Richard Armstrong: Sara Lee’s Supply Chain Wizard

Richard Armstrong is the proverbial “company” man having spent the majority of his working life employed by Downers Grove, Ill.-based Sara Lee Corp., a $19-billion global marketer of branded products. He joined Hygrade Foods, the suburban production home of Ball Park franks, as an hourly worker in its Tacoma, Wash., facility in 1970. By 1987, he had worked his way up to general manager at Hygrade, having served as supervisor, production scheduler and plant manager during his 19-year tenure. Before attaining his current position as chief supply chain officer of the Sara Lee Food & Beverage unit, Armstrong spent time at Hillshire Farm and Kahn’s New London, Wis., facility as general manager for three years. Next stops included a year at King Cotton Foods in Memphis, Tenn., where he was chief executive officer, and nearly seven years in the same position at Galileo Foods in San Lorenzo, Calif. How this corporate executive, who seemed destined to follow in his father’s path with a career in the military, ended up in a key management position at a top American-based food, beverage and household goods marketer was not by design.
“It was all happenstance,” he says, explaining that the Urban League helped him get his first job with Hygrade. “All I needed was a chance, and the Urban League facilitated that.” Armstrong is “paying it forward” in his capacity as chairman of the Sara Lee Food & Beverage Diversity Inclusion Council.
“This not a role specific to my job, but it is something I feel passionate about and I felt I could have an impact,” Armstrong says. “I am beginning to influence people I would not necessarily meet in my day-to-day job. My management philosophies are starting to affect how they think. Armstrong sees the Diversity Inclusion Council as a better vehicle than affirmative action and quotas, which were ineffective. “This endeavor is about putting the business perspective on why we need to have a diverse and inclusive culture,” he emphasizes. “We believe a diversity inclusive organization is essential for our future success.”
Q: Define business and personal success in your life.
A: Doing things consistently on a year-to-year basis. Becoming someone others can rely on for results. The reason I have gotten to where I am in my career is by meeting those things every year. Turning around the business when I was CEO at Galileo Foods, a business that had begun twirling, is an example. We showed significant growth in every major criterion and every major key metric, including profits, cash flow, and revenue within the first year. We essentially turned everything around one year, followed by seven years of incremental success before I was promoted to head Sara Lee Foods supply chain.
Q: What leadership traits keep you on your game in your profession?
A: My strength is working with other people to make sure they have clear objectives and that they have the right context of a situation because that is important. As you go up the ladder, you typically have a broader view of the available information. As you go deeper, you have specific information. I see mistakes made because of people not having the right information to make informed decisions.
Q: Describe the business environment in which you operate, given events concerning negative market forces.
A: As strategic as you can be, you must always be mindful of daily tactical situations that impact the framework of the strategy. What is different about our business is that you have to be strategic and tactical at the same time. It does not mean that if you are tactical, you are working the strategy. In our business, the dynamics change so quickly that you have to be very good at being tactical and strategic. For example, if our market drops 10 or 15 cents on a given day due to certain circumstances, there is a reaction that has to occur with the strategy. You can’t just set it on coast and let it go.
Q: Define power as you see it.
A: My power comes from the energy I get from being around very talented people working toward a common goal. Power means consistently being able to deliver results based on the strategies in place and the capable people around you. Power is not a personal thing. Some people like that word for personal reasons. I look at power as your ability to deliver. Usually that is not due to anything you do by yourself but with a team of professional people.