Feeding Off Innovation

Innovation may be one of the most clichéd buzzwords in business. Everyone likes to think they’re on the cutting edge and thinking outside the box, but few actually are.

Andria Long (BSBA ’90, MBA ’96) definitely belongs in the latter group, and her proof resides in a high-rise building in the heart of downtown Chicago. Long’s expertise in innovation led to the creation of Johnsonville Foods’ Innovation Center—the second Innovation Center of Excellence she built for a major consumer packaged goods company (CPG). Long will share her experiences in innovation at Thursday’s UF MBA at the Hough Graduate School of Business Critical Issues in Business Speaker Series at 6 p.m. in Hough Hall.

To some, innovation has a complex connotation. For Long—Vice President, Innovation at Johnsonville—it’s simple. She defines innovation as “solving problems (needs) in a new or different way.”

“If you make it too complicated, it’s harder for people to execute,” Long said. “You have to boil it down, and be able to communicate it effectively.”

Long said her top priority is to develop new products and packages that meet a consumer need. It’s a role she’s excelled in since beginning her brand marketing career as an Assistant Brand Manager for Kimberly Clark in 1996. Over the past 18 years, Long has worked at some of the world’s top CPGs, including Kellogg’s and Sara Lee, and enhanced popular brands such as Cheez-It, Huggies, St. Ives, Jimmy Dean, Hillshire Farm and Ball Park.

Long was instrumental in building Sara Lee’s Innovation Center of Excellence in 2009. The center marked the first time in Sara Lee’s history that “all of its North American food and beverage research and development capabilities were under one roof.”

After leaving Sara Lee to begin her own consulting business, Long was enticed to build a similar center for Johnsonville.

“Most companies have innovation in some form or another,” Long said. “But the Innovation Center is really focused on being great at it, and taking it to the next level. To hire a team from scratch, to build an office from scratch is something that I love,” Long said.

Long said establishing a solid business case foundation is integral when launching a brand or product. Although the levels of risk are high and failure is inevitable when constantly trying new strategies, Long said “doing your homework up front” can eliminate, or at least reduce, the number of obstacles you’ll encounter.

“Ask yourself some key questions,” Long said. “Are we doing something that makes sense? Is it fulfilling the consumer’s needs? Is it a fit for my brand? If it’s not, then it’s not worth the continued effort. Look at your business case, and you can filter out what’s not going to be successful. Through judgment and data, you’ll be able to make the right call.”

A key enabler for successful innovation, Long said, is a “culture of innovation and commitment.” Long said she has full autonomy in her role at Johnsonville, and the company’s executives are supportive of her initiatives. But, at some companies, change isn’t always embraced.

“The status quo is always easier,” Long said. “You have to be a champion of change, and make others understand the benefits of change. It’s a hard thing to do.

“The key is you have to bring people along with you. Senior leadership wants to understand what’s going on. Bring them along so they understand. It’s a high-profile, high-visibility job. Your failures are very obvious, but so are your wins.”

Working seamlessly with the team she assembled at Johnsonville is a skill Long directly attributes to her time at UF MBA. The program’s collaborative approach to problem-solving is paying dividends in her exciting career position.

“Everything you do, you do as a team; you don’t go at it alone,” Long said. “You’ll be working with people from different backgrounds, and you’ve got to understand people’s strengths and what they bring to the table.”