When Steve Voskuil was appointed as CFO of Hershey, one of the world’s biggest chocolate makers, his mission along with the rest of the senior management team, was to grow shareholder value by building on its core, expanding the portfolio, scaling a sustainable international business and pursuing M&A.
Although Hershey’s is synonymous with some of America’s most famous snacking brands, there was recognition that it needed to expand into new areas- particularly reflecting growing consumer taste for better-for-you products and non-confection snacking occasions.
As part of a plan to double the size of the business within a decade, Voskuil was hired to run a finance team able to support this ambition through improved technology and upskilling in data and analytics to drive strategic growth.
He says Michele Buck, who became the first female chairman, president and CEO of Hershey in 2017, outlined the vision for growth, which reached a market value of around $22bn by late February, “to lead from our core, expand beyond confection, deliver sustainable international scale and pursue M&A and investments that extend capabilities to reach consumers in new ways. We want to play in spaces that reflect how peoples snacking choices, shopping habits and media consumption are evolving,” he says.
Certainly, Voskuil had the CV to support this approach, having spent more than 20 years at personal care giant Kimberly-Clark, responsible for brands such as Andrex and Kleenex. In that context, his international experience- particularly in M&A-would be invaluable.
“Hershey generates a lot of cash, and we have opportunities to grow both organically and inorganically- so value accretive M&A experience was going to be useful here,” he says.
But along with the big company experience, Voskuil also offered another dimension as he was the CFO of a $2bn medical devices company that was carved out of Kimberly-Clark and listed, prior to joining Hershey.
The experience of taking on his first full CFO role at Halyard Health, that was rebranded a year later as Avanos Medical, helped forge a finance leader skill set to support decision making in a highly competitive space.
“I spent almost five years there doing everything you do in a start-up – building a finance and IT team, developing the investment thesis, raising capital, and preparing the strategic growth plan.
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“It was a pivotal time to get a hands-on opportunity to be a public company CFO but with start-up mentality,” he says.
At Hershey, leveraging an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin and a graduate degree from Stanford University, Voskuil set about finessing a finance function that could deliver on the vision set out by Buck.
Voskuil says his aim was to build on “the strong job my predecessor had done setting up the finance organisation”, before he arrived, through developing an approach that he says leveraged the culture already in place.
He says the timing of his arrival chimed with a wider push to move the company forward whilst still acknowledging “the community orientation and purpose driven nature” of the company, that is still headquartered in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
The founder’s established trust, which is thought to have fought off an effort to sell Hershey to industry rival Mondelez International in 2016, still owns just under a third of the group.
“It was refreshing and energising to step into a company where purpose, the community, employees and consumers are held in such high regard. The team I inherited expected a leader who was going to motivate and inspire around that purpose,” says Voskuil.
On the technology side, Voskuil set about upgrading the ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems. “We are in the middle of a significant upgrade of the ERP system and all of the applications that orbit that system. We’re in the design and build phase of it right now,” he says.
In addition, Voskuil says he also looked at how to harness the strengths of the finance team, by expanding a career development and planning programme. “We want to have a high-performance, high trust environment with candid feedback, so that we can maximise the potential of our human talent, which as a finance organisation is our biggest asset,” he says.
These elements are brought to the fore in ensuring finance provides the right commercial and strategic focus as a team, “building on the role of finance as stewards and operators to become strategic leaders for the enterprise and catalysts for change and transformation,” he says.
That approach effectively sees finance having “a more direct and meaningful impact” on the commercial areas of the business, being closer to the consumer, and the front end of the organisation, reflecting Voskuil’s time spent in the sales function at Kimberly-Clark.
“People are inspired when they can see a path from what they’re doing to what’s happening on the shelf, what’s happening in a consumers hand, and the way that brand is being received.
“I picked up that sensitivity when I worked in sales. But I believe no matter what finance job you’re in, whether shared services or payroll accounting, finance is the only function that touches the entire value chain of the company. And because of that, we have a special responsibility to impact that value chain at every stage,” he says.
In that respect, Voskuil says finance is especially well placed to support the multiple issues that a company like Hershey needs to address such as child labour, sustainable agriculture and climate change. “To improve disclosure on ESG we have to improve data consistency and provide more transparency; finance can play a very important role in that.
“With our strong brands and commitment to our global communities, we want to be a leader in improving the environment. I think that leadership mantle belongs on companies like ours. We accept that mantle, and that’s part of our responsibility as corporate citizens,” he adds.
Although focused on the future, Voskuil says that the last year has meant plenty of challenges in terms of responding to the coronavirus pandemic. He says Hershey went from physical closeness and most people in the office to a virtual work environment for corporate employees overnight. “We undertook virtual processes to close the books, prepare for earnings calls, and conduct virtual internal control and SOX (Sarbanes-Oxley) work overnight,” he says.
The fact that the finance function was able to deliver working remotely is testament to the efforts put in beforehand to be more joined up. “We were in a good place on the technology side, and that was an enabler,” he says.
The decision was taken to make staff meetings shorter, with more frequent interactions with the senior leadership team “because the things we had to collaborate on were coming so rapidly. That frequency enabled us to move more quickly and be agile, as the environment around us was also evolving,” he says.
Although its share price fell sharply in March, Hershey’s stock bounced back to close to pre-Covid levels through the rest of the year, which Voskuil puts down to the strength of the group’s operating agility and strong brands. “Strong brands that have emotive connections to consumers fared the storm,” he says, “and our supply chain worked hard to keep them on shelf.”
He says that the group saw an even bigger spike in demand around traditionally strong periods such as the S’mores occasions, Halloween and seasonal celebrations, when he says family rituals became even more important.
The ability to respond to a sharp increase in demand, resulted from a determined effort to keep plants operating safely. “We’realised those family and community rituals were going to be very important, so we focused on safety to ensure our manufacturing teams could safely produce our beloved brands and our sales teams could safely keep them to store shelves,” he says.
End to end data and analytics played a key role to understand where demand was going to peak, based on which zip codes were impacted by quarantine restrictions. “We were able to look at where quarantines were impacting demand and work with retailers to say, ‘you’re going to get a big run on chocolate bars – let’s prepare together,” he says.
“Combining agility in our supply chain with analytics, we were able to move inventory around the country to help make sure that we had stock in store when people came to celebrate those rituals,” adds Voskuil.
Plenty of lessons were learned over the past year that Hershey is looking to monetize in the uncertain period ahead. “We want to turn it from something we did while we were on the balls of our feet to something that is a sustainable part of the way we run the business.
“One of the big learnings is that when push came to shove, leveraging the insights we gained from analytics, had an impact on the shelf and our consumers.
Much of the best work was achieved by finance while working in a cross functional team making game time decisions, says Voskuil, using a sporting analogy.
“At no point in the last year was finance on the bench. Finance worked alongside operations, marketing and analytics teams all throwing data up on the virtual whiteboard and making decisions in real time,” he adds.