From Michigan to New York City, California to London and back again, Caitlin Tierney’s portfolio is as well-versed in industry experience as it is in geography. But, she might shudder if you were to call her a ‘mentor’ just yet!
“Part of the advantage that has allowed me to get as far as I have in my career at my age is that, looking back ten years ago, they weren’t filling the pipeline with younger people to grow into these careers,” Caitlin tells me when we talk about her rapid trajectory. “Many would retire, and I believe that is one of the things that helped me to move up so quickly. On the flip side, I know the industry recognized that, and I love that it’s providing so many more tools, even different college degrees students can now get.”
Caitlin’s path winds through brick-and-mortar and online grocery before landing at a retailer that is helping change the industry, having experienced everything in between.
“To start, I was at Spartan Stores for six years, and that’s where most of my mentorship took place,” she recalls, introducing me to the first big influence in her fresh produce career: Steve Wright, now VP of Sales and Procurement at Shenandoah Growers, Inc.
“Steve really helped me in asking the right questions. He helped educate me on the growing side as well as the buying, including how to make tighter turns, what to look for in a spec, understanding seasonality, and then how to take that into growing your category with different SKUs and retail promotions. He really taught me the 101 on retail. I still use all the tips that he shared with me when I was younger to this day,” Caitlin shares.
Part of the advantage that has allowed me to get as far as I have in my career at my age is that, looking back ten years ago, they weren’t filling the pipeline with younger people to grow into these careers.
—Caitlin Tierney, Produce Director, 99 Cents Only Stores
Another voice of reason Caitlin says helped steer her in the right direction was Sean Walsh, current North American Director of Produce and Dairy at Gordon Food Service.
“I am a very fiery and energetic person. He allowed me to be so, but helped me be more strategic on how I voiced my opinion,” she explains. “He taught me how to tackle difficult situations, structure all my information, and compose it in the background so that I could paint a better picture when talking to upper management. At that point they were store directors or merchandisers. Now the audience is a bit different.”
Then, Caitlin says, she really wanted to experience a new side of the business—one that was to become a big facet of the modern industry.
“The online business was just starting, and I got an opportunity to work for FreshDirect in New York City. So, I took the leap of faith and, in doing so, learned an immense amount about product quality, different varietals, and obviously, a different retail format,” Caitlin comments. It wasn’t long, though, before she again became hungry for a new side of the industry to absorb.
“I had an opportunity to come out to California and work for Fresh & Easy, and at the time Tesco was the third-largest retailer in the world. I thought that opportunity was something I couldn’t let pass by. I came out and was the Purchasing Manager of Produce and Floral for the 200 ad stores we had out here, and I really loved the accountability and passion the business gave me,” she tells me.
Another source of sage advice and friendship she first encountered at Spartan Stores was that of GreenFruit Avocados Director of Business Development Dan Acevedo.
“Dan, from a vendor perspective, really taught me about building relationships with the vendor community, as well as establishing a ‘brand’ within the industry,” Caitlin shares when I ask about Dan’s role as a mentor. “That helps to grow not only the business you have with that vendor, but how your voice or ‘brand’ spreads through to other opportunities within the vendor community. Dan has allowed me to understand that this is more than just a career and we can grow more than just produce, but lasting relationships that go beyond our day-to-day job.”
She would go on to learn about the seed-side of the business as Bayer Crop Science Specialty Seeds’ Marketing Manager for the Americas, falling in love with how important it is to develop programs within the produce department. But, she missed the buy-side.
“I just missed the retail aspect too much—being a decision maker and helping to improve consumption and grocery retail formats by being able to category manage, create processes, and then educate the consumer about what they are buying. I had an opportunity to come over to 99 Cents Only Stores and be a Senior Buyer for them. I was able to be quickly promoted to Director of Produce, as it’s our largest department, and 99 really needed a captain with a background in the industry,” she shares, coming full circle to the position in which I have always known her—a captain.
When I ask what it is about 99 Cents Only that helps it stand out, Caitlin tells me it’s two-tiered: On one level, her team is able to serve traditionally overlooked populations, feeding people who could otherwise not afford fresh produce. The other gives growers the ability to harvest 100 percent of their crop by purchasing product that might be misshapen, or just the wrong size for others to process.
“At the end of the day, one of our goals is to reduce mass quantities of food waste. I think that’s the big advantage we have,” she finishes. “Other supermarkets really keep to the middle of the bell curve, and we are able to retail a non-expensive price to get the customer to buy healthy and, in turn, consume a healthier lifestyle.”
With the tools she has collected in pursuit of that mission, it will be exciting to see who Caitlin will help shape as she furthers her fresh produce career.
I first met Caitlin when we worked together at Spartan Stores. Honestly, I didn’t care for her at first...which is something we still laugh about today. As fate would have it, she was assigned to be my assistant. In retrospect, I think we both learned from each other. I would like to think I taught Caitlin a few things about produce, and she taught a stubborn man some balance—how to laugh and not take the world quite so seriously.
Caitlin has a rare combination of energy, passion, tenacity, and fearlessness. Experience has given her confidence and, combined with those first four qualities, you have an explosive force to be reckoned with. It’s been a real pleasure watching Caitlin’s career skyrocket, I’m proud to count this dynamic and spirited young lady as a close friend. That said, I know she’s only scratched the surface. I look forward to watching her continue to grow and be a leader in our industry.
The best part of my job is helping others succeed and grow in their professional development. Being part of someone’s growth as a business professional is very rewarding, and Caitlin is a perfect example! It has been exciting to see how she has evolved throughout her career, and to see her in a key leadership role is not surprising.
It was clear when I met Caitlin she had an exceptional energy for customer service and a passion for learning, all traits that are wonderful building blocks for success. But to take advantage of these traits requires work, and Caitlin was always willing to do that. Often team members have come to me expressing a desire to do ‘more,’ when they mean they wish to do something else. Caitlin was and is always willing to take on more. There were many situations where Caitlin asked the tough questions or appropriately challenged a strategy or tactic to ensure organizational success, as well as an opportunity to grow.
I’ve been and am currently in several mentor-mentee relationships, and a key to those that have been the most valuable are when both sides learn and grow. I can honestly say I benefited from my time with Caitlin. We had many candid and open conversations over a variety of personal and professional topics that expanded my ability to better connect with my teammates, coworkers, and customers.
They say first impressions last a lifetime, and that couldn’t be more true than mine of Caitlin Tierney. I met Caitlin about 10 years ago in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when she was a buyer for SpartanNash. Now, I recall a vibrant young woman with an inquisitive mind, eager to learn more about the company I was with and the avocado category. Never one to shy away from a teaching moment, this led to a facility tour where Caitlin’s rapid-fire questioning and keen observations directed me to raise the bar within the company I was with at the time.
If you know Caitlin as I do, you find yourself learning from her despite her seeking knowledge from you. Everything from her strong values, which she credits to her Midwest roots, to her incredible work ethic and drive for excellence make Caitlin shine. It has been a privilege to not only know Caitlin, but watch her grow in our industry. Through the years our friendship has shifted from me sharing my industry perspective to us discussing trends and developments as peers. Caitlin has developed such a global knowledge of the produce industry and never shies away from gaining more—as we both know, change is constant in our industry and in life.