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By Leah Montebello
Sherry Ulsh, Senior Manager of Indirect Sourcing at The Hershey Company, discusses the ANA, pitch processes, mentoring and procurement’s evolving role.
“Mentoring is really important and goes beyond just connection. In all my mentor relationships, we connect personally but it is about so much more. I am so thankful that many of these connections I have built with various mentees remain part of my life today”
Sherry Ulsh, Senior Manager of Indirect Sourcing at The Hershey Company, started her career in 1983 in the finance team of Burger King, working in the areas of corporate, operations and marketing finance.
After spending 25+ years at the company eventually becoming Director, Global Marketing Finance and Procurement, Ulsh made the move to Church’s Chicken, the American QSR chicken chain, initially as Senior Director, Marketing Finance and Analysis and then laterly as Senior Director, Operations and Marketing Finance.
Whilst at Church’s Chicken and building on her work at Burger King, Ulsh was responsible for managing global budgeting, reporting, variance analysis, forecasting and procurement up until 2017.
It was then through a connection at the ANA that Ulsh was introduced to The Hershey Company. As she explains, “At that time, The Hershey Company was interested in recruiting people who didn’t necessarily have a CPG background. As I had spent my whole career in the restaurant industry, they felt it was a good fit for the position. Additionally, I had grown up around Hershey in Pennsylvania and was interested in returning to the area”.
Ulsh and her team are now responsible for Marketing and Sales Strategic Sourcing for the US and Canada for The Hershey Company.
QSR to CPG
Ulsh admits that her path to marketing procurement at Burger King was “accidental”.
As she explains, “At the time I was managing the advertising funds for Burger King Corporation from an accounting and finance point of view, as well as managing a performance analytics team. There was no real marketing procurement practice happening back then, and my CMO had said he didn’t want marketers negotiating agreements and he asked if I could help”.
This started Ulsh’s passion for marketing procurement and whilst taking on various roles at Burger King Corporation, in her position as Director, Worldwide Marketing Funds, in addition to procurement, she directed and controlled all financial and accounting functions for USA Marketing Fund, whilst reporting to senior management and franchisee committees. She was also involved with the reporting and analysis of Global Marketing Funds across 16 countries with a budget of $500M, as well as the Gift Card program.
Making and managing the shift from a Quick-Service Restaurant (QSR) company to a Consumer-Packaged Goods (CPG) company like The Hershey Company, Ulsh is keen to point out the differences. Indeed, whilst claiming that “the procurement piece isn’t really that different between them”, she does note that it can be more complex in a CPG organisation where you are working with multiple brands.
Their nuances come down to the way the company is structured: “you don’t really have traditional brand management structures at restaurant companies because you are a single brand”. For restaurant companies, this makes the role of CMO as a generalist crucial with work falling within centres of excellence beneath the CMO.
The complication with restaurants instead comes with franchises, and as Ulsh explains, “You have a contractual relationship with them that has an impact on your management of your funds. There are very specific things that require different levels of reporting to a variety of audiences. In addition, you are also going directly to the consumer so that makes it an entirely different piece than with CPG”.
In contrast, multi-brand CPGs, such as The Hershey Company, can often be more complex: “You have more people along the way of decision making”, which makes it a completely different journey from a procurers’ perspective, operating as multiple brands rather than a single brand of say Burger King or Church’s.
Role at The Hershey Company
Ulsh’s role at The Hershey Company is to lead the Marketing and Sales Strategic Sourcing Team for the US and Canada.
Managing sourcing for a spend of $600+ million, Ulsh collaborates with the Marketing, Brand, Shopper, and Sales organizations to instill a holistic, business-based strategic sourcing perspective and mindset. This mindset views Direct Marketing Expense (DME) as a growth driver and focuses on a sourcing approach that includes spending analytics, strategy focused development and execution, with an eye to best practices and negotiation for value.
Working in tandem with internal clients, Ulsh and her team works directly with DME agencies and suppliers outlining the company’s key expectations based on market factors, clearly defined goals and execution excellence. Accountability is managed through a mix of tools that include the development of performance scorecards, SLAs, and both formal and informal reviews. Her team is engaged in all facets of supplier relationship management.
Nonetheless, Ulsh makes the point that the process will vary from spend category to category: “In a category where you have a lot of project work, you aren’t really scoring formally”, she says. Instead Ulsh says that you work with internal clients and agencies / suppliers through strong deliverables management from definition to execution and determine whether the relationship is working and move forward accordingly.
But for media spend, which is a significant proportion of the budget, Ulsh says that the process is “totally different”. A formal review meeting with the agency that includes the key business stakeholder takes place twice a year. An outside consultant is used to facilitate the process from survey development/fielding to review meeting facilitation that includes the consultant working to tease out further nuanced findings. A key part of the overall process is a 360-degree feedback process. In addition, a PRIP (performance related incentive programme) is formalised within the annual scope of work that carries both hard and soft measures.
Building transparent relationships
As noted above, the other key area that Ulsh and her team are responsible for is supplier relationship management (SRM)
From the brand’s side, Ulsh says that some companies tend to “ignore the warning signs” when it comes to their agencies. It is key for a company to manage situations before they become a significant issue, and this is accomplished through developing a meaningful and functioning relationship with an agency from the very beginning.
She continues, “Taking a measure of the culture of an agency is a lot easier than people think it is. There are a lot of good agencies out there and they can all do the same things technically, but you really need to pay attention to the culture to ensure that your culture fits with their culture”.
For transparency on figures, The Hershey Company uses benchmarking tools to provide what she calls “directional guidance”. By having access to this sort of data, she believes that it provides a stronger seat at the negotiation table while driving stronger relationships and better conversations. This removes the emotion from negotiation.
However, Ulsh says “I’m not going to take something out of the database and say this is the number and then hammer and hammer at an agency about why they aren’t at a certain number”. Instead, in her view, benchmarking should help provide directional guidance and understanding as to where an agency sits, facilitating constructive conversations throughout the process. Transparency starts with being clear about what your objectives are. This approach, according to Ulsh, cystalises your expectations of and for the agency.
From a production perspective, Ulsh says that they have very clear guidelines and ways of working, which are communicated to their agencies. Ulsh also says that to ensure that The Hershey Company’s production guidelines are met her team utilises a production cost consultant.
The same goes for media, where The Hershey Company uses external media auditors. Ulsh says that this is what she calls the “trust but verify model”.
As Ulsh notes, you don’t always have the expertise or subject matter experts (SMEs) available as internal procurement staff change or move on, so by utilizing the expertise of a trusted third party ranging from a production cost consultant, a media auditor or a benchmarking tool, procurement can get the key data points and feedbacks needed for a robust analysis of agency performance. As Ulsh so poignantly puts it, “If you don’t hold agencies accountable then what are you doing?”.
When considering the relationship between the client and the agency, Ulsh explains that if there are warning signs with the agency you’re working with, then you shouldn’t ignore them. “If they pop up, you address it with the agency. And if you don’t see change, it is probably time to move on”, she offers.
She continues, “The key for us is that we use all the tools that we have got. We have good legal support, great outside counsel, benchmarking tools and consulting, production cost consultants, media auditors, ANA, and the WFA…When you bring that together, you are negotiating and managing holistically. You aren’t just coming in and picking on one piece. You are looking at the bigger picture and determining where you need to go”.
Whilst some commentators have suggested that at worst the pitch process is broken, and at best flawed, Ulsh was reluctant to admit this, saying “we have an overarching process, but it doesn’t constrain things”. There is no cookie cutter solution, and the pitch process required will depend on the category and business partner, as well as overall purpose.
Ulsh describes how The Hershey Company has a variety of approaches to the RFP process that includes traditional RFPs run and managed by her internal strategic sourcing team, the use of a central indirect buying team that handles RFPs for small dollar, less complex projects, and a self-service model that can be used directly by marketers with strategic sourcing serving as a consultant. For the self-service model, which is focused on project work in specific categories, Ulsh’s team has provided upfront training to those marketing teams which has enabled them run RFPs themselves.
However, when it comes to strategic sourcing for large and complex categories, such as media, Ulsh’s team will utilise an outside agency and consultant. The entire process for the most recent media pitch was made up of two stages, which Ulsh explored in a presentation with Tom Denford, co-founder & CEO of ID Comms Group, during the 2021 ANA Financial Management Conference. The case study session was aimed at providing procurement leaders with new ideas, strategies, and techniques to re-engineer media investment to drive the growth agenda and be champions of marketing transformation.
With the help of the ID Comms, Ulsh says that the first stage was for both the business and sourcing teams to step back, assess, evaluate and understand where they were as clients, if they needed to make any changes organizationally and what they truly needed from an agency before going out to pitch. This first stage took around three months and was led by the VP of Media with Ulsh’s team involved in the process from the outset.
At the same time as the assessment, The Hershey Company itself was undertaking a larger transformation of its marketing and brand structures, thereby tying in nicely with the media pitch process.
With the marketing transformation underway and the implementation of structures that would best support the business, the second stage started with the appointment of a pitch consultancy, kicking off a nine-month review and award process. So as Ulsh points out, the whole exercise took over a year end-to-end to implement. This, she says might seem like an extended process but “this is your largest spend and most significant change that you are making” and it therefore needs to be “fit for purpose” and comprehensive.
The Hershey Company’ s negotiation is a team effort, and Ulsh states how procurement works closely with both the business and legal teams, to understand thoroughly the key activities and remit for the agency and analyze that against an internal pre-determined risk profile management process. From there, they will establish what they are willing to accept and not accept and this will inform how they approach a negotiation.
This early-stage efficiency was something that Ulsh also discussed in The Hershey Company’s media pitch case study at the ANA Financial Management Conference, where she said that her team sent the Master Service Agreement (MSA) out in the second round of the pitch process. “When the MSA went out the door, it was agreed that the agency could only have a limited number of red lines that they could come back with” Ulsh said, and that “this worked really well to get to contract execution quicker and to have better conversations around key areas for focus / concern for both the agency and The Hershey Company”.
On the other hand, for other categories with smaller budget RFPs, both the self-service tools and the use of a centralized buying team that Ulsh referred to earlier means the formal process can be completed in 45-60 days or less. Ulsh says that “we don’t force everyone into a very specific process. We step back and understand what the category is and what is the need and the best way to approach it. My team is very good at being able to understand that and they work very well with our internal clients”.
Recognising procurement as a profession
As the Committee Chair of the ANA Advertising Financial Management Committee, which explores efficiencies, cost savings, ROI, and bringing better value to members’ organizations, Ulsh is clearly driven to improve the advertising and marketing world.
Throughout her work with the ANA, she has seen the face of marketing procurement evolve, and because of the ANA’s subsequent focus has also changed: “marketing procurement has become a profession of its own… you can move up and through marketing procurement in an organisation. There is a career path and I think part of the committee view is that we want to help and ensure that marketing procurement remains a strong and desirable profession”.
As such, the ANA aims to provide marketing procurement professionals with a place to learn, share knowledge, best practice and impact the profession. Through networking within the group, the ANA can also keep up to speed with the ever-changing landscape of marketing and the challenges faced by marketing procurement.
As Ulsh noted in relation to the rapid change of pace in all facets of marketing and especially in media, she keeps this quote from a media consultant always in the back of her mind, “You could go to bed a media expert, and wake up a media novice”.
Therefore, there needs to be an industry structure that supports good basic technical sourcing skills, but also ensures there is a resource for constant learning and connection: “it’s a constant evolution and changing environment… it’s really understanding what they are facing, listening to our committee members, concerns and formulating how we can best address it”.
Aside from leading procurement teams, Ulsh is passionate about helping others become leaders.
As a co-founder and chair of the Women Leadership Forum (WLF) at Burger King Corporation starting in the late 90s, Ulsh’s passion for mentoring continues 25 years later.
Having attended the Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF) with a group of female colleagues from Burger King Corporation, Ulsh and two colleagues felt compelled to launch their own equivalent at Burger King Corporation.
“We were so inspired by the speakers at the WFF; the power and impact of women’s leadership and the ability to make a difference that we decided to start our own. Being at the WFF Leadership conference with all these great female Burger King colleagues, I realised how very lucky I was to know all of my Burger King colleagues there due to the variety of positions I had held at the company, but I realised that many of them didn’t know each other… I couldn’t let this connection stop and this feeling of empowerment end”.
So, after arriving back from the conference, Ulsh and her two co-founders proposed the idea of a Women’s Leadership Forum to the director of diversity who enthusiastically supported the idea. They then approached the President of Burger King USA with the vision and mission for the WLF, ultimately getting full support to launch the program.
Within four months, the programme was launched and remained in the organisation for 13 years until Burger King was acquired by 3G Capital in late 2010. In that time, WLF provided ongoing networking and professional development programs, launched a company-wide formal mentoring program that engaged over 300 colleagues and ran external community programmes including a development program for women transitioning out of homelessness, which was commended by the Mayor of Miami at the time.
The WLF gave women a platform to meet one another and share expertise and is something that Ulsh continued to drive home when she moved to Church’s Chicken, with the launch of the Church’s Women’s Forum. Whilst at Church’s, she helped set up a mentor circle programme for women restaurant managers, which focused on those key softer leadership skills that women need to progress in their career to above restaurant management positions.
By the time Ulsh came to The Hershey Company in 2017, the company already had a strong Women’s Business Resource Group, which she of course immediately joined and currently serves on the Leadership Team of the group.
As something she is deeply passionate about, she says “Mentoring is really important and goes beyond just connection. In all my mentor relationships, we connect personally but it is about so much more. We set goals for the relationship and for the mentee’s career and sometimes their own personal journey. We work on those goals together to enable opportunities, learning, personal growth, professional development and most of all a shared connection. I am so thankful that many of these connections I have built with various mentees remain part of my life today.”
For Ulsh, we are entering an exciting period for procurement. Having tracked its development over the past few decades, she is confident that it has earned its place at the table. Through her mentoring, she is also making the people who are sitting at that very table more confident in being there.
Sherry Ulsh is Senior Manager of Indirect Sourcing at The Hershey Company.
The Masters in Procurement insight series is published in partnership with RightSpend
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