Internships are a required component for graduation and are invaluable in the students’ professional development, Gambino says. “It is easy to see the difference in the classroom between students who have completed their internship and those who have not,” he says, adding the real-world experience enhances the classroom experience and cannot be replicated on campus. Internships are designed to help students cultivate the skills needed to flourish in the professional world, including becoming adept at teamwork and learning to cope with difficult coworkers, Gambino says.
“Our sponsorship of WMU interns over the years has, we hope, been a valuable learning experience for them,” says Becky Anson, vice president of human resources for Martin’s Supermarkets in South Bend, Ind. “Likewise, it has been a gratifying experience for us to play an important role in providing real-world experiences for future graduates. In some cases, those graduates have chosen to invest in careers with Martin’s. And personally, as a graduate of WMU myself, my role as a board member allows me to give back to an educational institution that has given me so much.”
Students gain significant knowledge about the various aspects of the industry by the time they serve an internship, Gambino explains. For example, many classes involve partnering with industry experts who work with students on a variety of projects. For instance, representatives from Kroger, Jewel-Osco, Meijer and SpartanNash are involved in the program’s category management class. Student teams are assigned to a retailer and a product category to review each semester.
Students use industry applications such as Nielsen Answers, Homescan Panel data, Spectra Geo-Demographic Data and Learning Evolution online training modules. At the conclusion of each semester, students present their findings to their assigned retailer and a panel of industry experts. “The students receive constructive feedback on their category review from the panel,” Gambino says.
Performance on the category management projects can be instrumental in helping students secure a job in the industry, he says.
“We hire WMU students because they tend to hit the ground running on the first day of their career due to their course work, internships and extra-curricular activities,” says Stephanie K. Postma, Hormel’s national category sales manager. “I am proud to be associated with WMU and look forward to hiring more of the best students for Hormel Foods.”
In January, the program earned certification for its category management coursework from the national Category Management Association, becoming one of just two university programs in the country to achieve the curriculum certification. The certification signifies that the program meets the stringent qualifications in preparing students for roles as category analysts, Gambino explains.
“Our classes are rigorous, however, the combined classroom rigor and extracurricular experiences maximizes the student opportunities to succeed upon graduation,” Gambino says.
Another class, Food/CPG Sales, requires students to role-play with industry experts, who act as retail buyers. Students also hear lectures on various topics from industry professionals, many who are graduates of the program. Kroger, for example, has more than 40 program graduates working for it.
“I see the partnership with WMU as an investment in our young people, who are the future leaders of our organization, our business partners and our competitors,” says Lanell Ohlinger, director of human resources for Kroger. “We can all share in the successes. The Food/CPG Marketing program is committed to providing a complete experience to its students from the classroom, internships, campus events and foreign travels that prepare them to enter the workforce eager and capable to have a positive impact on a business.”
“We receive a tremendous amount of industry support in the classroom,” Gambino says. “Our industry partners are experts in their subject matters.” The relationship between students and industry experts typically extends beyond the classroom, he says, as many industry experts become mentors to the students and provide valuable insights and career advice.
Another important way industry participants support the program is by sitting on its industry advisory board, which consists of more than 40 food and CPG companies. Industry partners work closely with faculty on curriculum development, trade relations, scholarships, internships and job placement.
“The Western Michigan University Food Marketing Program is one of the premier programs dedicated to educating and preparing the next generation of leadership in the industry,” says Dave Jones, vice president of industry initiatives for the Kellogg Co. and chairman of the WMU Advisory Board. “The rate of change in our industry continues at an unprecedented pace and requires new types of future leaders. The WMU Food/CPG marketing program is producing new leaders who will be prepared to move the industry forward.”
Graduates of the program are heavily recruited by leading firms throughout all segments of the industry. There’s little doubt students are ready for positions in the field, as internships and partnerships help them understand industry expectations.
The program has a near 100 percent job-placement rate with many students securing jobs long before graduation, Gambino says.
The program also offers students numerous opportunities to step outside the lecture hall and experience the industry in action. For instance, the program sponsors a two-week bus trip throughout the Midwest each spring visiting approximately 25 companies. The trip, which includes stops in Michigan, Ohio, southern Wisconsin and the Chicago area, typically includes two company visits a day. No two visits are alike, Gambino says.
A recent visit to Smucker’s in Orrville, Ohio, included breakfast in the home of JM Smucker, a culinary experience and meetings with brand managers. Meanwhile, a stop at Coca-Cola included a plant tour as well as presentations by several marketing experts.
Gambino explains that a visit to Proctor & Gamble included a retail simulation, corporate archives tour and a visit to the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati where students were given a facility tour and participated in a discussion of sports marketing’s role within the industry.
The importance of having a global business perspective is not lost on the Food/CPG Marketing program. Each summer, faculty member Duke Leingpibul, a native of Thailand, sponsors a study-abroad program to Thailand and Japan. Leingpibul helps the students gain a global perspective with exposure to Asian markets and business practices. Students often find the exposure to other cultures a life-changing experience, Gambino says.
Students also have the opportunity to attend several important industry trade shows, including those sponsored by the National Grocers Association, the Category Management Association and the Food Marketing Institute.
The program’s premier event is the annual Food Marketing Conference, a nationally recognized gathering of approximately 750 industry experts, academics and students. Recently, the program hosted its 50th annual conference.
“This year’s event was an overwhelming success,” says Phil Straniero, the program’s executive in residence. “We set all-time records for attendance and industry support with an outstanding ensemble of high-profile speakers, panelists and workshop presenters.”
Most importantly, students were exposed to a wide variety of educational experiences as well as opportunities to network with key industry leaders from all segments of the business. “Many of our students will receive scholarships and other forms of educational support as a result of this very successful event,” Straniero says.
“I am a member of the WMU Advisory Board because I believe in the Food Marketing Program,” says Art Sebastian, vice president, category leadership and shopper insights for Kraft Foods Group. “I’ve looked across the country and found WMU to have an excellent academic program, passionate instructors and students and an excellent balance of textbook and case-study work. I actively engage students through high-potential events, guest lectures, mentorship and intern programs because I think WMU students are enabled to hit the ground running when they enter the work force. This is a result of their work ethic and commitment to the industry.
“I attend the Food Marketing Conference because of the amazing lineup of speakers, the ability to network with students and the energy generated by all of the industry attendees.”
The program has future growth plans, including the establishment of a food industry research center and the development of an executive MBA program. “Again, with strong support from industry partners, this institute will coordinate and support research from both faculty and students on topics ranging from shopper marketing, trade promotions and supply chain management in the food/CPG retail channel,” says Marcel Zondag, a faculty member.
Maintaining the program’s quality reputation is a passion for Gambino. “Cultivating win-win relationships with our business partners is a key ingredient to our success,” he says.