My GCL Experience: Smucker’s, Pet Food, and European Expansion

Lexa Montierth

Lexa Montierth

Editor-in-Chief

Master of Global Management students at Thunderbird School of Global Business recently engaged in the Global Challenge Lab. This unique experience in Thunderbird’s MGM program is designed to help students develop additional skills that will be necessary as leaders in the 4th Industrial Revolution. The Global Challenge Lab, often shortened to “GCL,” allows graduate students to work as consultant team members with classmates to focus on a specific issue with an international component.  These projects may be with non-profit organizations, government entities, start-up companies, or even Fortune 500 companies, such as the project I took part in with The J.M. Smucker Co.

The GCL is intended to have an overseas component to give the student an international perspective. However, because of the COVID-19 restrictions, our GCL was held virtually in the first quarter of Spring 2021. The opportunity to work directly with a project of international business or focus allows students a place to practice leadership skills, presentation skills, and their executive presence while honing their ability to provide quality research to support recommendations. Project selections took place a few months before the actual project began, and students were given a choice between twenty-one different projects. My concentrations have been in Global Business and Innovation, so I focused on applying to those projects to expand my marketing and strategy skills. I was thrilled to learn I had received my first choice to work with Smucker’s and that my teammates were among the best at Thunderbird.

Our Challenge

Our project objective, as first presented, was to define and then develop a go-to-market plan for an international expansion of global pet food sales at Smucker’s.  Though a large company overall, the company’s international segment operates more like a small business or start-up. With only seven individuals on Smucker’s International team, it quickly became overwhelming to conduct the research necessary to create a cohesive strategy to expand the pet food division. Smucker’s international division has had tremendous success selling products such as Meow Mix in Puerto Rico. They hoped to be able to expand that same model of exporting into other countries.  In reviewing Europe, Smucker’s found that while European countries held high potential value capture, they consistently fell short in market attractiveness due to regulatory restrictions. Smucker’s also acknowledged that customer buying habits quickly changed, such as premiumization and humanization of pet food.  

My Role 

My specialties in sales and marketing rely heavily on research and data analytics to support my recommendations. This research begins before even forming my hypotheses. Many of my insights come from being a small business owner and within the consumer product goods sector and customer success. I also have PowerPoint animations and graphic design skills that I knew would help our team present a polished presentation. From the beginning, I created a seamless design flow between deliverables so that the client could see consistency among the work turned in. Though this did not always happen, I believe the clients were impressed from the start with our team’s professionalism. Speaking with teammates, they appreciated the lens I brought to the discussions, as I often viewed a consumer’s point instead of an investor or business owner. This allowed us to thoroughly look at all sides of the problem facing Smucker’s. 

Our Process

From our first client meeting, we learned that Smucker’s desired to export pet food from the United States into Europe or asked for other solutions if that was not possible. Gaining a broad understanding of each of the opportunities European countries provided and the consumer preferences in each of those countries was a crucial first step in this process. The team began in the ASU online libraries, which allowed us to extract Euromonitor statistics. This resource was invaluable, as it had demographic data, pricing and stores pet food was sold, competitor information and distribution channels used. We found additional research data in consulting reports published in Harvard Business Review, McKinsey & Co., Boston Consulting Group, Gfk, and others.  This discovery process was also supplemented with publications from government regulators regarding product manufacturing, importing and exporting, and the transfer of goods across Europe. 

I used the Thunderbird Alumni Network to supplement our resources with personal interviews with our client’s permission. I reached out to Michelle Toto, Alum and Senior Brand Manager at PetSmart, to walk me through the process of how pet food goes from manufacturer to shelf and into consumer’s hands. This supply chain explanation was crucial to help me find where I had gaps in my understanding. Additional interviews took place with Marc Blagg, former Vice-President with Blue Buffalo, supply chain expert Andrew Rankin who lives in the Czech Republic, distributors with V. Suarez in Puerto Rico, and many others.  These experts provided in-depth personal experiences that pertained to the industry or Europe. I was then able to synthesize my research and the information obtained during those interviews to form my recommendations.  

Our team had weekly meetings with the client throughout the process to make sure there were no surprises. We continued to track and find the appropriate recommendations that were insightful and executable. We also met daily to review research from the previous day and plan to move forward in the process. Coming together to develop our final presentation proved interesting because we realized we had each taken different specialties but had not always shared those results.  Our team came together and delivered a final presentation that everyone contributed to and understood. We took note of what questions the client had and made sure to answer them in our final deliverables during our final presentation. 

The Output

After our first official presentation, our team was asked to present a second time to the CEO, Mark Smucker, and additional leadership, with Dean Sanjeev Khagram hosting the session. We know that we added value to the client by providing reports, resources, and research that would be nearly impossible to gather and collate with the limited resources of time and team members with the International Division of Smucker’s. We developed a step-by-step guide for them to follow to find answers to questions we could not, such as getting their manufacturing plant certified for exporting to the EU or working directly with partners in the EU for co-manufacturing.  The list of co-manufacturers and distributors was reduced and simplified to meet Smucker’s criteria. I believe the research and business model we set forth is an excellent start for Smucker’s to expand into Europe and the pet food division. This could result in nearly tripling the international division’s revenue and bringing a return on their investment within five years. 

What I Learned

Throughout this process, I had an opportunity to strengthen my skills as a leader and team member. When conflict arose or when we had differences of opinions, I could listen, learn, and articulate respect to them while holding a standard and expectation of results. The opportunities that arose allowed me to work on my communication skills with those in roles higher than I have held. Likewise, this experience helped me develop a future growth plan for myself inside my career. I will be forever thankful for the opportunities I was given with Thunderbird and the Global Challenge Lab and with such an essential and iconic company with such a fantastic culture. This view of the company is not one you can see from the outside looking in, but I appreciated their team that promptly answered our questions. Ultimately, the GCL provided me with an enriching experience to mark the end of my last semester at Thunderbird.

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