Strategic Advisor Profile: Jim Smits–Finding Purpose in a Company with Shared Values

At the end of your career, you’re not going to remember the programs or the products; you’re going to remember the people, and most importantly, these people are going to remember what you did for them.” ~ Jim Smits’s mentor

This is the third profile in our series of folks who have made the leap from operational leadership to a strategic advisor. This week: Jim Smits reflects on the value of authentically connecting with people and the joy of linking with a company that shares his values.

Forty Years of Building Relationships

Jim has spent the better part of forty years in the grocery business, predominantly in produce and consumer packaged goods. He started as an hourly employee at H.E. Butt Grocery, in San Antonio, Texas, right after his high school graduation. He worked his way to corporate leadership over a 22-year career with HEB. Subsequently, he held senior leadership roles in other grocery chains throughout the country. In between, he did a couple of consulting gigs where he advised a number of CPG and retail food clients on strategy and operations issues.

In October, Jim made the leap back to an employee when he was hired as Vice President, Retail Strategy for Apeel Sciences, a firm dedicated to creating a more sustainable food system by eliminating global food waste from farmer to grocer to kitchen tables. Jim’s role is to shape the company’s go-to-market strategy.

Jim’s hiring came at a fortuitous time. He was taking time between consulting assignments to reflect on the next steps in his career. “I decided that I wanted to spend time on the things that I enjoyed, which boiled down to:

  1. Work for a company that I’m proud of;
  2. Work with people who share common values; and 
  3. At the end of the day, I want to feel that I’ve made a difference.”

During his time of self-reflection, Jim got a call from a former colleague, now at Apeel, with whom he had worked ten years ago. Apeel’s executive leadership team was considering the person they needed to help them get to the next stage of the company’s development. The former colleague called Jim and told him “Even though it’s been 10 years, I immediately thought of you.”

I asked Jim how did he keep top-of-mind with someone after 10 years? “After forty years of building relationships and respecting people, and just being interested in them and their development, it plays out well.”

All the people Jim led, coached, and mentored in that 40 years, who had been produce managers, directors, and category managers have become VPs, Chief Merchants, and CEOs. They have reached out for his advice, insight, and help.

How Does Being an Operational Leader Differ From a Strategic Advisor

“The biggest difference is that I’ve always led a team of people, and later I was a leader of leaders, focusing on how to create aspiration, inspire motivation, and shape strategy. You can do all the ‘technical stuff,’ but it’s the team that’s key. That’s what I miss the most, having a group of people I’m coaching, teaching, training, and helping them become the best version of themselves.”

Jim realized early in his career that he had “an eye for talent,” and not necessarily the highly educated, but the “hyper curious — those lifelong learners that always asked those dead-on questions.”

Jim also noted that he misses having responsibility for a P&L, which is the ultimate measure of responsibility.

What’s Most Rewarding About Your Current Role?

“This is a mission-driven, purpose-driven, save the planet kind of company.” Its technology extends the useful life of produce, reducing waste and creating efficiencies. 

Most of the leadership team is younger than Jim and they’re scientists and engineers. Coming out of a food retail background and being dropped into a science and engineering environment has been fascinating. While his role is as a grocery and CPG expert, Jim gets to help the company determine its strategic approach to getting products to market.

Jim is also in synch with the company’s values, which include humility — for both colleagues and customers, and ingenuity — where people are encouraged to ask questions about the products and processes. 

What Do You Miss Most About the SME/Operational Part of Your Career?

“When you’re a functional leader one’s perspective is pretty finite. You stay in your lane, working on solving specific, complex problems that affect your P&L. That can be pretty exciting.”

“I also miss having a team of peers, where we can bounce ideas off each other. And those ‘hallway conversations’ where you get to know people at a personal level.”

At Apeel, while Jim is influencing a lot of the “inside work,” he feels like a bit of an outsider. A big part of that is because he’s operating remotely from his home office in South Carolina and the company is located in Santa Barbara, CA. So he doesn’t get to enjoy those “hallway conversations.”

What Aspects of Your Operational Roles Prepared You for Your Role as a Strategic Advisor? 

Jim notes that his experience at HEB provided him with “a PhD in food retailing” and tremendous exposure to the basics of the business. That experience built a passion for how retailing works, and the ability to explain it in a way that makes sense to others. 

Jim recognized the emotional stamina required to play at the senior executive operational level. “I realized that I want to be associated with people I like and with companies that are doing good things. I don’t want to — I won’t — give in to the evil that can pervade an organization.”

If You Could Change One Thing About What You’re Doing Now, What Would It Be? 

The one thing Jim would change about his current situation — the location. Working remotely, across the country, makes it tough to be part of key conversations as they happen. Instead, he feels that he’s always being “caught up” after the fact. 

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