on the future of the Aidells line of gourmet products, Grimes sums up the plans in one word: Growth. “Aidells has surprising flavor combinations that are so on-trend with millennial consumers that are looking for a story,” she says. Grimes and others on her team have stayed connected to the founder, Bruce Aidells, and know he has a compelling story to tell. “They are looking for authenticity, they are looking for a clean label, and they are looking for unique flavor experiences,” which would include flavor profiles such as pineapple and teriyaki, and mango and habanero and others that are synonymous with Aidells’ products.

She says future plans potentially include working with Aidells to help create content for online and social channels for the brand. “We want to keep his legacy intact and take what he created and expand it,” which includes lunch meats, meatball products and more. There is plenty of upside for gourmet products, Grimes says. “Food is so much more than fuel,” she says. “Today, it’s about the experience.”

Global scope

With offices in Shanghai and India, Grimes is also responsible for international brand strategy and is accustomed to traveling globally, leading the cultivation of new products for consumers outside the US borders. This role, she says, is not that different from the focus and goals of innovation in the states. “The ‘how’ is a little different, but the ‘what’ is very similar,” as far as taking a new idea and positioning it in a manner that uniquely delivers and addresses local consumer needs, regardless of the location. It is the ability to apply marketing and innovation philosophies and principles across borders and demographics.

“I’ve always believed that measurements drive behavior, accountability drives results, and we are committed to that same approach,” Grimes says.