How They Did it: The C&S college connection

The stakes are high: Across the country, small academic institutions are going out of business or merging with other schools to keep afloat while corporations like GE are abandoning their out-of-the-way locations and moving to urban areas where tomorrow’s talent wants to live.

C&S Wholesale GrocersInternship ProgramsTalent DevelopmentTalent Shortage in the News

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On an early spring day last March, a small group gathered in a conference room on the campus of Keene State College, a liberal arts state school with around 4,000 students located in Keene, a city of about 23,000 people located in southwestern New Hampshire. The meeting was led by Daniel Henderson, a one-time corporate executive who now serves as the director of corporate partnerships and strategic initiatives at Keene State. Joining him were Keene State faculty members; Gabreille Miele, a Keene State senior who was completing an internship at C&S Wholesale Grocers, the city’s largest employer, and executives from C&S, a 100-year-old family-owned company with more than $27 billion in sales and 17,000 associates nationwide.

It was a freewheeling session, with lots of ideas on ways that the college and C&S might work more closely together in the coming academic year. Topics ranged from how to further a budding internship program to how to get faculty on-board with working more closely with C&S to whether the company might consider a student loan repayment program or student reimbursement for employees who go on to get a master’s degree (“that decision is way above me,” one of the C&S executives said). Henderson briefly discussed his idea for a core curriculum of three to six classes that would prepare a student, regardless of major, for an entry level position at C&S. “We have a lot of big and great ideas,” notes Melissa Binder, C&S’s learning development supervisor and a member of the task force. “The challenge is figuring out how to make something sustainable for both parties.”

Monthly meetings like this one have been taking place for a year and a half and have already resulted in a number of interns and new hires from Keene State. Although it is still in the early stages of development, and not yet a formal initiative, the Keene State effort is one of two programs designed to generate a talent pipeline that C&S has launched with local academic institutions in the last two years. The other is with Franklin Pierce University, a liberal arts institution with just under 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students located about 20 miles away in Rindge, New Hampshire. There, C&S and the university have launched the C&S Scholars Program to provide internships and co-operative opportunities to a select group of Franklin Pierce business majors.

It’s a different way for academia to work with business, but Henderson argues that it is “fulfilling our responsibility as a state institution of higher education to prepare students for life after college.” And, frankly, at the end of the day, C&S and the two schools are trying to address the same issue: How, in a state where nearly 60% of college bound students leave the state, to entice them to get an education locally and stay and develop careers with companies like C&S—a supply chain organization at its core—when their peers are drawn to the siren songs of urban areas like Boston, New York and Chicago. What’s that old song: “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”

The stakes are high: Across the country, small academic institutions are going out of business or merging with other schools to keep afloat while corporations like GE are abandoning their out-of-the-way locations and moving to urban areas where tomorrow’s talent wants to live. The concept is not without precedent in Keene, where not so long ago a large insurance company moved its corporate headquarters to Florida. Still others are embracing their small town roots and partnering with local academic institutions to get at the head of the line to recruit their top students. After all, students who go to school in the area, might be enticed to stick around and develop their careers there. That, at least, is the theory. (For more on this topic, see Walgreen’s Talent Strategy in the July 2016 issue of SCMR.)

That experiment is now underway at C&S. This is the story of how the nation’s largest wholesale grocery distribution company and one of its largest privately-held companies is trying to tap the talent in its own backyard to keep its edge as the food industry’s leading supply chain company. Whether C&S can keep its new hires down on the farm may not be known for several years. But the initiative is potentially a road map for other supply chain organizations operating in similar regions.

First steps

The war for supply chain talent has been a topic of discussion at conferences for at least the past five years. Now, with the unemployment rate at record lows, it is more acute—and more in the news—than ever. In recent months the American Trucking Association reported that driver turnover rose 5% in the third quarter of 2017, to 95% per year, “despite offering signing bonuses as high as $10,000 to drivers who, nonetheless, stay on the job for a year before moving on,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Other news reports in the Journal have noted that the job market is so tight that some cities in rural areas are offering bonuses to individuals willing to relocate to work for their labor-strapped employers. Examples include Hamilton, Ohio, which is offering $5,000 toward student loans to people in engineering, technology, science or the arts, if they agree to live for two years in Hamilton, and North Platte, Neb., home to Union Pacific’s largest train yard, where the town leaders are offering up to $10,000 for those willing to move for a job, $20,000 for train crew employees and a $25,000 bonus for diesel electricians.

C&S is certainly grappling with a tight labor market in the 50 facilities it operates around the country. But the challenge of minimizing turnover is not unique to operations. For C&S, turnover is also a challenge at its corporate headquarters in Keene, where the company employs some 1,200. As such, the two new initiatives represent a different approach to recruiting, according to Andrew Connell, vice president of procurement. “In the past, we did all the normal recruiting techniques, like posting online, LinkedIn and social media,” he says. “But we weren’t strategically utilizing some of the local colleges that could be a great source of talent. We didn’t start the process until the need arose, so we didn’t have a strong pipeline we could draw upon.” And getting people, especially young people starting their careers, to live in a small town in New Hampshire was an issue. Connell’s own experience is a case study. Historically, C&S recruited from top tier schools in the Northeast like Dartmouth, Middlebury and Cornell, where Connell was a student. In 2006, he was offered a summer internship at C&S, in the procurement department. Following his graduation the next year, he joined the executive leadership program at the company headquarters in Keene.

His peers in the program, which allows new hires to rotate through the various departments to find their niche in the company, had similarly been recruited from top tier schools. What set Connell apart is that he chose to put down roots and develop his career in New Hampshire. “One of the biggest challenges we have had is finding people who are not from the area who want to build a life and career here,” Connell says. “After two or three years, many new hires want to move closer to Boston or another big city.”

The catalyst for a new approach to recruitment originated in 2016 in the finance department, where Mark Fryberger is the vice president of finance. At the time, the company needed more staff accountants following the acquisition of several competitors. “We had hired everyone we could hire locally, so we were hiring from Manchester and Concord,” Fryberger remembers. “There was a lot of work, and with an hour commute one way, people were not staying for long.”

The company explored opening a satellite office in Boston, where its sister robotics company Symbotic is headquartered, or Hartford, Conn., where C&S has an office. The challenge: Employees in the home office were reluctant to move their departments away from the action. Moreover, Symbotic’s controller warned that while Boston might have more schools to draw from, there were also 1,000 companies competing for the same pool of talent. Employees jumped from job to job. In the summer of 2016, Fryberger did a dive into the demographics of the finance organization. What he discovered is that while about 80% of new hires came from outside of southwestern New Hampshire, nearly 60% of those with five years or more seniority—those who had stuck around—had connections to the area. Maybe recruiting from top tier schools wasn’t the answer. “We had some great people come through the leadership program, but the retention levels were low,” Fryberger says. “We decided to embrace who we are and see what Keene has to offer.”

The initial outreach was to Franklin Pierce University, which had a strong accounting program, something Keene State lacked. In December 2016, Cole Mills, then a senior member of the C&S financial team, and Fryberger met with university president Kim Mooney and Lynn Rozanski, who was then the acting provost. “At that first meeting we didn’t know where we were going,” says Fryberger, “But we realized we had a common need, and we agreed that we should have regular meetings to explore how we can work together.”

The two teams met again in early 2017. C&S asked how the company might engage with students, by acting as guest lecturers, providing case studies or providing internships. Rozanski wanted to think bigger: What about creating a C&S Scholars Program? The concept could potentially provide a meaningful work experience for Franklin Pierce students; develop a pipeline of potential new hires for C&S; and result in a program that Franklin Pierce could market to the parents of incoming freshmen. “We realized we needed to get corporate buy in from our CFO and general counsel,” Fryberger recalls. “Once we had that, we agreed to move forward with monthly meetings to define the program.” It was still a handshake agreement rather than a contractual obligation, says Fryberger. “We have made personal commitments, but if it fails, neither side has made a serious financial commitment.”

Meetings continued through the winter and spring, and by the end of the 2017 school year, a framework was in place to launch the C&S Scholars Progam the next fall.

The backyard

Similar discussions were underway with Keene State College. In early 2017, C&S hosted an event for the local Chamber of Commerce and the NH Sectors Partnership Initiative, described as “a collaborative, industry-led program that provides funding, training expertise and other resources to help companies within a growing industry sector collaborate on workforce development needs together.” The topic of the meeting was the workforce needs of local businesses and attendees included business leaders, representatives from local governments and a group from Keene State, Henderson among them. “When I heard Mark Fryberger talk about C&S’s needs, I thought the door opened for us,” Henderson recalls.

Following the event, Henderson arranged a February meeting on campus. “Even though they are the biggest employer in town, it was clear that not many Keene State kids had heard of C&S, knew what they do or realized that there are a lot of job opportunities there,” Henderson recalls. C&S asked how it could increase its engagement with students and offered to set up some part-time internships.

Following that February meeting, a task force was formed that began meeting on a monthly basis. And, indeed, C&S took on a few interns. While the discussions were on an ad hoc basis, the relationship got a boost in May 2017, when C&S’s procurement department launched a data cleansing initiative to aid its planning, pricing and promotions programs. It involved having individuals go through old super market circulars, identify the prices at which items sold at different times of the year and then manually enter that information into spreadsheets. It was the kind of work that lent itself to interns or temps. Aware of what the finance team was doing with Franklin Pierce, the procurement team reached out to Henderson. “We didn’t have a master plan, but we knew there was this resource in town,” says Connell. “We met with Daniel and asked if we could partner in a meaningful way.” By the end of May, C&S had hired six summer interns and brought onboard four recent graduates.

How they work

The Franklin Pierce and Keene State initiatives aren’t the only relationships C&S has built with academic institutions, according to Melissa Farmer, the program manager for college relations. The company has relationships with other universities near its facilities and offices, including Sacramento State University, Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers, Western New England University, University of Massachusetts Amherst and Lehigh University. But none are on the same scale as the two in New Hampshire. Still evolving, here’s how they work for now.

Both programs were launched following a series of monthly task force meetings that included representatives from both organizations who created a framework for moving forward. And in both instances, those groups continue to meet on a monthly basis.

Academia’s new take

If you think about it, academia and business have historically had different roles. Often, the two were at loggerheads. “The point of friction was that business would prescribe what it wanted and academic institutions would prescribe what they were willing to provide,” says Melinda Treadwell, Keene State College’s interim president. Maybe that old model is broken, or, at the least, needs some serious tweaking, especially if smaller schools are going to remain competitive in their war for students.

“I do think the academic paradigm has shifted,” says Ed French, the dean of Franklin Pierce’s business school. “There are fewer high school graduates and more competition. The challenge for small universities like Franklin Pierce is how do we resonate in the marketplace? We have to realize that tuition is an investment in the future, and we need to ensure that there is a return on that investment. We have to be in the market with companies like C&S to make that happen.”

Being in the market is very much a part of the business program at Franklin Pierce, where 27% of the student body are business majors in a program that emphasizes experiential learning. While the C&S initiative is the first of its kind, French envisions forming similar partnerships with other New England businesses. “What we’re doing with C&S may not work for someone else, but the fact that we have developed a formal program with a strong, vibrant company tells us we can do this with other companies,” he says.

Those thoughts are echoed by Treadwell. In Keene, she says, the college is working not only with area businesses, but local government and the Chamber of Commerce to “build road maps into the business community.”

Like Henderson, Treadwell envisions creating micro-certificates with core curriculums, multiple minors or dual majors that would prepare students for participating companies looking to Keene State as a talent pipeline. At the same time, she believes that in return, business needs to make a commitment to institutions like Keene State. “I’d like to see formal agreements that hold everyone accountable, and perhaps that if a student makes a commitment to a company, they can help with student loan forgiveness,” she says.

 

Both initiatives include paid internships. Typically, these are part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer. In addition to their work duties, Melissa Farmer, the program manager for college relations, creates lunch and learns where the interns can learn about the different departments within C&S, and arranges tours of nearby distribution centers. When time permits, interns are given the opportunity to shadow team members to learn more about how the business works. And, some interns have done multiple internships across departments. Finally, to help develop soft skills, interns give a final presentation about what they accomplished during the internships to team members and leadership when they are available.

C&S associates are available to visit classrooms or participate in campus events. In the last year, for example, a finance associate gave a presentation at Franklin Pierce about what happens in an internal audit and members of the IT department visited a Keene State software engineering class. Last winter, executives participated in a mock interview event at Keene State as part of a career speaker series. Beyond those common elements, the programs have some distinct differences.

C&S Scholars program at Franklin Pierce University.

Launched at the end of the 2017 academic year, the C&S Scholars program guarantees students who are accepted into the program a three credit paid internship during the fall or spring semester of their junior year, and, the possibility of a nine credit full semester paid co-operative during their senior year. Ultimately, a C&S Scholar may be offered a full-time position upon graduation.

The program is advertised to incoming freshman at open houses and campus visits to build awareness. Candidates apply for acceptance into the program in their sophomore year. In the 2017/2018 academic year—the first for the program—nine students applied and eight were given the opportunity to compete for an internship. Following their acceptance into the competition, C&S held a recognition dinner for the eight applicants.

The first competition was held at C&S’s corporate headquarters last February. The day opened with a breakfast and networking event and was followed by a team building activity. “We wanted to see how they worked together as a group,” says Farmer. The students also had a chance to meet C&S’s CEO.

Each of the eight candidates then gave a brief presentation on a personal passion. Topics ranged from the environment to sports and fashion to the Rotary Club. Following the presentations, each candidate had a one-on-one interview with C&S senior managers and executives. A member of the Franklin Pierce faculty was on hand to give each student feedback on their presentation and interview skills. C&S extended offers for the 2018/2019 academic year to six of the students, notifying most within two days. Some of those interns will be offered a full-time one semester co-op opportunity during their senior year.

Keene State College. The intern recruiting process with Keene State is less structured and driven more by the needs of specific departments. Potential interns are recommended to Melissa Farmer by Keene State professors who are working with C&S. She, in turn, filters the resumes to Melissa Binder, the learning and development supervisor and one of the C&S representatives on the Keene State task force.

Resumes are reviewed by Farmer, who then schedules phone interviews that are conducted by managers and supervisors from the teams looking for an intern. The best candidates are then offered a full- or part-time internship, depending upon the time of year. Summer internships are 40 hours a week for 10 weeks while internships during the school year are part-time, depending on the intern’s class schedule. “I’ve had interns do multiple internships on the same project, and this past winter I kept on two interns who were graduating in December and who were ultimately hired for full-time positions in procurement and transportation,” Binder says.

At the start of an internship, Binder asks the student to set goals they can work toward. An example might be to improve their Excel skills. Repeat interns might be given the opportunity to develop leadership skills by training and mentoring new interns. “We want to make it as much of a real-world experience as we can,” Binder says.

Measuring success

In the short term, these newfound relationships are bearing fruit. C&S has taken on at least 20 interns from Keene State and hired 10 of them in full-time positions; in addition to the Franklin Pierce interns over the past two years, including four recent hires, the first six C&S Scholars will become interns in the fall of 2018. What’s more, C&S feels as if it is now getting to the head of the recruiting line, and gaining access to the cream of the crop of Keene State and Franklin Pierce graduates.

But the ultimate goal of the two initiatives is to change the retention dynamic, with new hires who stay in Keene for more than just two or three years. “My personal measure of success will be how many employees in the finance areas four or five years from now came through this program,” says Mark Fryberger, who was one of the architects of the two initiatives. He adds, “We won’t know that for four or five years.”

For Keene State and Franklin Pierce, the C&S initiatives represent a new way of interacting with the business community. “Academia has to change, and I think what we’re doing here represents that change,” says Keene State’s Henderson. “For me, the next step is moving from an ad hoc approach to formalizing what we’re doing. The question is how do we build a system that we can scale and replicate with other companies? The answer is that you start with the people who know you best, and that’s C&S.”


About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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