Michele (Mike) Aquino of General Mills

#Food #Sourcing #SustainableAgriculture #SupplyChain


Michele Aquino, a SUMA 2015 graduate, recently joined General Mills as an Organic Buyer on their One Global Sourcing team. Prior to Columbia, Michele spent two years on the launch team at Dannon Yogurt’s North American pilot plant site. He has an undergraduate degree in Food Science from Drexel University, after which he served in the U.S. Peace Corps in a coffee growing region of Nicaragua, Central America. He is currently based in Minneapolis, MN. In this interview, he reveals the recipe for his success in the sustainable food industry.

1. Tell us about your role at General Mills?

My new job at General Mills is within the sourcing arm of our supply chain division. My position supports the procurement of ingredients primarily for eight natural and organic brands: Annie’s, Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen, Lärabar, Food Should Taste Good, Immaculate Baking, Liberté, and Mountain High.

My current focus is buying organic dairy ingredients. Additionally, my team works on broad responsible sourcing initiatives to build credibility and trust with our consumers. We are navigating a constant flow of issues, from industry definitions and standards to the non-GMO topic. We are passionate about making sure we design products and standards with a “consumer first” mindset. We are also working on being radically transparent and showing our customers the interesting agricultural origins of our supply chains. Natural and organic consumers purchase foods not only for key ingredients and great taste, but also for the values and production methods embodied in the product. Since General Mills operates at such a large scale, we hope to achieve some significant headway in growing our natural and organic brands to reach more people. This equates to growing the organic food supply base and developing new farmer relationships along the way. The great thing about working with organic farmers is that they are very aware of the benefits of their farming systems for the environment, beginning with maintaining rich, healthy soils.

2. What part of your role has engaged you the most till now and why?

Learning the many moving pieces of such a big company. Learning systems well enough to look for the data we need in order to prioritize supply chain initiatives. With so many people here working on very specific things, successful project implementation requires effective collaboration.

3. How did you find and prepare yourself for this role? How did your Sustainability Management (SUMA) degree help?

SUMA did help. Allison & Alyssa supported me in my job search by featuring my profile in an Earth Institute blog post. Shortly after the post went live I noticed a random visit to my LinkedIn profile from someone at General Mills. I was very interested in this company already, so I took a shot at messaging that person. This led to the interview process!To prepare for my new role, I took a look at the book The First 90 Days because I would not only be changing job functions, but entering a new company and relocating to a new town—the book talks about professional transitions. I used the Columbia Business Library to pull Hoover’s reports on General Mills financials. I read the most recent sustainability report. I decided to revisit Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, read up on current happenings in the organic food industry, and try to bring myself up to speed a bit more on commodity markets. I found an interesting book, also at the Columbia Business library, called The Handbook of Global Agricultural Markets (I might be the only person who has checked that book out so far…). I really wanted to set myself up for success in this new role, so I tried to do my homework.

4. What skills or type of personality would you say that it takes to be successful in your kind of position?

  1. One must be culturally adaptive, curious, and results driven.
  2. Since the natural and organic space is growing rapidly, but still represents a relatively small portion of U.S. agriculture, my team encounters new issues and unknowns regularly. We also have to be capacity builders who teach business partners new things because they may be accustomed to producing conventional (i.e. not certified organic) products. This requires the ability to create direction when needed.
  3. Patience is needed because many details must be analyzed achieve successful project implementation, and you can’t just turn organic agriculture on—there is a transition period of three years for conventional farms to switch to USDA Certified Organic practices. Not unlike many concepts in Sustainability Management, a long-run vision is needed.

5. General Mills is a global organization, with numerous brands, how do you view its size and complex organizational structure?

Large scale with a responsible business mindset can equate to large impacts in the industry. General Mills values a culture of “doing the right thing all the time.” With that in mind, we are working to expand organic acreage in the U.S. and Canada and improve pollinator habitats. The company has selected 10 priority ingredients, representing over half of our annual raw material purchases, to transition to 100% sustainably sourced by 2020. All of these efforts operate at a scale that really does affect many acres of farmland around the world.I’m also quite optimistic that General Mills is really walking the walk. In my first week on the job we released our new climate change initiative. We know that agriculture is the “roots” of our supply chains, and as climate changes and some areas become more water stressed, it represents risk to our business. The company has committed to reducing its GHG emissions by 28% by 2025.

6. What advice would you give to students currently wanting to enter the consumer products / sustainable food or agriculture industry?

If interested in finance, study up on commodity trading. Consider talking with Professor Bruce Kahn at Columbia. Check out the firm Equilibrium Capital, which invests in the sustainable ag space. If you want to go grassroots, NYC has plenty of sustainable food systems work going on, including some really innovative indoor urban agriculture companies and, of course, hip food startups (made in Brooklyn!). Connect with me on LinkedIn and we can discuss. Many food startups post jobs at http://goodfoodjobs.com.

7. How best could current students of SUMA learn about your organization and keep a tab on your hiring process?

Feel free to reach out to me via LinkedIn and take a look at current General Mills opportunities here: http://careers.generalmills.com/.