It’s really a combination of art and science, refining time and time again, that balance between the creativity you need to build atmosphere, and the logistics and numbers behind each category to ensure continued success,” Teri Miller, Category Manager for Food Lion/ Delhaize, tells me as we talk from separate coasts. “Twenty years ago, most people used their instincts as a barometer, but in today’s fast-paced environment, you need all the data and statistics you can get your hands on.”
And she truly loves both the art and the science. When it comes to the numbers, she is plugged in. From category performance to consumer feedback, Teri is always on her toes and engaged, whether it’s evolving the consumer basket with strategic displays and price points, or answering all the consumer questions that come across her desk. She doesn’t miss a beat. It also helps that Food Lion tracks every navel orange as it leaves the store.
“It’s about buying behaviors and using them to inform your business model,” Teri says.
Teri is a different breed of retail executive. Along with her title of Category Manager for the East Coast grocer, Food Lion, she is also a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and a Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA).
“Twenty years ago, most people used their instincts as a barometer, but in today’s fast-paced environment, you need all the data and statistics you can get your hands on.” - Teri Miller
“But I absolutely fell in love with produce,” Teri says. “I started with Food Lion as an auditor and project manager for all of category management in 1988 when I moved back to North Carolina from South Carolina, and as much as I love problem solving, I couldn’t help but admire those people I met in the produce sector.”
Namely, people like Jim Corby and Randy Scott, who were at Food Lion at the time, and now-PMA President, Cathy Burns. Teri’s connection with several leaders at Food Lion gave her the opportunity to be taught and coached about the dynamics of the supply chain. She brought to her role the ability to truly make a difference in the lives of those around, whether it is vendors and supplier partners or peers, she really lifts everyone around her, as Cathy tells me.
“It was an absolute pleasure watching Teri rise through the ranks at Food Lion. When I joined Food Lion through Hannaford, I distinctly remember the warm welcome I received from Teri,” Cathy says. “She was always very open, caring, and committed to winning. Teri is tethered to incredibly strong core values that she uses as a filter and a beacon for her work. When I think of Teri, I think of integrity, humility, selflessness, and determination. She has the biggest heart of anyone I know and she is not afraid to show it. A lifelong learner, Teri is constantly looking to take her game to the next level, like a professional athlete, she is always looking to improve her performance. It is very rare that you see her type of balanced leadership in this retail environment. She is a genuine leader who has always been true to her herself and those around her.”
When I ask her about Randy Scott, now Senior Manager of Produce Procurement at Sprouts, she laughs and says that Randy used to tell her, “I will have to fix your mistakes.” Of course, that was a double-dog-dare not to make a mistake. And if you know Teri, you know that she loves a challenge, and she takes it in stride. What Randy offered Teri was the advice to dig deeper and cover all facets of produce—remain hungry, and on point.
“I, for one, am proud to call Teri my friend. She is truly someone that is concerned about the personal growth of her entire team, as well as the many others that she has remained in contact with over the years,” Randy tells me when I ask him about the rapport they have built throughout their careers. “Teri helps many of us stay grounded and on track, always pointing to the end result. She brings a wealth of knowledge from other parts of the business and weaves them through the produce industry. Our industry needs more dedicated and passionate people like Teri.”
Teri returns the sentiment, and with a smile, remembers the days of rivaling against her own humble beginnings in produce. Auditing seemed to be catching a mistake or, at times, something worse, and Teri tells me that she didn’t really enjoy that part of the job, but Randy and Jim challenged her in ways that felt more creative and inspiring.
“Auditing didn’t build a level of trust between myself and others. I would rather use my understanding of numbers and systems to help create solutions for a variety of issues. Once I understood that about myself, several key individuals began to guide my career,” she says. “Cathy Burns recommended that I work on a project related to Country of Origin Labeling, and the Produce Traceability Initiative. I had the system skills and knowledge, but I didn’t have the fresh knowledge needed. It’s all building blocks— one block leads to another block and soon you have a foundation for a successful career.”
Over the years, Teri has seen a tremendous amount of change. She takes me back, way back. As a child, she remembers that the best corn was only available in July and the best onions were Vidalias, which were only available during the summer. Now, we can have those great items all year long.
“While I appreciate that treat, I don’t know that those much younger have a true appreciation of how far the farming industry has progressed,” Teri tells me. “In the last two decades, consumers demanded that produce be at its freshest and most presentable. Now, there are new trends and expectations like specialty produce, and even imperfect produce has a place on our plate. It is an exciting time.”
Teri thinks produce will go wherever consumers decide to take it, and she is fascinated to see how generations have changed in their expectancies. So what keeps her up at night?
“What I worry about is the cost efficiencies of produce. I know that it costs more to grow produce today than in the past, but customers are still paying the same as they did five years ago,” she reflects. “At some point there is going to have to be a shift so that we can answer the question, ‘how do growers find efficiencies so they can absorb the costs and the price point at the store level?’ Consumers expect low prices while demanding fresh product, and we need to work together to make this happen.”
Teri loves corn, so she breaks it down for me this way: when the market crashed, eight or nine years ago, consumers were still demanding the same cost from retailers for an ear of corn. And today, there are still some of those same prices throughout produce. While supply and demand, weather and availability, still dictate pricing, the costs that growers face are now more challenging than ever.
If it isn’t cost efficiencies keeping Teri up at night, she admits, then it’s that there was much she didn’t know about produce when she first started. But it is amazing to her, how many people really don’t understand produce.
“This may be indicative of what our society has become. We want what we want, when we want it,” she laughs. “The produce industry has advanced significantly, but it has yet to become ‘automatic’ or ‘grown at your local farms.’”
When I ask Teri what advice she has for shippers and suppliers, she notes just how important it is to know and understand the supply chain from the ground to the customer’s home. When all parties can grasp the dynamics of one another’s business, then there is high probability that a great solution will be created for any issue.
“Just as your customers tour your farms, tour the warehouses of retailers/food service, and learn how your product is handled throughout the chain until the customer places it in their shopping basket. It is essential,” she tells me.
Teri grew up in a family business, so she knows the ropes and understands the demands. Days are long and, at times, bleed into one another, and the workweek has been, often times for her, seven days a week. For Teri, the whole family was involved. In listening to her suppliers, their lives have been very much the same.
“My father’s business was, and is, predominantly male. As I began to enter the workforce, my father talked to me a great deal about relationships. My mother shared her insight as well. The theme from my parents was to be a person of your word. I didn’t learn that lesson right away, but after some tough times, I returned back to their words and began to apply their advice to my life… That made it all much easier,” Teri tells me.
All these reasons eventually began to fuel her desire to bring more women in produce together. In Teri’s previous positions in different sectors of the industry, she never experienced a noticeable difference between men and women. However, she does see it in the produce industry. From her viewpoint, the produce industry has been predominantly men and women, each finding their way. For Teri, the biggest struggle for women is finding their own successful paths, with the unique contributions that specifically women can bring to the industry. She notes that from her experience, her peers are mostly men, and their growth and development has been much different from her’s and that of other women.
“So who does that leave us ‘women’ to lean into?” she asks me. “There are men who can very well help us. But we need each other to help us create our path to success in the produce industry. Someone who can understand the emotions and thinking that is sometimes unique to women. That is a huge reason as to why Southern Roots was formed.”
The intent of Southern Roots is to address the challenges that women experience, from stereotyping and access to mentors, to self development in a time-crunched industry, Teri shares.
“The opportunity to meet other women that have similar stories can offer invaluable lessons and learning opportunities.” - Teri Miller
Southern Roots, the Southeast Produce Council’s leadership program for women in produce, is a program that brings industry individuals together for a unique opportunity in fresh produce. The program, designed to make meaningful connections among our industry’s women, hopes to draw up-and-comers, industry veterans and pioneers alike. Teri took the reins in 2014 when the program kicked off and has been helping to drive its growth ever since.
“The opportunity to meet other women that have similar stories can offer invaluable lessons and learning opportunities,” Teri adds.
Teri smiles, “At home, I long for the time when my house was organized and spotless. Produce is not an eight to five day, five days a week. It is so much more than that. Regardless of your gender, this career takes a big share of your life.”
Luckily for her, she has had great mentors in her life to help clear the path. Teri reflects back on her first conversations with Jim Corby, who used to tell her, “You want to be seen differently, and I can make that happen.” I ask her to explain to me what that meant. Teri tells me that Jim insisted that in order for her to step up to the helm, she needed to learn to be a leader. Jim took Teri under his wing and offered her the support and opportunities to really gain the knowledge she needed to rise to the occasion.
“Teri has always had a great passion and enthusiasm for the produce industry,” Corby says. “She enjoys the interaction of the supply chain and what it takes to move product from farm to fork.”
As for her partner in crime, and in life, Johnny Miller is truly who makes her smile. “My wonderful husband, and supply chain expert, taught me more than any one person about the grocery business and how to treat people. It was through our conversations, whether over the dinner table or at work, that I really received those insights I needed to advance my career.”
Teri encompasses a unique position in the male-dominated retail space, but it has been her complementary assets of going with her gut and listening to the numbers that truly sets her apart.
Teri laughs as much as she mentors over the phone as we talk. It is no wonder she is a leader in her industry, but she’ll be the first to tell you that it takes a diverse community of produce industry innovators to accomplish what Food Lion has achieved.
Positioned for continued success while remaining focused on its approach to offering the freshest products at an affordable price, Food Lion is determined to stay at the head of this “pride.” And with Teri Miller present at the helm, the future looks more fruitful than ever.