Jill McIntosh‘s career is impressive. From her early days practicing law to building an innovative digital business unit at the nation’s largest grocery retailer, Kroger, there are few places her career path hasn’t taken her. But even though her career arc has a diverse array of experiences, it’s her philanthropic initiatives that have solidified her place as a true leader in the industry.

“The things that make me who I am have led me to my philanthropic endeavors,” McIntosh told ForceBrands. “I am passionate about diversity and inclusion.”

We caught up with McIntosh to learn more about her love for natural foods, her advocacy for important causes, and more.

ForceBrands: Tell us a bit about your background and how you transitioned from law into digital marketing and merchandising.
Jill McIntosh: When I was in law school I never dreamed my career path would lead me to where I am today.

That’s the thing; you never know where life will take you if you are open to new opportunities and are willing to take risks. I listened and learned from some great mentors and that is what led me on my career path.

From early days practicing in law firms, I knew I wanted to become in-house counsel since I truly enjoyed working closely with my clients. That led me to a corporate counsel role with The Kroger Co. I interviewed with other corporations but it just felt right at Kroger working with Paul Heldman, the General Counsel at the time. Apparently, my internal clients appreciated my level of service since they began to recruit me to leadership roles in their respective business units. First, Don Becker, legendary Kroger executive and Kathy Kelly, President of Kroger Personal Finance (KPF), recruited me to KPF. As counsel, I led the legal creation of KPF, a financial services joint venture, became their corporate secretary, and then had the opportunity to lead the roll-out of Money Services (check cashing, bill payment, money orders, transfers etc.) in our stores.

Next, Calvin Kaufman and the leadership team at Kroger Manufacturing, another former client, recruited me to head up Human Resources and Labor Relations. I had majored in HR in undergrad and focused on HR/LR in law school so was glad to put these skills to use. Plus, I was able to focus on talent development, increasing engagement, and promoting diversity and inclusion.

Katy Barclay and Tim Massa, senior HR executives, then encouraged me to continue my HR career in a retail division. I led HR at Fred Meyer in Portland, Ore., where I first realized all the exciting innovation happening in the area of natural foods. I spent a great deal of time in the stores and grew to love strolling the natural food section and becoming more familiar with the brands. At the time, Mary Ellen Adock was being promoted and encouraged and supported me to take her position as VP of Natural Foods in Cincinnati. I was thrilled to lead Natural Foods Merchandising and develop a growth strategy based on the increasing demand of the mainstream customer. Rodney McMullen inspired my final assignment, introducing Our Brands in the China market and Kroger’s first venture outside the U.S. What a truly amazing experience that was! We built a team in the U.S. and China, developed a partnership with Alibaba, and launched a Kroger Flagship store on Tmall Global, via cross border e-commerce. It was fascinating to learn about the Chinese consumer, e-commerce platforms, product assortment, and marketing and merchandising to attract customers.  I’ve had an exceptionally diverse career path, which sure kept things exciting!

FB: How was the natural products initiative introduced into the Kroger business model? What steps did you take to successfully develop it? What were some of the challenges you came across?
JM: My vision was to be the customer’s destination of choice for natural and organics products in the U.S. Our growth strategy was built on having a strong corporate brand to drive the customer to this category, integrating the products in center store and having the assortment the customer wanted at affordable pricing. One of the first challenges we came across was the way our natural foods departments were merchandised in our stores at that time. The majority of stores had a “store within a store” format. As the demand for better-for-you products increased, this format was a barrier to expanding the space we needed for natural foods. At first, it was more of a “push” to get stores remodeled to what we called the “integrated/segregated” format. This format is where the natural products are in the same aisle as the conventional products in the category but have a separate planogram and decor to grab the customer’s attention. At first, we moved too slowly integrating the natural products, but as the business case developed, it became more of a “pull” and we moved quickly on natural foods integration. More and more customers were being introduced to natural products with higher visibility in center store. This, of course, was a key driver to our sales growth at the time.

Dr Oz ShowFB: When was the moment you realized that natural, better-for-you products had stopped being a niche market and had become mainstream?
JM: If I had to name a moment, I think it would be in 2015 when we first started to report the sales amount for all natural and organic products. Up until then, we only captured sales data for the natural foods “department” which was made up of clean products in grocery, dairy, health, and beauty care. I knew that by using data, we could identify and capture sales data for all the N&O products across all departments and show the size and scale. It was a process but we figured it out and I think the sizable amount surprised many people. Once we started reporting this amount, we received well deserved attention in the media highlighting how a traditional grocer was taken over in this space as well as selling the largest N&O brand in the country, Simple Truth®. We were getting credit for democratizing natural and organic products — having the best assortment at affordable pricing. This, of course, was something our customers already knew. We received wonderful recognition when the “Dr. Oz Show” asked Kroger to represent the grocery industry together with the Organic Trade Association and Organic Farmers on an Organic Foods episode. In the past, this would have been a grocery chain from the “natural channel.” It was an amazing experience to do that show and Kristal Howard, Head of Media Relations, made it all happen.

FB: Kroger has been attending Expo West since 2002; how has it helped the company to expand and grow, especially in the natural products sector?
JM: We knew that it was essential to have a sizable presence at Expo West in order to establish Kroger as a credible leader within the natural foods industry. As much progress as we were making at the time, we still had to develop closer connections with the emerging brand community and still convince some brands in the natural channel that the nation’s largest traditional grocery retailer was serious about natural foods. At my first Expo, we significantly increased the number of attendees at our Vendor Town Hall and brought as many category managers as the budget would allow. The Town Hall session was lengthened to take vendors though our Natural Foods strategy and discuss how they could better partner with us on our initiatives. Plus, it demystified the giant retailer and put faces and names to Kroger.

I knew we were making progress when I stopped hearing from emerging brands that they thought they had to prove themselves in the natural channel first before coming to us. Later we added “First Pitch” where we invited startup brands new to Expo and Kroger to pitch their brand for five minutes in front of our category managers. The brands appreciate getting this convenient audience and as you can imagine, the lines are out the door! Harlow-HRK has done a fabulous job helping us execute this event and rallying the crowds.

FB: When did you start your own Natural Foods Innovation Summit series? What motivated you to start your own event series?
JM: Kroger was gaining the reputation of leading in natural foods innovation and attracting more emerging brands to launch with us first. I wanted to leverage that momentum and host our own Natural Foods Innovation Summit. I teamed up with Wayne Wu (VMG), David Slusher (Harlow-HRK), and Alex Trott (84.51) — key players who made this all happen. I had two goals for the summits. The first was to enable us to be at the forefront of natural foods product innovation and second, to educate our buying team on the trends and insights in the natural space since we were in the process of integrating natural foods assortment decisions into the grocery team. The first part of the summit was designed to discuss Kroger updates, review data and insights, and host a keynote speaker. Joy Bauer (“TODAY” show and Nourish Snacks) kicked us off and then we hosted Dr. James Rouse (Healthy Skoop), Justin Gold (Justin’s Nut Butters), Seth Goldman (Honest Tea), and Bill Keith (Perfect Bar) did a cameo. After the educational session, we hosted a food show. The beauty of this was that all buyers from all categories were able to get in front of the most relevant emerging brands and products. The brands present were carefully curated and represented the most meaningful innovation of the categories up for assortment review. My experience from Network of Executive Women and learning about event planning (discussed below) definitely helped me shape these summits. I’m so glad Alex is continuing to lead these today.

FB: You dedicate a lot of your time to philanthropic initiatives. How did you find the causes you were passionate about and are there any other philanthropies you would like to be a part of in the near future?
JM: The things that make me who I am have led me to my philanthropic endeavors. I am passionate about diversity and inclusion.

As a woman, I am especially focused on the advancement of female leaders in our industry. We have made much progress but still have a ways to go. Organizations like Network of Executive Women gives us a platform to create a better workplace for all through research, advocacy, leadership development, and organizational change.

I am also a wife and mother of three amazing young ladies. The experience of motherhood and the intense devotion we have for our children breaks my heart to realize that some children aren’t loved and cared for the way they should be. Knowing this reality, I felt compelled to support ProKids of Hamilton County, a premier court-appointed special advocacy (CASAs) organization in the U.S. CASAs become completely engaged in a child’s life where there is abuse or neglect, serve their holistic needs, and represent their best interests in the court system. I was first introduced to ProKids by colleagues in the Kroger law department since the organization was created by the Cincinnati Bar Association and the Junior League of Cincinnati, two organizations that I am connected to.

Something I would like to become more involved with in the future is advocating for more women to join for-profit boards. I admire the work that Alex Hanifin (Alpine Start) and Kara Roell (VMG) are starting and would like to help the movement to make advancements in this area.

Jill McIntoshFB: Let’s chat about women’s leadership initiatives. How did you become involved with the Network of Executive Women? What kind of impact has leading the Cincinnati chapter had on your life and career growth so far? What are your long-term goals and aspirations with the organization?
JM: The Network of Executive Women has had a tremendous impact on me personally and professionally and surprisingly, at first, it wasn’t something I had on my radar. I had just moved back to Cincinnati from Portland and my friend, colleague, and mentor, Lisa Hoslclaw, was co-chairing the NEW Cincinnati chapter. She and Mindy Sherwood from Proctor and Gamble launched NEW Cincinnati in 2008 and grew it into one of the most successful chapters in the network. Lisa had developed her succession plan and approached me with the opportunity to lead the chapter. At first, I was tentative because I saw this as a major undertaking in addition to leading Natural Foods. Plus, at that time, I wasn’t so excited about emceeing events with nearly 600 in attendance! Kroger leadership was very supportive of me taking this on and I was so glad I stepped up to the role. NEW has given me the experience of leading a chapter of more than 200 active volunteers.

I particularly got involved in event planning since I wanted to ensure our speakers and content would be relevant to our audience of industry professionals and keep them coming back time after time. All of our events to this date have sold out and we have been recognized as the “Best of the Best” chapter by NEW HQ twice now. I still get some butterflies for the huge events (increased attendance to nearly 1,000 now) but I have gained confidence and composure in public speaking skills. The best part, of course, was all the friendships I have made — an amazing group of people involved in NEW, men and women working together to advocate for change in our industry. At NEW Cincinnati, we have hosted Dr. Condoleezza Rice, Indra Nooyi, Geena Davis, General Becky Halstead, John Foraker, and Jennifer Garner to name a few. When we brought Geena Davis in as our keynote, I met Trevor Drinkwater (Inclusion Companies LLC) who became a great supporter of our chapter and gave me the idea to start the Wellness Your Way festival at Kroger. I didn’t get the chance to lead our concept to fruition but it was in capable hands with Colleen Lindholz, VP of Kroger Health, and Trevor leading the way. They recently held the second one in Denver and will host a third one in Cincinnati this fall.

My involvement with NEW also connected me with Tom Hayes, Dean of the William College of Business at Xavier University, and I was invited to join their Advisory Board. Of course, I was thrilled to do so since XU is my alma mater. Tom is passionate about encouraging women to choose a business major and join our industry, and Xavier University has become a key supporter of our chapter. My aspiration for NEW Cincinnati is to do more of this — increase our regional partnerships and through the power of the community, we can advance female leadership together.

A truly special friendship that I credit to my involvement with NEW is with my co-chair Amy Eskoff Garrett, from P&G. She is someone whom I greatly admire. I am so impressed with her positive energy and courage to take on anything. Last year she had a successful battle with breast cancer — something I wouldn’t wish on anyone but I do think the experience brought us even closer together.

Jill McIntosh Interviewing

FB: What’s ahead for the world of natural products? What trends and innovations do you
foresee taking shape in the future and driving the industry?
JM: It will certainly be interesting to see what the outcome of this CBD craze will be. I think the concept of transparency and sustainability will continue to grow and have even a larger impact on how brands go to market in the future. The customer is going to demand it and who better to lead the way than the natural foods community. This group of brands is forward-thinking and environmentally conscious. In the future, it’s not going to be just good enough for a brand to have clean ingredients with unique attributes. The customer will challenge brands on a deeper level of transparency. They will want to know more about the supply chain, packaging, raw materials, and what impact each has had on the environment. Telling this story to the customer will help grow the emotional connection that is essential to building enduring brands. I am excited to see the progress we make in this area. I’m looking forward to working with brands more closely in the future on this topic and others as a board member and advisor. Since my recent move from Kroger one thing I have committed to is joining the Board of Directors for Whisps, a brand in partnership with Kainos Capital. I am excited to work with the brand’s CEO Ilana Fischer and the rest of the amazing Whisps team to revolutionize snacking!

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