Dole's Poduch Brings Her Salad-days Lessons to the Produce Aisle

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Julie Poduch is always up for saving things, whether it be the baby birds she nurses back to health as a volunteer at her local wildlife center or the staid canned-chili business she was able to turn into a five-alarm success.

The 43-year-old Chicago-area native (an alumna of Sen. Hillary Clinton's high school, Maine South in Park Ridge) is now turning her rescuer's eye to the produce aisle. As VP-marketing and research and development at Dole Fresh Vegetables for the last two-plus years, Ms. Poduch has been hard at work trying, as she put it, "to reorient fresh produce with a more consumer package-goods approach. It has, frankly, been a little behind the times."

Ms. Poduch's recent rampage to whip the fresh-salad segment into shape comes after work in traditional grocery products.

FROM P&G SYSTEM

A stint at Pepsi-Cola General Bottlers in Chicago was followed by an MBA from Cornell University. After that-no surprise-she moved on to the brand management training ground: Procter & Gamble Co. After working on Duncan Hines for two years, Ms. Poduch followed her dreams west to Nalley's Fine Foods, which has a line of dressings, spreads, microwave meals and canned chili in about 25% of the U.S.

Charged initially, as associate marketing manager, with "maintaining" the Nalley's canned-chili brand, Ms. Poduch went further, expanding the line from basic mild and spicy varieties into a 13-strong portfolio of everything from Cheddar Cheese Chili to Walla Walla Onion Chili. Ms. Poduch's efforts gave Nalley's leading chili status in its territories and won her the job as head of marketing for the entire portfolio of brands at the Tacoma, Wash.-based company.

"I didn't take `Maintain a business' as being compelling," Ms. Poduch said. Instead, she made the business the company's shining jewel.

Roughly 15 years later, after helping to reposition and relaunch Nalley's various brands and make them No. 1 or 2 in their categories, Nalley's was bought by Birds Eye Foods and Ms. Poduch went to Dole Food Co.

The far-sunnier weather in California allows Ms. Poduch to revel in outdoorsy pursuits like hiking, and on the work side, Dole offered another opportunity to build rather than maintain a business.

A year into her tenure, Ms. Poduch commissioned a research study to determine how consumers actually shop for packaged salads. The study marked a sea change for a segment that had historically relied on doing things by retailer request or competitive response, not actual consumer insight.

"We'd been guessing at what was appropriate from a new-product standpoint," Ms. Poduch said.

The study resulted in a major repackaging and regrouping of the high-penetration packaged salads into three segments-all-family varieties dubbed Fresh Favorites; fancier organics and spinach salads into Fresh Discoveries; and a new beyond-the-lettuce-salad segment, Fresh Makes, that debuted recently with the launch of Veggie Pasta Salads and will be expanded annually.

Employing consumer insight for packaging and innovation pays off, she said.

Dole ranks second in the $2.7 billion fresh-cut salad segment. The leader is Fresh Express, recently acquired by Chiquita Brands, with sales up 8% to $1 billion in food, drug and mass outlets excluding Wal-Mart for the 52 weeks ended Jan. 22, according to Information Resources Inc. Dole's sales grew 5% to $797 million, followed by private label and then by Ready Pac Produce, whose sales rose 38% to $238 million.

Just Asking

Julie Poduch

Dole

What's your favorite food, veggie or otherwise? Mom's homemade meatballs.

Recent reads? For pleasure, Jon Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven."

Favorite feel-good activities? Long walks and a lot of volunteering, including for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Animal Friends Rescue and a local hospital.
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