Ep. 29: Greening Grocery with Suzy Monford of Foodsport International

In this episode, join host Keith Anderson as he speaks with Suzy Monford, founder and CEO of advisory firm Food Sport International. With an extensive career as an executive in the global grocery industry, and having worked at places like H-E-B Central Market, Kroger, and Coles and Woolworth’s in Australia, Suzy has been a pioneer at leading grocery and retail technology companies and has a deep interest and commitment to sustainability in the industry.

Tune in for her insight on online grocery, food waste, frozen food, and much more!

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Keith Anderson: Welcome to Decarbonizing Commerce, where we explore what’s new, interesting, and actionable at the intersection of climate innovation and commerce. I’m your host, Keith Anderson, and together we’ll meet entrepreneurs and innovators reinventing retail, e-commerce, and consumer products through the lenses of low carbon and commercial viability.

Welcome to the Decarbonizing Commerce Podcast. I’m Keith Anderson. And I’m so excited for this episode of the show. My guest is Suzy Monford, founder and CEO of a consultancy called Food Sport International. But Suzy has a long and storied career as an executive in the global grocery industry. She’s worked at places like H-E-B, Central Market, Kroger, some of the Australian majors, Woolworths, Coles.

And increasingly, she’s played a role in some of the leading grocery and retail technology companies. And in addition to all that, she’s got a deep interest and commitment to sustainability in the industry. And I always find it really interesting and important to hear from folks who sit adjacent to sustainability as a specialty.

You know, they are operators and executives in the industry that are partners to and collaborators with the deep experts whose background comes from climate and sustainability. But, you know, the compliment that they bring is. real expertise about the operation of the business. And I think that’s why Suzy has such a interesting perspective.

And, you know, we cover all kinds of topics in our discussion, online grocery, frozen food, and much more, so I don’t want to keep you any longer from listening to and learning from Suzy Monford, founder and CEO of Food Sport International.

Hi Suzy, welcome to the Decarbonizing Commerce podcast. Great to have you join us.

Suzy Monford: Thanks, Keith. I’m glad to be here.

Keith Anderson: And the tables have turned a bit. You and I first met when you had me on your show. And so, for those listening, if you haven’t yet checked it out, it’s on the Conversations on Retail platform. And it’s the People, Planet, and Profit show, correct? Yeah, definitely, definitely check it out. And as I was saying to Suzy, we, we had a great conversation, but it felt like we had more to say than time permitted.

And so I wanted to have her on our show so that we could continue some of the discussion and, our audience could get to know her better. So thank you, Suzy.

Suzy Monford: Thank you, Keith. And I completely agree. I could talk to you all day, which, which, yeah, I know you actually have a job to do, but no, I really, really appreciate this. I enjoyed our conversation very much. I learned a lot, frankly, and gave me a lot, a lot of good things to take away and dive deeper into. So I appreciate it.

Keith Anderson: Well, I’ll leave most of describing your background and focus to you, but, you know, part of what I found interesting about your experience and what you’re up to is, you know, similar to my background before focusing on sustainability in retail and CPG, I spent a lot of my career in sort of retail technology and, you know, that’s, that’s where you’ve spent a lot of your energy.

Can you just tell us a bit about, you know, your career trajectory and how it’s led you where you are now?

Suzy Monford: Sure. I’m happy to. And it’s, I, I’m kind of inwardly smiling at that question because my career began where I actually am in the same city I’m in now, which is unique for me because I think I’ve moved 10 times at least for my career. So I’m in Austin, Texas now. I went to UT, so Hookham Horns, majoring in economics.

And, minor in English, so basically not really qualified to do much other than go to graduate school or start working. So, I spent a decade in the restaurant industry with a start up that was based here in Texas. Learned a lot, obviously, a lot about the restaurant business, but probably more, what was more informative to me was a lot about managing teams and leading, designing go-to-market strategies, and honestly doing a lot of product development that was very healthy and clean and simple.

And that’s been a through line throughout my career. So about a decade in restaurants, and then I started into grocery. I’ve often said I felt, feel like one of the luckiest girls in grocery. I began my grocery career with H-E-B Central Market Division. At a time that we only had three central market stores, two in Austin and then one in San Antonio.

Because I was coming from the restaurant business, they were like, “Hey, terrific! Please come and run all of our food service,” which was all the in-house chef-prepared foods, the artisanal bakery, the deli department, the cheese department, all the restaurants, all the catering. Basically, 25/30 percent of the revenue of the company, of Central Market. So that’s how I got into grocery, coming through this portal from restaurants.

And again, what an opportunity. It was a lot, it was a wonderful start to the career. I absolutely loved it. I quickly fell in love with retailing. Every day was something new and fascinating. I had thought restaurants were complicated until I got into grocery retailing, and realized that the margin of error is so slight.

And you can do fabulous work in the grocery space, but unless you’re highly efficient, and sustainable, then you really, there’s, there’s only a couple of pennies left at the end of that dollar. And that’s the only way to keep any of them. So I spent about a decade with H-E-B, most of, about actually half and half, half with Central Market, half with H-E-B.

Then I had an opportunity and I moved to Australia. I became the Head of Innovation for Coles Supermarkets, and spent some time in Melbourne, Australia. Loved it. Kind of helped them transform their go-to-market strategy. It’s working across fresh, particularly deli and prepared foods and bakery and all these other projects.

Then that sort of took me back to the US after a little bit of time. I started my own consultancy, which is Food Sport, which is what I’m running now as a CEO. Spent some more time, I ended up being back, you know, as a CEO of a, as a restaurateur, and then starting to consult internationally with grocers.

Quickly fast forwarding, that led me back to another opportunity to move to Australia. This time I was recruited by Woolworths, Woolies as we say, Woolies is the competitor to Coles. I was pleased to do it, loved my time at Coles, equally loved the team at Woolies, so I moved back to Australia, this time to Sydney.

And helped Woolies regain some of the market share that Coles has taken from them based on their resurgence. So, I’ve had two opportunities to do some incredible work and work with outstanding people and companies in Australia. Back here in the States, I’ve been CEO of a couple of different grocery companies.

One was called Andronico’s Community Market out in San Francisco Bay Area. The team and I turned that around and we did such a great job that the owners of the company ended up selling it. So that was a little bit bittersweet, but, you know, good on them. I had an opportunity to join Kroger. I joined as a president at QFC Grocer, Grocery, excuse me, up in Seattle.

We turned that chain around and then I was promoted to Group Vice President of Fresh Food for Kroger and moved to Cincinnati. Whilst I was there, I also was promoted again to Group Vice President of e-commerce at a time that that was quite, still nascent. And actually running a lot of our Ocado business as that was starting to get off the ground.

I then took another opportunity to be CEO again of the largest food co ops in the country. Probably not going to surprise anyone. I mean, I absolutely love Kroger, love them today. Stepped out of that because I have a real mission around triple bottom line business. People, planet, and profit. The co-ops I think are doing fine, but I’m now really running my consultancy because that enables me to work across retail, work across the technology that’s transforming retail, making it greener, if I can still use that word, and to work with startups and turnarounds. So that is, that’s about the best that I can synopsize it, Keith.

Keith Anderson: Well, it’s an incredible, trajectory and I’m glad I let you cover it because, I couldn’t have done as nice a job. I didn’t realize, actually, about your role at central market, when we used to run store tours in Texas, they were always a highlight of the store tours. And, I haven’t been to Australia, but I’ll have to make the trip at some point to see some of the work you’ve done there.

Suzy Monford: You’ll love it. You’ll love it. I was just remarking, with some folks just last week, catching up, about some of the things that we had done at Coles, and one of the things I was most proud of when I first got there was I helped do product development for the very first clean label rotisserie, we say rotisserie chicken, for them it’s a chook, it’s a rotisserie chook.

And, I was able to work upstream, downstream and go-to-market with the best, cleanest label, most nutritious, sustainable bird that we’d ever sold in Australia. So, just a few, a few of the things that I’m, I’m proud to have been part of.

Keith Anderson: That’s great. And, you know, we, we spent a minute before we started recording, talking about some of the points of intersectionality between these different you know, industries, both food service and restaurants and grocery and things like e-commerce and online grocery and other technologies that are digitizing, what, to your point, is a really razor thin margin industry that was arguably among the later to digitize, but is really you know, accelerating and, it, it’s already had and continues to have a pretty transformational impact.

Where do you see some of those points of intersection between, you know, the conventional ways of working in and doing the work of grocery retailing and the emerging focus on sustainability?

Suzy Monford: Technology’s the key. Technology’s the key. I, I, you know. I get up every day and I’m always excited and happy and really eager to see what kind of new adventure is going to happen today. But with regard to the trajectory of retailing over the last few years, as much as I say every day, “oh my gosh, what an exciting time to be in retail and to be in grocery.”

Honest to gosh, now I think we are at this apex because we can go from idea to shelf so much faster today and so much more sustainably because we have technology. Now, what do I mean by that? Yeah, everybody’s talking about AI, AI. Well, AI has been around. When I’m, so yes, I’m including AI. But I’m talking about a lot of the work that some of my clients and colleagues are doing to digitize stores.

When we come in to a grocery store, for instance, and we replace the standard paper price tag which, by the way, is paper, and it has to be printed, there’s always issues, so there’s a lot of waste in that. But it’s still printed on perforated paper, a human being has to tear them, and go and hang all these price tags, and then change them over again when they, immediately when they change.

We’re spending millions of labor hours, literally, every single week to update pricing, we’re using, you know, paper, which we don’t need to waste. Not to mention the fact that these don’t help create a sustainable shopping experience. When you go to a digital price tag, the digitization enables dynamic pricing and promotion.

And they also talk to the AI camera that’s on shelf, the computer vision element, that can scan and say, hey, here’s what you’re out of, here’s what you’re running low on. And what that does is it synchronizes inventory and supply chain. Now, for everybody whose eyes have already glazed over or tuned out, this is really sexy stuff in retail.

Because if I can bring the right product to the right shelf at the right time of day and make my customer happy. Then I’m eliminating waste. I’m eliminating wasted food, which has a lesser impact, carbon impact on the environment. And I’m not wasting very valuable, purposeful human labor hours that could be properly reinvested, both for that human being and for the business.

So I get really excited about that, and frankly, it’s that technology which is transforming retail today. And I’ll just, without having a long run on sentence, and also… we are still, as much as the US is starting to speed up, we’re still behind, just, just like e-commerce, just like delivery, just like doing click and collect, which I first experienced when I was in Australia in 2014.

The US, North America were slow followers, but just as, as that happened, the Europe is way ahead of us in digitizing stores. Australia is ahead, is also ahead of us in digitizing and they’ve been the lead, one of the leading markets in e-commerce now for more than a decade. So that’s what’s the most, that’s the fastest growing area in retail today, not just grocery but particularly grocery, but it’s the grocery element that I get most excited about because that is where we have the most waste and therefore the most opportunity to improve.

Keith Anderson: I, I think that’s a really critical point that you’re highlighting, where the profit and the planet intersect. That is, you know, there’s actually a company that we had as a guest on the show, David Katt of a company called Wasteless that uses AI to enable some of that dynamic pricing.

And one of the things that he was really, clear about is part of the way that that company is able to fulfill its mission is by delivering. material savings and EBITDA by eliminating some of that waste. And I think that’s where in retail broadly, but in grocery in particular, there’s so much upside to being more thoughtful and technology-enabled about doing things that just make good economic and business sense, but have all these other benefits that align with the growing priorities that so many of these retailers have

Suzy Monford: Well, sure, and, you know, I took a rather myopic view just then of starting inside the store. But if I were going to open the lens and start at the point of the farm, there are companies that have been using AI. Driscoll’s Strawberries, for instance. And I know a lot of this based on the work that I’ve done with Emily Ma and her team at Google on the Google food team.

She’s been leading that team for a decade. But they’ve been, so Driscoll’s is an example of a grower that is using AI, has been using AI sensors and some emerging technology to determine and detect when berries are actually ripe or where they are on the scale of ripeness so that they’re harvested at just the right time.

They’re harvested knowing here’s how much time it’s going to take to get from the point of harvest through the DC, the distribution center, and then on to the store shelf. So that it gets to the store shelf, in the case of strawberries, ready to be purchased, ready to be consumed, and still has approximately a week shelf life left to go.

And that is just fascinating, because there’s less waste for the farmer, which means their, their income, their revenue stream is up, and there’s less waste throughout the supply chain, there’s less redundancy going, flowing through the DCs, because any time product comes into a DC, a distribution center, and it’s not sellable, then it uses more carbon footprint and more transportation to do what?

To go back somewhere, it doesn’t stay in the Dc. But if we can have a continuous virtuous cycle from farm to the consumer’s home, then we’ve eliminated all that waste that’s occurring. Then we just have to make sure that we continue to talk to consumers, we’re all consumers, and highlighting the fact that most of the food waste, 30 percent is wasted at the point after which it’s purchased and in the consumer’s

Keith Anderson: at the household.

Suzy Monford: on the household. So I’m, I’m on a mission to help every little part of that, of that train, if you will, starting from the point of the farmer and then on through helping to educate folks so they can change their behavior.

Keith Anderson: Yeah, I, I see, a growing interest in cross-industry cooperation. I think, you know, obviously you mentioned where we are as a country. There have been some interagency initiatives coming out of, I think, the FDA and at least one or two other big federal agencies. The UN is, is trying to coordinate a lot of activity, and I think Walmart and Kellanova announced something a few weeks ago.

I think there’s growing awareness in the industry about food waste, and I see more of the retailers and brands, campaigning to educate consumers sort of in the ways that you’re describing.

Suzy Monford: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, as a proud ex Kroger executive, I’m proud of what Kroger has been doing. They really got there. Walmart, I think, was first, and I’m not comparing and contrasting, but Kroger stepped forward with their Zero Hunger, Zero Waste Foundation. They’ve been on a mission now, again, for close to a decade to eliminate hunger and to eliminate waste, because Rodney McMullen, the executive team, the foundation, saw the intersection of both of those things right from the beginning.

And they’ve invested, I couldn’t even venture a guess now how many millions of dollars into Zero Hunger Zero Waste to attack it from both sides. And through, by, through the foundation, through a partnership with Google, retailers, all of us, and they’ve done a lot of good.

Keith Anderson: You mentioned that you were involved in some of the work with Ocado, and I don’t want anybody to project individual cases to the entire grocery or retail industry, because context really matters, but one of the things that I, I know from work that I did on online grocery models, and one of the things that you’re increasingly hearing some retailers and some brands talk about are, you know, when they reach a certain scale and when they’re operated efficiently, some of the, both economic and environmental advantages to a sort of centrally picked, online grocery model. And there, there are. Parts of the world where that’s the dominant, model, 

Suzy Monford: Yep. 

Keith Anderson: it hasn’t really taken off in the US, the way that, you know, it has in Europe or parts of Asia. I’m just curious to get your thoughts and, you know, having worked directly on it, where do you see us headed in that area?

Suzy Monford: Yeah, and that’s, that’s awesome question, and you’re, you’re smart to phrase it as you, as you did. So yes, this, so Ocado, for folks who maybe aren’t as familiar, began as, it’s the very, it’s the first e-commerce only retailer in the UK, and solely by subscription base. And it start, and it’s founded in London, where there’s extreme density.

I think, London actually is the most densely populated city in the world, 24/7. Meaning it may not be as large as New York City, but in New York, there are five boroughs and people, even if they come into the city, this is pre-pandemic, they would disperse out to the boroughs and that’s where they lived.

If you live in London, you live in London, you work in London, so high density, density, density. And Ocado was built, the go-to-market strategy was based on subscription and maybe Keith and his household would say, “Yep. We’re going to order these groceries every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday,” whatever it wants to be.

That enabled Ocado to plan well, to purchase well, to inventory, you know, very smoothly to plan and then deliver JIT (just in time). When you can do that, when the retailer can anticipate the customer’s needs down to the product, the day, and the time, then they can plan really, really well. And in all that planning, that’s where the efficiencies come, and that’s where they’re able to optimize the profitability. Less waste, JIT, everybody’s happy. Lower prices to the customer, and it’s just a virtuous cycle. But it requires density. Same thing in Asia. I mean, I feel like I saw the future seven years ago in Shanghai, looking at the Hema stores and their use of e-commerce and rapid delivery scooters out the back of the store.

I mean, it was absolutely amazing to see. Here in the US, you know, we’re a bit, we’re more spoiled for choice. We’re at, and we, we have a combination of high dense urban areas and many, many suburban areas, and then lots of rural wide open spaces. So that’s why you see the best retailers. Look at Walmart, largest, the largest retailer, the largest grocer, of course, is Kroger, followed by Albertsons, but the largest retailer who sells food, of course, is Walmart.

Walmart leverages their own stores. They have, where possible, where they want to, where it’s advantageous, they built their back rooms to be robotically engineered. You know, conveyors to, to fulfill e-commerce orders out of the back of their physical plant, their store. Other companies like Kroger invested into exclusive partnerships with companies like Ocado and built strategic regional hubs where they could pick orders very, very quickly, very efficiently, and then ship either to stores in their own network,

or in the case of some of the projects I work on, ship groceries in states like Florida, in which they had no stores. So you see a variety of different go-to-market strategies. I think the right answer is yes, meaning you have to, modern grocery, you have to do a little bit of all of that. You need to be a great brick and mortar store, offer a fabulous experience, but you have to offer an e-commerce platform.

Otherwise you can’t grow and maintain your market share.

Keith Anderson: Yeah. It’s fascinating. Over around the same timeframe that you were working in those areas, I was doing a lot of industry analysis and consulting. And I think we have a friend in common, Tom Furphy, does that name ring a bell?

Suzy Monford: Great friend. Yes. Love Tom.

Keith Anderson: Yeah, so I, I used to be on the circuit with Tom, as the two of us proselytized, “grocery is going to be digitized, everybody,” but it, it’s always interesting to me to reflect on how close we were with some of our, I might call them scenarios in hindsight, but I think most people interpreted them as predictions.

And I, I think as you just said, it’s very clear the reason that the industry is so fixated on the term omnichannel now is it’s sort of all of the above and particularly in a market like the US that was already pretty mature when these technologies emerged in contrast to some of the developing markets that could look at the future and could design from day one, you know, smaller stores, different store network and distribution models, last mile, retrofitting an existing asset base is in some ways more challenging, but there’s, there’s economic upside and there’s sustainability upside where you can align what your, business will support with what the technology and customers will allow.

Suzy Monford: Absolutely. And in my view, not only you can, but you must, honestly, I mean, why not? Why not? It’s, it’s much less, every day that goes by, it’s much less expensive to make these types of investments. And every day that goes by, your customer demographic is changing. You know, you, your traditional customers, your oldies are aging out, and it’s the Gen Y and the Gen Z and the Millennials that are your customer today and the future, and they’re demanding that, but, you know, coming, stepping back from that, because I don’t ever tend to preach and be pedantic about it, but, you know, with technology, we, you, you can do well by doing good. And I think that old, what is that old trite saying, it’s our attitude that determines our altitude in life or something silly.

But, you know, maybe I’ll turn the table and ask you a question, Keith, because you’ve been in this space, you’ve been a pioneer. Why do you think the US seems to be such slow followers, generally speaking? Why does it, why, why, why doesn’t the US you know, why don’t these large chains, why is their imagination, not sometimes the large ones do, but the regionals don’t, it doesn’t seem to capture their imagination until it’s become a well established trend.

Keith Anderson: It’s a really good question. My first, my first thought is, the geography, you know, both the geographic and the population diversity. I mean, you can actually point to parts of the country, all over, you know, in almost every state. You’ll find examples that are really far on the maturity curve and, you know, in many cases raising the bar, but it is hard at, at the scale of the majors to move quickly enough to sort of point to the innovation, the way you see it when we’re all looking globally for examples of, “Hey, here’s, here’s what’s next.”

You know, I think secondly, we just have a different regulatory culture than some of the parts of the world that are a little, more inclined to use the stick than the carrot. And, I, I think that creates its own challenges, but, you know, I, I am, I pay very close attention at the moment to where the capital is being invested.

And I do have to credit Europe. There, there is so much technology investment focused on retail and CPG, climate and sustainability technologies, you know, in, in the mainstream, you see headlines about, “are we seeding markets in some of the more macro clean technology categories?” I have the same concern, you know, sometimes, that we’re not moving quickly enough in within some of the subcategories, like, industry-focused technologies, because I see so much happening abroad.

That’s not to the detriment of what’s happening here. You know, there, there is a ton happening in places like Boulder and Silicon Valley, but I was sort of stunned to see how much of it is happening in Europe. I do think though, you, you know, to their credit, Kroger is certainly doing a lot with Zero Waste, Zero Hunger.

Walmart, with Project Gigaton, you know, hit the target, I think six years ahead of schedule. And Amazon, with Climate Pledge Friendly and some of their other programs, you know, they’re increasingly making it part of the engagement model for suppliers. And with Amazon in particular, it’s pretty visible across the shopper journey.

You see it on search result pages, product detail pages, checkout pages. I, I do think, you know, I, I want to turn the table back to you and ask you a question because I do think it feels to me like an inflection point in the industry, not unlike where you and I were in those early days of online grocery, where it’s already happening. In parts of the world, it’s a much bigger part of the industry. In this part of the world, it’s not yet the focus in most executives’ day, but I’m curious if there are parallels that you see or lessons you’ve learned about, you know, what it was like with responsibility for e-commerce in a big grocer when it was you know, when 90 percent or more of the volume was brick and mortar, and how do you engage the rest of the organization to say, “this is a little bit different way of operating. The economics look a little different, but the writing is on the wall. The momentum is building. With each passing quarter, it’s going to be a bigger part of how we remain viable and keep winning.”

Hey folks, this is the part of the show where we say thank you and see you soon to the general audience, plus and higher tier members of decarbonize.co, stay tuned for the rest of the episode.

Well, Suzy, this has been really, again, a really exciting and interesting conversation, and I’m sure some of the folks listening would love to learn more about you and the work that you’re doing. Where would you direct them?

Suzy Monford: So, reach out, I’m, as I said, I’m running Food Sport, so you can find me on LinkedIn at Food Sport International. You can go, that’s really the best way, just find, find me on LinkedIn. Always Happy to meet and connect and be of support.

Keith Anderson: Wonderful. Well, thank you again so much for joining me.

Suzy Monford: Thank you, it’s been my pleasure. Cheers. 

Keith Anderson: Thanks for listening. I’m Keith Anderson, the executive producer and host of Decarbonizing Commerce. Sonic Futures handles audio, music, and video production. If you enjoyed the show, we’d really appreciate it if you took a moment to subscribe and leave a review or share it with a colleague. For the full episode and more member exclusive insight and analysis, join the decarbonizing commerce community at decarbonize.co. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you on the next episode of decarbonizing commerce.

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