The Innovator
Photography by Chris Strong

The Innovator

Sally Grimes, ’97, built her career on pushing the innovation envelope. Now a leader at Tyson Foods, she’s changing the paradigm around what it means to be a big food company.

A digital countdown clock sits atop a giant flat-screen monitor in Tyson Foods’ Innovation Lab. It reads 11 days, 0 hours, 1 minute and 14 seconds—and counting. The lab’s brain trust—led by Sally Grimes, ’97, Tyson’s group president, prepared foods—sit comfortably dispersed around the room. Today Grimes is getting the rundown on the Innovation Lab’s latest snack-food creation ¡Yappah! from her handpicked team, many of whom have colorful, self-appointed titles, such as culinary ninja and experimental brand dreamer.

Grimes herself doesn’t really need a distinguishing sobriquet—she’s well-known around the halls of Tyson as not only a food innovation guru, but a key leader helping position the company for growth. She runs about $10 billion of Tyson’s $40 billion business worldwide, guides operations for 45 of the company’s 100-plus plants and facilities, and leads 20,000 team members, whom she readily admits are the backbone of the business. Despite her executive-level responsibilities, she has been intimately involved in many of the company’s biggest successes.

Grimes is pleased with everything she’s hearing from the team. As promised, ¡Yappah! will be in stores within 11 days, a mere six months after the countdown clock began and the assorted flavors of the chicken-based snack now displayed before us were just an idea.

Speed. That’s the mandate for any product that gets Grimes’s greenlight. “My starting point is speed. It’s required for growth in this unbelievably dynamic industry,” she said later. “The changes that are happening right now are unprecedented. How do you get a product to market in six months? We had to come up with new ways to solve problems so we could innovate faster than the consumer and market changes. That’s when we decided to create a separate group, a hothouse, so to speak. The Tyson Innovation Lab emerged from that.”

The Innovator Inside Tyson’s Innovation Lab, Grimes checks in on the launch of ¡Yappah!, a new snack with an eco-friendly twist.

¡Yappah! protein crisps come in five flavors and are sold in recyclable tallboy cans, a clever twist on packaging befitting an item designed to help eliminate food waste and appeal to environmentally conscious consumers. The crisps are made from rescued food materials from Tyson’s own reserve, along with spent grain from Chicago Loop neighbor Molson Coors. The tagline: Snacks for good.

As if the premise of the snack weren’t breakthrough enough, the Innovation Lab decided to launch ¡Yappah! using the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo. On the surface, the move seems unorthodox, especially considering Tyson earned $38.26 billion in revenue last year, up nearly 4 percent from the year prior.

But the decision to crowdsource ¡Yappah! wasn’t financial; it was strategic. “Growth isn’t coming from big food CPG,” Grimes said. “Growth is coming from small brands, startup companies that are doing things differently.” Case in point: the 16 biggest CPG manufacturers saw their share of the brick-and-mortar market decline from 33 percent to 31 percent over a year period ending April 2017, while 16,000 smaller manufacturers saw their total share of the market rise from 17 percent to 19 percent over the same time period, according to Nielsen data.

Determined to shake things up, Grimes implemented a startup mentality. “We created teams that practice design thinking and agile approaches,” she said. “Even if the product is a failure, we learn something. We celebrate failing forward. We’re talking about the largest food company in America launching a food product with Indiegogo. It’s unprecedented.”

Forging Her Own Path

Grimes’s interest in all things food goes back as far as she can remember. Her mother was a dietitian and chef-caliber cook. “Growing up, I remember at every meal always talking about what we were going to have for the next meal,” she said.

Grimes was born and raised in nearby Bourbonnais, Illinois, after her parents immigrated to the United States in the 1960s. She lives in suburban Chicago with her husband of 23 years, Steve Grimes, the CEO of Retail Properties of America, and their children, 17-year-old daughter Isabel and 15-year-old son Noah. Food, of course, is one of their integral bonding experiences; in fact, every Sunday, it’s a different family member’s turn to choose what they’ll eat for dinner. “It used to be that we cooked dinner together on Sundays,” she said. “We just don’t have the time anymore, so now we don’t apologize for saying it’s restaurant night. We live in one of the world’s best food cities and trying new restaurants is a passion for our family.”

Early on, Grimes had entrepreneurial aspirations focused more on creative than culinary arts: her first job was selling homemade greeting cards door-to-door. “My father was supportive, but also very traditional and conservative, and as I got older, he said, ‘I’m not sure art should be your career path of choice.’”

Fortunately, Grimes was also exceptional at math, which helped lead her toward a more father-friendly career choice, banking. After graduating high school, Grimes studied finance to begin that journey, which she continued at Chicago Booth. “Booth was in my backyard and one of the best schools in the world,” she said. “How can you beat that combination?”

As a student, Grimes had every intention of following through on her pursuit of banking. One day on her way to class, she stumbled upon a flyer touting an upcoming presentation at Ida Noyes Hall. The speaker was James Kilts, ’74, then an executive vice president at Kraft Foods parent company Philip Morris and now the namesake of the James M. Kilts Center for Marketing at Chicago Booth.

“I knew he was leading Kraft Foods, a Fortune 100 company,” said Grimes. “I thought, ‘I’ll go listen.’ He explained the concept of brand management, where the art and science of business building come together. I thought, there’s a career out there where I can be creative but also leverage my analytical foundation—where I could run my own business but with the resources of a big company. So, from my little entrepreneurial card company, suddenly I realized I could build something big. That presentation changed everything.”

Grimes focused the rest of her Booth experience on honing her brand-management chops. She hit her stride while enrolled in a New Product Lab course. There, she and a small team were asked to work on behalf of Citibank to analyze the banking institution’s problem areas and present possible solutions.

“I’ll never forget that moment of having my blue suit on, surrounded by my team members, and making a presentation to the Citibank client,” she remembered fondly. “We accomplished something together. That has followed me through my career—the reward that comes from collaboration.”

Though Grimes had an opportunity to work at Citibank full-time after graduation, she instead chose Kraft. It seemed like kismet: It was Booth alumnus and Kraft executive Jim Kilts who helped forge her new path. It was the food industry. And better still, Grimes’s role focused on managing a product regularly consumed by Booth students. “I think I had the best job of all my classmates coming out of business school, because I had the opportunity to work on the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese team,” she said with a smile.

The $4 Billion ‘Startup’

Early on at Kraft, Grimes worked on the brand’s licensed products, fun pasta shapes such as SpongeBob SquarePants. Less than two years after graduation, she wrote the first new product concept for what would become Easy Mac, the world’s first microwavable mac and cheese.

“That got me hooked.” Grimes said. She had an epiphany: “‘I love creating. I love innovation because you are building a business and building a brand.’” By the time Grimes left Kraft for Newell Rubbermaid in 2007, Easy Mac was a more than $100 million business.

Newell Rubbermaid seemed like a bit of a departure for Grimes, a self-professed foodie, but that was expressly the point. “I was intrigued to try something outside of food and really stretch myself,” she said.

At Newell Rubbermaid, she leveraged everything she learned at Kraft and took it global. As the global vice president, marketing, Grimes was responsible for giving the Sharpie brand a makeover. “It started with, ‘What do we stand for?’” she said, referencing Sharpie. “‘Is this a permanent marker or an advocate for self-expression?’ How you reframe it leads to opportunities, whether it be the product, innovation, or the way you communicate and engage and connect with consumers.” Grimes expanded the Sharpie portfolio, launching Sharpie pens, liquid pencils, and gel highlighters, and encouraging consumers to unleash their creativity with Sharpie.

“People started to think of a Sharpie marker in terms of community instead of commodity,” she said. Grimes’s efforts helped earn Sharpie millions of Facebook followers and, from 2009 to 2011, push Newell’s share up two points or more in markers, pens, and pencils, according to SymphonyIRI data from Deutsche Bank. Further, AdAge recognized Sharpie as one of “America’s Hottest Brands,” giving Grimes the biggest pat on the back.

“Sally is very good at—and I think this is a Booth thing—sifting through a lot of information and pulling out a high level ‘so what,’” said Gretchen Hickman, ’96, a classmate at Booth who worked with Grimes at both Kraft and Newell Rubbermaid. “But then she’s very articulate about sharing those high level ‘so whats.’ That makes her so successful as a leader. That is a rare skill.”

After five years at Newell Rubbermaid, Grimes got a call from Sean Connolly—then the CEO of Hillshire Brands and currently the CEO of Conagra—who was tapped to spin off Hillshire from Sara Lee. “He asked me to breakfast and pitched me a life-changing experience to be part of a $4 billion startup.” Connolly asked Grimes to be the company’s chief innovation officer.

“I said, ‘Oh, you probably have the wrong person, I’ve only run P&Ls. I’ve never been in a staff position,’” Grimes recalled. “He said, ‘No, that’s exactly what I’m looking for, to take that sensibility to innovation.’” The pair met again two days later. “I thought we were just going to chat a little bit more,” Grimes said. “But he had the offer. I said yes on the spot.”

Gone are three square meals a day. . . . When you’re a food company, you have to ask, ‘How can I create food that seamlessly and flexibly fits into consumers’ lives?’

Sally Grimes

Follow the Consumer and Keep It Simple

In July 2012 Grimes began as chief innovation officer and president, gourmet foods group at Hillshire Brands, before assuming the title of chief global growth officer and president, international when Hillshire was acquired by Tyson two years later. From her first day, Grimes made it a priority to challenge protocols, as well as traditional branding, and find disruptive ways to understand and meet consumer needs.

A big win came with the millennial-friendly, single-serve, protein-packed innovation Hillshire Snacking Small Plates. “Gone are three square meals a day,” she said. “Americans eat 5.9 times a day. When you’re a food company, you have to ask, ‘How can I create food that seamlessly and flexibly fits into consumers’ lives?’”

In her role, Grimes has made the status quo and every “we’ve always done it this way” aspect of the business open to change. Hillshire Snacking is one example. “Hillshire Snacking came from her idea of, ‘How do we elevate and expand Hillshire Farm?’” said David Ervin, vice president, prepared foods, deli at Tyson. “Sally constantly reinforced how people are eating differently today. ‘How do we intersect a strong brand identity with the behavior of snacking?’ She came up with the idea of Small Plates, which is an elevated snacking experience.”

Last year, IRI listed Hillshire Snacking among its top 10 pacesetters in food and beverages, and the brand’s refrigerated snacks earned $47.5 million in their inaugural year. Along the way, Grimes has been named to Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business,” AdAge’s “Top Women to Watch,” and Chicago Tribune’s Blue Sky “Innovator of the Year,” among other recognitions.

“I learned early on that if you follow the consumer, it’s hard to go wrong,” Grimes said. “We start with the trends and just narrow it down to unmet or latent needs. Innovation can be as simple as: Do they want it? Can we make it? And can we make money at it?”

“Keep it simple and move fast,” she said.

How the Sausage Gets Made (and Branded)

At Tyson’s Chicago headquarters, the ¡Yappah! progress report powwow wraps up. Grimes is whisked away to another meeting, which begins the instant she arrives. This one is about Jimmy Dean, the iconic, nearly 50-year-old brand that for many is synonymous with sausage and breakfast. (No, really: in an episode of acclaimed drama The Sopranos, gangster Vito Spatafore orders “Jimmy Deans” at a diner instead of sausage.) Tyson acquired Hillshire, Hillshire was the spin-off of Sara Lee, and Sara Lee was once known as Consolidated Foods, the company that purchased Jimmy Dean in 1984. But Jimmy Dean has remained a constant and integral part of the brand portfolio throughout, and Grimes is meticulous about preserving its legacy.

The Innovator Grimes and her team consider mouthwatering photography options as part of a packaging refresh for Jimmy Dean breakfast foods.

Not all innovation has the potential to be game-changing. In fact, a 2017 study from Bay Area fintech company CircleUp revealed that some of the biggest CPGs in the food industry spend up to six times more promoting older products than they do innovating new ones, and most of that innovation (61 percent) involves changes to existing products. That’s the focus of this particular meeting, where Grimes and three other Jimmy Dean caretakers are poring over potential new design elements for its existing Jimmy Dean breakfast foods. Grimes simply feels it’s time for a refresh.

“This is about not resting on your laurels,” Grimes began. “We’re taking a brand that has grown double digits and has led the industry in the entire frozen section and ensuring that growth continues. We’re not going to put this on Indiegogo. Instinctually, we feel like we’re going in the right direction, but we’ll test it and we’ll make sure before we put it on shelves.”

In front of them are poster boards with mouthwatering images of breakfast sandwiches, breakfast bowls, sausages, bacon, and muffins, with a written explanation for each of why it was photographed that way. One passage under the heading “Cozy Day” reads, in part, “fresh herbs, savory ingredients, and real seasoning.”

“Let’s talk about the importance of ‘real,’ and how we’re bringing to life fresh and natural,” Grimes says.

That kicks off a lively discussion, down to the smallest details: How does the food reinforce the message? Is it too cute, or perfectly “cozy”? In the market-research phase, consumers will be presented with multiple variations. “We’ll bring this into testing, get consumer feedback, and go from there,” Grimes says.

“You know our risks,” she concludes. “Overintellectualize every element and you holistically lose the sum of the parts.”

Sally is leading the charge from the inside out, creating a culture of innovation and transparency within both her team and the broader company as we look to change how the world thinks about food.

Tom Hayes

Thinking Differently

One of Grimes’s defining characteristics seems to be a passion and a gift for mentoring the newest members of the team. Advice she’d give to Tyson interns? “You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. Humility is the freedom for learning.” And then, just for good measure, she added, “And humility is not the opposite of confidence.”

Earlier, when talking about how Tyson will help feed the 9.7 billion people that are projected to be on Earth by 2050, she offered, “The job is never done and we always have to ask what’s next”—clearly a line she’s patented to help motivate team members.

The Innovator Grimes catches up with some of the dozen-plus Booth alumni who work at Tyson, many in brand management roles.

“I’ve had the privilege of working with Sally for many years, and the role she plays at Tyson Foods today is absolutely critical,” said president and CEO Tom Hayes. “Our prepared foods business is at the center of our transformation from a company with a strong heritage in chicken to a modern food company. Sally is leading the charge from the inside out, creating a culture of innovation and transparency within both her team and the broader company as we look to change how the world thinks about food.”

Jeff Caswell, senior vice president and general manager, Hillshire Farm, likes when Grimes talks about “vujà dé,” a play on words Grimes uses with her teams. He remembers her defining the saying as “‘reframing what we see every day to create new solutions for old problems and disrupt ourselves along the way. It’s the opposite of déjà vu.’”

“She has a clear vision of change for our businesses and culture and a unique way of pushing the thinking of others to make it a reality. She simplifies and creates compelling messages that inspire action,” Caswell said. “‘Vujà dé’ is a memorable idea that we have really gotten behind.”

Stephanie Lo, ’97, has known Grimes since the day they started Booth together in the same cohort in 1995. The two have remained close ever since and they worked together at Kraft after graduation. “Sally has a gift for inspiring people to do great work,” Lo said. “She knows how to build high-reaching teams while mentoring and motivating in a way that makes great things happen.”

In their early days at Kraft, she and Lo used to venture back to Hyde Park to recruit Booth students to join the company. Interested candidates would receive booklets with photos and brief bios of the recruiters. Lo kept the booklet all these years, and at the bottom of one page, a beaming Grimes shows off her school pride, wearing
a maroon ball cap and standing in front of dozens of boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

To the left of the photo, a caption states Grimes’s guiding beliefs, as true today as they were over 20 years ago: “She puts her ‘three P’s’ philosophy into play every day: People first. Be Positive. Be Proactive.”

—By Blair R. Fischer