Irecently heard a fitness coach say that anyone who actively exercises is considered an athlete. I’ve thought myself a non-athlete since I hung up my soccer cleats in high school; but, from this new perspective, jumping on the Peloton® every day after work certainly counts.
It was one of those rare moments when you become aware of a narrow-minded thinking pattern and see the world in a new light.
Athleticism, in fact, can be applied to many forms of fitness—mental fitness being one facet of this industry that continues to amaze me. In that vein, I cannot think of a more exemplary athlete than Nicole Hulstein, Produce Category Manager at Food Lion.
“Being an athlete from a young age taught me many lifelong skills, like courage, teamwork, integrity, and humor,” Nicole tells me. “I am innovative and bold; very open-minded and drive change; and lead my team with encouragement, care, and collaboration. I also manage to keep my competitive nature in check by exhibiting humbleness and the ability to not take myself too seriously.”
When it comes to her role at Food Lion, Nicole relays that many of the company’s core values align closely with her own. She began her professional career at Food Lion right out of college when she landed an assistant buying role in the produce category.
“My mother worked for Food Lion for years, so I was very familiar with the organization,” says Nicole. “I knew that I needed a job, but was so fortunate to find an industry instead! It was fast-paced—which matched my temperament—and clearly there was much to be learned, so I was hooked. I progressed from Assistant to Buyer, a role I held for many years.”
“I am innovative and bold; very open-minded and drive change; and lead my team with encouragement, care, and collaboration. I also manage to keep my competitive nature in check by exhibiting humbleness and the ability to not take myself too seriously.”
Nicole Hulstein, Produce Category Manager, Food Lion
Though Nicole did take on a Category Analyst position for the snack category for about 18 months, her heart longed for the produce world, and she jumped at the opportunity to return. On her way back to fresh, she has held roles as Assistant Category Manager, Merchandising Analyst, and Category Manager at Food Lion. She also briefly managed the fruit category for The Fresh Market from 2016–2017.
During her many years with Food Lion, Nicole grew close with the company’s Chris Dove, Vice President of Produce Category and Merchandising, working for him in different roles over the years.
“Chris helped me find my place in this industry by believing in my ability to do more. With each role progression, he was very honest with the assessment of my existing skill sets as well as those that will benefit me as I grow professionally,” Nicole explains. “Even when faced with my decision to leave his team for another, he remained a steadfast supporter and leader that I admire.”
Outside of the retail walls, Nicole has been eager to connect with those bringing fresh produce from the field to the shelf. She found a steadfast mentor in Craig Casca, Chief Marketing Officer at GEM-Pack Berries, with whom she has worked closely for many seasons.
“Craig is a remarkable thought partner and encourager. I got to know him first as a business partner when I was buying at the berry desk, and was immediately impressed with his ability to know exactly what was going on in the industry and his unwavering honesty,” Nicole notes. “Craig was patient with me and has always been an incredibly dependable partner. We create programs together and strategize to develop opportunities. We are still business partners, but have also become wonderful friends. His support has been paramount as I’ve navigated my career.”
“I have not thought of myself as a mentor, but rather as someone who has a kind word or experience that can make someone else’s path a little clearer.”
Teri Miller, Senior Category Manager at The Fresh Market, took Nicole under her wing many years ago by providing a developmental opportunity to work with her on the Produce Traceability Initiative. Later, she invited Nicole to serve on the Southern Roots Female Leadership Committee of the Southeast Produce Council.
“Teri has been a constant in my professional career. She has been my manager, my teacher, my peer, and my friend! She was a sounding board when I was facing career choices and a proponent behind closed doors. I’m thankful for Teri and the role she has played in my life,” Nicole outlines.
That flame of a young athlete still burns bright within Nicole. As she continues to grow in this industry, she strives to learn as much as possible. Though she has been doing this for quite some time, she believes there is still much to learn.
“I am so thankful for these mentors and many others for the roles they have played in shaping my personal and professional life,” Nicole concludes. “I am humbled to be featured in this segment; it is my honor to help support those coming after me as so many have done for me. I have not thought of myself as a mentor, but rather as someone who has a kind word or experience that can make someone else’s path a little clearer.”
Based on the overwhelming adoration provided by her mentors, I’d say Nicole is fulfilling that vision tenfold. Like the captain of a team, she is leaning on her mental fitness to lead her fellow players to victory, and it is a beautiful thing to watch unfold.
Here is what they have to say about Nicole...
Vice President of Produce Category and Merchandising, Food Lion
"I have had the pleasure of working with Nicole for about 10 years. When we started working together, the first trait I noticed about her leadership is that she always brings a positive approach, no matter how challenging the situation. Fast-forward to today, her positive leadership style has been a blessing to our team during these difficult times brought on by the pandemic. Nicole never meets a stranger. She’s established relationships across our business that helped grow her knowledge and mature into what I think of as a produce industry expert. She graciously gives her time to serve in our communities and our industry. Examples range from support of local Food Lion Feeds events to serving on the Southeastern Produce Council committee Southern Roots. What I am most excited about for Nicole is seeing her continue her journey on growing both personally and professionally, along with the positive impacts she will have on others around her."
Chief Marketing Officer, GEM-Pack Berries
"I met Nicole in 2007 when she came to California to tour our strawberry fields. At the time, she was the buyer for Food Lion. Nicole was learning from the ground up and, as we did our field tour, she asked some great questions. We were friends right away because she listened and wanted to work together to be successful in selling strawberries. Since that day, we have discussed many issues, and each time we come up with a solution that is good for both production and retail. We have put together many successful promotions by communicating constantly. I am honored to be included as one of her mentors. The produce industry is better with Nicole in it."
Senior Category Manager, The Fresh Market
"Anyone who knows Nicole knows she is extremely passionate about produce, but just as passionate about doing the right thing. Watching her grow into her own has been a pure joy; she is a produce professional, tough negotiator, and, at the same time, fun to be around. Nicole cares deeply that all around her have the opportunity for success. She listens intently. That is a huge skillset—investing time to listen and then provide the feedback or guidance that is unique to the person and the situation. Nicole will tell you that I’m her mentor, but truth be known, she helps me a great deal to see through situations. My advice to others is, don’t be fooled by her smile nor her laugh; her words and heart are very powerful."