Right out of the playbook
As an avid athlete with a passion for competitive sports, she quickly saw the opportunity to apply the lessons she learned on sports teams to the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry. She was hooked. “All the reasons I wanted to stay in sports, like competition, coaching, and helping others, were available to me in management positions in packaged goods,” she says. “I figured if I couldn’t do it on the fields, I could do it in the business environment.”
Ms. Stewart rose through the ranks of Kellogg’s after starting as a brand manager in 1989 and working her way upwards through sales and marketing positions. She retired as President and CEO just last August, and continues to be known as a strategic, effective, and impactful leader.
From player to coach
With her background in competitive sports, it’s no wonder Ms. Stewart approached her career with the same laser focus as on the volleyball court. In both environments, she had influential coaches who valued honest feedback. Her varsity volleyball coach, with whom she is still friends with today, gave Ms. Stewart advice that still resonates: “Believe in yourself. My coach pushed me to go above and beyond what I thought I was capable of… and then I achieved it.”
At Kellogg’s, Ms. Stewart learned from a number of colleagues, but one of the most interesting pieces of advice she received was about her personal brand. “He asked me who I wanted ‘Brand Carol’ to be. What was the perception I want people to have of me?” she says. “My career took off when I decided who I wanted to be and then changed my behaviour.”
A competitive spirit
As Kellogg Canada’s first and only female president and CEO to date, Ms. Stewart did not have many female peers in the industry. She did not think of herself as an outlier at the time but, rather, she focused on a strong work ethic. “I never thought of myself as an underdog. All I thought was that I had a job to do so I did it to the best of my ability,” she says, adding, “I’m very competitive. No matter what job I do, I like to win.”
Leveraging her role as an experienced leader, Ms. Stewart mentored many female colleagues throughout her career to help other women succeed. “Culturally, 25 years ago it was quite different,” she says. “Things have progressed well, and I think I’ve been a part of that progress.”
A lot has changed in 30 years in CPG. The biggest difference, says Ms. Stewart, is consumers. “Communications and technology were very different than what they are today. In the digital age, the way we connect with consumers has changed dramatically. The way we marketed to customers 25 years ago and the way we do now are totally different.”
An evolving consumer base with a sophisticated understanding of technology has prompted companies to rethink the skills required to respond to that change. “The right skills for a strong team have also changed,” Ms Stewart says. “What got us to where we are today won’t work in the future. Getting the right people, skillset, and training is really important.”
The third major difference, she says, is the trade environment itself and the consolidated retail space. While there were many smaller retailers 25 years ago, consolidation and e-commerce have had a disruptive effect on the industry. “Now we have five retailers that make up over 80 per cent of the Canadian consumer retail space. When you add in e-commerce, it can be challenging,” she adds.
Going the distance
Staying relevant in a competitive market throughout the years takes diligence and a vision for the future. To stay successful, Ms. Stewart highlights the importance of keeping CPG as an attractive career choice for younger demographics. “There are a lot of great jobs in CPG but they’re different from what they were 25 years ago,” she says. Citing marketing as an example, she says strategies are based more on storytelling and trying to connect with consumers.
“We’re at a zero-growth market now so everyone is fighting for market share. It’s more of a dog fight than it was in the past.” Ms. Stewart challenges those in the industry to keep the jobs attractive with movement opportunities, training, experiences, and engagement.
Additionally, consumer expectations have changed, prompting the CPG industry to respond to consumer demand. “Processed foods won’t go away because of the convenience, but health and wellness has been redefined. Products will have to evolve to meet changing needs, which I think is great,” she says.
A team player
Throughout her remarkable career, one thing has remained constant: Ms. Stewart’s loyalty to the home team. Not only did she spend almost 30 years at Kellogg’s, she also carved out time to be on FCPC’s Board of Directors and is the former FCPC Board Chair. “I wanted to fight for what was important for the industry,” she says. “Plus, it’s a great way to meet people, experience the amazing diversity in our industry, and learn what you don’t know. It gave me the opportunity to be an active part of something bigger.
While she may be technically retired, Ms. Stewart has no plans to relax. Whether it be holding a position on a board, playing squash, spending time with her family, or volunteering to help women, “I am going to keep my brain going and my head in the game.”