In a May 19 Zoom discussion — the latest in FORTUNE’s Most Powerful Women “conversations with” series — Beth Ford, CEO of Arden Hills, Minn.-based cooperative Land O’Lakes Inc., stressed that employees need to come first during the current coronavirus crisis.
“Never has it been more important than right now to put your team first, to listen, to do everything you can to help them feel grounded, comfortable, engaged and tied into the mission and with each other,” she told FORTUNE Senior Editor Beth Kowitt and other discussion participants. “I think if you do that, if you treat them well … and they know that, then everything else will take care of itself.”
Land O’Lakes has been facing the same pandemic-related challenges that many other dairy and food and beverage processors have been. One of them, Ford told Kowitt, is the abrupt shift in demand from foodservice to retail. And it’s certainly not easy or even feasible for processors to shift from selling large blocks of cheese to retail packs, for example.
“The investment that you’d have to make — the amount of time and engineering required to reset that pipeline — is not insignificant,” she pointed out.
But Land O’Lakes’ employees have shifted what they could, Ford said.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my team; they have found creative ways to make some of our foodservice items available at retail,” she said.
New product development also has presented a challenge. And one of Land O’Lakes key areas is innovation, especially within the dairy sector, Ford told Dairy Foods magazine, which participated in the Zoom discussion. The cooperative has research and development teams within each of its four business units.
“What they’ve been trying to do is to work together more virtually and create,” she explained. “They’ve been working out ways to stay engaged and to test and do things remotely.”
Not surprisingly, innovation slowed down until the company “kind of got reset,” Ford noted. But the situation actually ended up bringing some advantages such as being able to work virtually with other R&D teams from the cooperative and saving in travel time that was required to meet with chefs and others located elsewhere.
“Now everyone is more available and able to engage and have more of a conversation and try new things,” she said.
Going forward, non-virtual innovation will require Land O’Lakes to “think through in incredible detail” how to keep R&D teams safe while together in the building — much like the company already did with its plant employees. Social distancing and mask-wearing in the common areas are required, Ford noted.
They’re “going to have to share information in a different manner than [they’ve] done before,” she said.