Food Industry Executive spoke with members of the Food Processing Suppliers Association’s (FPSA) Young Professionals Group about the challenges and opportunities they see in the food industry today and in the future. This interview is with Patrick McGady, national sales manager for Handtmann, a food processing equipment company that specializes in solutions for the meat and bakery industries.
How did you get into the food industry?
It’s the family business. My father started in a meat plant and then moved into sales roles. He’s been working with the same company for many years and helped me get my first interview with Handtmann, where I’ve been for a little more than 12 years. As National Sales Manager, a role I’ve had for the last 5 years, I work with our sales team and manage our sales, marketing and external communication and promotional efforts.
What do you like most about the food industry?
I love that every day is completely different. It’s rewarding to help our customers grow their business and become more profitable. I believe in our Handtmann product line and truly enjoy the variety of projects I work with as we grow our business and help customers grow theirs.
For many of the small to mid-size family owned customers, every capital purchase is significant and can have a significant impact on their business. It’s rewarding to help them make choices that let them become more successful, open new markets and reach new heights. And the complexity and individuality of capital equipment decision making by our larger customers is both challenging and rewarding. It helps to have great equipment and I constantly learn new things about what customers most value for their operations and why.
And, as someone who is relatively young for this role, traveling the country and internationally lets me meet some of the most interesting people in the business, see new things and grow both professionally and personally.
How would you like to see the food industry change?
Our industry is not sexy but it is on the cutting edge of innovative technologies and great business opportunities that are attractive to smart young people beginning their careers. I’d love to see our industry be more top of mind with them.
Food isn’t going away, people will always have to eat, and the sooner we can integrate new ideas into our industry, the better. And while change is constant in our business, the food processing industry is also one of the few categories that still offers the opportunity to build a long-term career with some stability. Career-building opportunities are a great value young people should be aware of about our industry.
What are your biggest challenges as a young professional in the food industry?
The biggest challenges I’ve faced as a young professional are pre-judgements about credibility, — and credibility comes with experience. The people we’re trying to sell technology to have come up through the ranks of their own plants. They’ve often been in the same facilities for years, so they know their business and our industry very well. When you’re new to the industry and trying to sell a technology to improve what they’re doing, you need to build a layer of credibility in order for them to listen to you. And whether you’re new to the industry or new to a role within the industry, my experience is that listening and learning from other perspectives is often the best way to build credibility.
People talk about Millennials and immediate gratification, but you can’t expedite credibility. It’s not something you provide. It’s is a belief others have about you – and building and maintaining credibility is a long haul process that you are in for your career.
How can the industry reach out to younger people?
The industry needs to reach out in ways that reach this group with programs and in communication channels they use to convey the excitement, the benefits, and the accessibility of food processing careers to them. Maybe we need to rethink some things as well. “Skilled Technician” may offer great opportunity for young people, but if they think it means turning a wrench instead of working with sophisticated technologies, precision manufacturing, and some of the most trusted brands in American households, then we are miscommunicating as an industry and they are missing would could be a life-changing opportunity.
People outside of our industry do not know the Handtmann brand or the values it stands for. But, everyone has heard of the major food brands we serve. As an industry and as a company within our industry, we must continue improving our efforts to reach out to younger people before they get involved in other careers and help coach them into food processing.
I have the privilege of being on the consortium for the Food Industry Technician program committee that is reaching out to identify people early on in college. We believe this approach can be also expanded to identify young marketing or sales-related professionals for our industry.
How can the food industry cater to Millennials’ different ideas about work?
At the plant level, the food processing industry is still very traditional with a lot of experience – in other words, an old school group. It’s easy for some experienced members of teams to look at new hires and think they’re lazy because “they start later than I do” or “don’t pay as much attention to detail” or “don’t work as hard.”
But on the other hand, we’re finding at Handtmann that individuals make their own work ethic and our young workers are bringing new energy, new ideas, and a traditional work ethic to their roles. We’ve learned we are hiring an individual, not a Millennial. The highest performing teams are composed of individuals who fit into the culture of their company in companies and teams that can integrate the benefits of diversity into their process.
What advice do you have for a younger person looking to enter the food industry?
Young and female hires were untraditional in our company. Based on what we have learned, I say this:
“You’re getting into an industry that has a lot of legacy and experience in it. If you think in the first few years that you’ll be teaching them anything about the industry, then you’re going to be disappointed. Your role is to listen and learn and build your experience based on what they’re teaching you. You aren’t going to go into a meeting with someone who’s been doing this for 40 years and wow them with anything about the industry. And by listening, learning, and helping you will also gain credibility, earn respect, and build the foundation great success.”
And when Millennials teach the other generations from their sweet spot of knowledge and experience with new technologies, for instance, being respectful of their students will help them earn respect.
With our young salespeople, it’s also good to remind them, especially with the development of complex solutions and sophisticated technologies, that they don’t need to have every answer with teams of expert support available to them in real time.
What advice do you have for companies who want to bring Millennials into the industry?
Millennials have been raised with different technology at our disposal than any generation before us. Because of that, we do things differently. Different doesn’t mean bad, just different. So it’s important for people on both sides of the generation line to understand both positions – and accept that if each does things differently, but creates the quality outcome that’s needed, it’s quite alright.
At Handtmann, we have employees with many years of experience. It is sometimes helpful to remind them of their youth, when “The Greatest Generation” before them was talking about how different they were. None of us were lazy when we started, just different. That’s been true for generations.
A fundamental principle of sustainable organizations is that both youth and experience are required:
- Youth for its energy, insights and willingness to look beyond the status quo.
- Experience for the understanding and institutional knowledge needed to manage the risks of change wisely.
What broader trends will affect the industry in the next 5 to 10 years?
Like every industry, ours is becoming much more technologically advanced. The changes in the last 10 years compared to the previous 10 have been quite dramatic. And the pace of change will continue.
We’re asking our equipment to be much more sophisticated than it’s ever been before. It needs to go faster, be more precise, and have fewer people operating it. That’s a challenge in and of itself. And, as technology continues to advance, so will the need for efficient, effective, personalized communication with customers, internally with our employees, and with the marketplace.
It’s also a challenge to identify, hire, onboard, and provide growth opportunities that new employees want. Because of size and other factors, many suppliers find it a challenge to change their structure to keep Millennials interested, entertained, and fulfilled with their work.
Years ago, you were hired into a job and you were comfortable that was where you worked. Our generation tends to look for upward mobility and growth. If they can’t grow with the company they’re at, they’ll look for a different one. While most companies are still not structured to deal with that, we all have to understand that it’s better to keep good people in our industry than to lose them to other industries.
Any final comments?
I’m really excited about the younger people in food processing. We have some fantastic young people who work for us, and I’ve met some great people who work in other companies. I’m eager to help create more involvement and interaction with young people about the opportunities for them in food processing.
This industry is going to become ours in the next 10 to 15 years, so now is a good time for all of us to start getting involved and give it some direction.
The FPSA Young Professionals Group is open to all FPSA members 35 years and younger. If you’d like to see what it’s all about, join the Slack channel.