CHG Spotlight: A Product Manager Can Wear Many Hats

Product test

Product managers, by job description, guide the development of a company’s products. They help set goals and lead a cross-functional team to make sure new product launches succeed in reaching the market.

Heather Winiecki has been a product manager at CHG for more than four years. She and her fellow product managers have the inside scoop on the latest food innovations. Recently, Winiecki helped launch a new item for a global breakfast restaurant. The company was looking to update their menu and called on CHG to deliver a fresh spin on an old standard – the buttermilk biscuit. As with any new product, Research and Development (R&D) came up with new biscuit formulas, the company sampled a few options, picked one and moved forward. Winiecki then made sure the packaging was the right fit and plants were prepared to pump out the new biscuits.

“We wear a lot of hats,” Winiecki says. “The primary function of the product manager is to commercialize a product – we carry a product from idea to function and make sure it gets shipped to the customer.

“As a product manager, you are the owner who has to make sure all of the boxes are checked. The customer wants ‘X’ amount of product to ship and have it shipped by ‘X’ date. We have to hold everybody, even the customer, accountable to that timeline.”

Winiecki is no stranger to product development. Before CHG, fashion was her flavor. She managed clothes, shoes and accessories for a women’s clothing company in New York City. Later, she worked for a footwear company in California. Whether it’s a blouse, a boot or a biscuit, every product is a “finished good.” Each item is distinct, with its own color, style, size, flavor and features. Each variation is produced, packaged, shipped and tracked with a unique item number or SKU (stock keeping unit). Product managers rely on SKUs like the post office relies on zip codes – without them, things may be lost and chaos may soon follow.

Making Order Out of Chaos

Recently, Winiecki’s skills were put to the test when 16 biscuit SKUs at CHG’s Pioneer Frozen Foods plant in Duncanville, Texas, needed a change of address. Last fall, the pre-baked biscuit product needed to be moved to our Pioneer Frozen Foods plant in Dallas (also known as Langdon Road) to make room for a new dough ball line. The timeline would be tight and there was little room for error.

“If you can imagine, out of nowhere, someone says to a plant manager, ‘Hey, we need 900,000 more cases annually that you were not planning to produce. You’re not staffed up for that,” she explains. “Langdon Road’s production ability is massive. But they didn’t have the people or the line hours available to support this endeavor. Every line hour costs money.”

Winiecki connected with Operations, Engineering, R&D, Sales, Purchasing and Packaging. She quickly had to understand the production capability at the Langdon Road plant. More raw materials would have to be acquired. Additional headcount would be needed. And multiple biscuit formulas had to be tested, produced and packaged in their new home. Two months later, the biscuits were rolling off the production lines at the plant.

“She thought of all sides of the business and really worked to make sure what was about to happen worked best for everyone before anything was transitioned or implemented,” said Armias DeBello, plant manager at the Langdon Road plant. “She does not have a silo mindset. She is a team player that wants everyone to win.”

dough ball line

Dough balls are produced Pioneer Frozen Foods – Duncanville.

The Product Manager Becomes a Project Manager

So the boxes for one project – moving the biscuit line – had been checked, but Winiecki’s job wasn’t complete. That new dough ball line still had to be built at the plant in Duncanville to fill orders for a large grocery chain in Texas, as well as other customers.

While she wasn’t the product manager for dough balls, Winiecki’s project management skills were needed to again bring multiple departments together again to expedite another big project. This time, she put her project manager hat on and led meetings, created agendas, and pushed action items to every department.

“My role in the dough ball project was to be a super communicator – keep everybody having the right conversations to track toward the deadline,” Winiecki said. “When are we getting purchase orders? When are they going to sign off on the new line? When are they signing off on samples?”

With Winiecki’s help, the dough balls were ready to roll, on time, in February. The new line is expected to produce more than 300 million dough balls each year for the customer, creating more than $20 million in new revenue for CHG.

When asked to help, Winiecki didn’t hesitate. Maybe the tasks were outside of her job description. But she met the challenge, expanded her skills, and was responsive and accountable to her coworkers and her company. She epitomizes what a high performer is at CHG.

“There are so many smart and committed people here,” she says. “I didn’t have the depth of understanding of how critical their roles are until I was able to work with them on these projects.

“Now, I believe I’m so much better at my job because I understand what types of challenges our teams have.”

– By Scott Wudel, CHG Communications