Getting the View from the Top of the Food Industry

Getting the View from the Top of the Food Industry

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

On a recent Monday evening, the MBA students in a new agribusiness class at the Carlson School worked through an exercise about Hormel Foods’ product portfolio.

They attempted to guess which of the Minnesota-based conglomerate’s brands were sold across different—and disparate—grocery outlets, from Whole Foods to Walmart Supercenters.

Then the students turned to one of their instructors for his well-informed insights: Jeff Ettinger is, after all, the former CEO of Hormel.

MKTG 6090 Challenges in Agribusiness, dubbed “Food Fight” by Ettinger and offered for the first time this fall, dives deep into the sticky, multifaceted issues facing food-related companies in a time of innovation, disruption, and global need.

With Ettinger and Professor Mark Bergen, the James D. Watkins Chair in Marketing, providing the complementary perspectives of industry and academia, Carlson MBA students explore topics such as mergers and acquisitions, shareholder activism, genetically engineered foods, disruptive brands and channels, the current protectionist policy dynamic, and food safety.

They work through business cases on relevant, tangible examples and tap into Ettinger’s 27 years at Hormel (the last 10 as CEO) and his relationships across the industry. Earlier this month, Buffalo Wild Wings CEO Sally Smith visited the class less than a week after Arby’s announced it was buying the Minneapolis-based company.

Considering Minnesota is home to those kind of industry leaders as well as a flagship university with a tradition of influential agribusiness research, such a course is a natural fit at the Carlson School.

“It is a very contemporary class,” says Bergen, a renowned expert in pricing. “It is live, it’s real, it’s happening.”

Bergen and Ettinger, who joined the Carlson School’s Executive Leadership Fellow Program after retiring from Hormel last fall, designed the course to be a discussion-heavy, integrative, capstone-level class for students interested or working in agribusiness or those eager to apply their MBA skillsets to a specific industry. About two-thirds of the class comes from the Carlson Part-Time MBA Program, with a number already employed at major players in the space such as Land O’Lakes, Cargill, CHS, General Mills, and Target.

Each week during the seven-week fall “B” term, class starts with a case that provides an applicable, real-world scenario: For disruptive channels, the students examined Instacart, an online service that offers grocery delivery in the Twin Cities area from the likes of Costco, Cub, Target, and more. Bergen and Ettinger even had Instacart deliver samples of General Mills’ new French-style yogurt (Oui) the following week as part of a look at disruptive trends in the yogurt market.

“I think we’re both trying to draw the students into a role that would be something they realistically might have in the professional world,” says Ettinger, who was named one of the “World’s Best CEOs” by Barron’s in 2016.

Bergen and Ettinger say the course attempts to integrate skills from across the MBA curriculum while instilling an overarching, fundamental truth: making high-level decisions means considering a host of factors and stakeholders.

“They’re able to have a CEO perspective on what the questions are like, how you think about them and grapple with them,” says Bergen. “And none of them are easy. They involve major tradeoffs and multiple constituencies. …

“I think what we’re hoping is, as they become CEOs in their careers, as they grapple with the major challenges in the industries and the world and communities they’re part of, they’ll be better able to address them thoughtfully, make better decisions, be able to communicate that better. And so, (they will be) better businesspeople, better citizens.”