By Mark Ward, Sr., PhD 2014-05-01 20:25:13
How two SNA Patrons got hooked on schools—and why they stay engaged, despite the challenges. Meet Michael Turley Current Title: Vice President and General Manager for Government Sales Company: Tyson Foods, Inc. Profession You’d Choose If Not Current One: Major League Baseball Player Top of Your Bucket List: Play golf at Pebble Beach Place You’d Like to Visit: Italy Dream Dinner Guest: George W. Bush Favorite Subject in School: Economics One of the latest concerns of school nutrition vendors is found in the numbers. “Fewer kids are eating school lunch,” asserts Michael Turley, vice president and general manager for government sales at Tyson Foods, Inc., in Springdale, Ark. Nationwide over the past two years, he cites, overall school lunch participation has declined 4% and full-price participation 14%. The numbers challenge is different than what most restaurants face, he acknowledges. In a restaurant, declining sales are caused by traffic being down, but in schools, enrollment isn’t down. “Fifty-five million students still go to school each day. School lunch serves 31.6 million of those kids, and the challenge is to increase that number.” But a vendor’s partnership with school nutrition programs across the country is much more than a mere numbers game. “I admit, the first time I started selling to the K-12 market, I asked myself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ The rules and regulations are different than in any other market,” relates Turley. Crash Course “But soon, I decided that the K-12 market is the place for me,” he continues. “Right away, I joined SNA and grabbed every back issue of School Nutrition that I could put my hands on.” As it happened, the Association’s Annual National Conference (ANC) took place during his first month on the job. “When I saw the passion of school nutrition operators and learned what an enjoyable group they are, I knew that I’d found my niche.” That Turley found his niche in school nutrition might be a bit of a surprise to longtime associates, friends and family. “Before the food industry,” he says, “I sold tractor trailers!” Indeed, that’s where Turley began his career after earning an MBA from Oklahoma’s Phillips University. Starting as a marketing manager for a trailer manufacturer, in time he worked his way up to company president. But in 2002, ready for something new, Turley accepted an invitation to join a food manufacturing firm. “My challenge,” he recounts, “was to help grow the company by securing national chain accounts.” A curve ball came his way when his employer acquired another food manufacturer that was active in the K-12 school market. To facilitate the acquisition, Turley was named vice president and put in charge of all K-12 sales. That’s when he grabbed those back issues of School Nutrition, attended ANC—and soon discovered his own passion for school feeding. Ideas at Work In 2012, Turley received a too-good-to-pass-up offer to head K-12 and government sales at Tyson Foods. The largest supplier of protein to the K-12 market, Tyson serves more than 7,000 school districts in all 50 states. Although he heads a sales and product development team whose scope is nationwide, “My favorite part of the job is getting out to school districts, large and small, and spending time with our customers,” cites Turley. “I also love the time I spend with operators at SNA state and national conferences. We’re an SNA Patron, and the networking I do through the Association is a huge benefit—and pleasure.” Through this networking, he continues, “I hear about operators’ needs straight from the source.” That information, together with extensive taste-testing by students, is vital, as Turley’s division develops solutions for increasing school meal participation. “We also rely on what’s trending in the restaurant segment,” he adds, “because kids’ palates are so sophisticated today.” Thus, through a combination of resources—operator feedback, taste-testing, keeping an eye on food trends and maintaining a dedicated facility in Springdale to test recipes and apply federal nutrition standards— Turley hopes to achieve a personal aspiration: “My goal is to feed all 55 million kids who go to school—and I’m optimistic that, together, we can do it!” Turley proclaims. “Still, I’m concerned that some policymakers have the perception that the school cafeteria is ‘responsible’ for ending childhood obesity. We’ll never ‘solve’ the problem in the lunchroom alone. The answer must include more nutrition education and physical activity. We want to partner with operators and be a provider of resources, [including nutritious foods], to promote healthier habits.” Meet Terry Roberts Current Title: Executive Director Company: Heartland School Solutions Profession You’d Choose If Not Current One: Architect Top of Your Bucket List: Go skydiving Place You’d Like to Visit: India Dream Dinner Guest: Wayne Gretzky Hobbies: Travel, reading, ice hockey When driving, a single glance at the dashboard gives you a moment-bymoment gauge of the vehicle’s operation—its speed, mileage, fuel level, driving gear, temperature, voltage. If the car is operating outside its key parameters—you’re going too fast, your gas is low, the engine is hot, the battery is low, it’s time for an oil change— you can make the needed adjustments. Now imagine if, in your school nutrition operation, you could look at your computer and tell at a glance “which menu items are the most popular that week, which schools are down in sales, which sites are below your targets for meal participation or reimbursable meal applications or how much you’ve generated that month in online prepayments,” says Terry Roberts, executive director of Heartland School Solutions. Based in Princeton, N.J., the SNA Patron provides point-of-sale, back office and online payment systems for the K-12 market. Primed to Perform In every industry today, success increasingly depends on having real-time data to make informed managerial decisions. In retailing, that means gathering and aggregating transaction data each day from each point of sale. School nutrition operations, with points of sale spread across multiple sites, are no exception. “As you get the data and compare them against your Key Performance Indicators, KPIs, you can pinpoint which areas need help and quickly respond,” explains Roberts Compared to the Nineties, when “computerizing your points of sale was a new technology for school nutrition, and there was some resistance,” he recounts, “operators today are much more techsavvy.” Today, the greatest barrier to re-imagining the central office computer as a KPI dashboard, he suggests, “is the fact that schools tend to stick with the systems and software they already have in place.” The trouble with standing still, however, is that a school nutrition program’s points of sale are expanding. “More parents want the option of prepaying for school meals online,” notes Roberts, “and more payments are being made with mobile devices.” And with more transaction data moving through cyberspace from more locations, security concerns are on the rise. On top of that, there’s a value to being able to access your data on the go. “When you’re in the field, visiting one of your cafeterias,” says Roberts, “how much more effective could you be if you could pull out your tablet, pull up KPIs for that site and discuss them with your manager?” Points of sale, data security protocols and managerial tools all are evolving. Directors who insist on sticking with “tried and true” systems, out of inertia, may fall behind, he asserts. Stuck on Schools Roberts’ own career has been on a fast track since he graduated from California’s Pomona College with a degree in economics. The Los Angeles native moved to Washington, D.C., and spent the next years consulting on mergers and acquisitions in the energy sector before moving back West to take a job as marketing director for School-Link Technologies (SL-Tech), an Arizona firm that provided K-12 food-service point-of-sale solutions. “I loved the work,” he recounts, “and the passion that I saw in school nutrition professionals left a deep impression on me.” After a year’s hiatus in 2004-05 to give law school a try, Roberts says, “I realized the law wasn’t for me and happily went back to SL-Tech,” this time as its chief operating officer. Next on the docket: He earned an MBA in 2009. Three years later, SL-Tech was acquired by Heartland Payment Solutions. “Heartland is active in solutions for colleges, government agencies, restaurants and small businesses,” Roberts explains. “When they acquired SL-Tech and got into the K-12 market, they realized that a dedicated division was needed—which became Heartland School Solutions. The needs of K-12 schools are not only different from other market segments, but each school district has its own unique needs and requires its own customized solution.” Today, Roberts’ team is based in Tempe, Ariz., and serves more than 30,000 school districts nationwide. “As the challenges of running a school nutrition program become more complex,” he says, “the more you need ways to make the complex simple and digestible.” Mark Ward is a freelance writer in Victoria, Texas.
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