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How McKee Foods Keeps Their Communications Moving Forward

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On this episode of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, we have Mike Gloekler, Corporate Communications and Public Relations Manager at McKee Foods.

Culture, Comms, & Cocktails is internal comms served straight up, so settle in, drink in the knowledge. Some shaken, some stirred, and maybe even some with a twist, and enjoy the top shelf guest I have lined up for you. I’m your host, Chuck Gose, Strategic Advisor at SocialChorus. On this episode of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, we have Mike Gloekler, Corporate Communications and Public Relations Manager at McKee Foods Corporation.

McKee Foods is a privately held, family owned company with an 85 year history. They are best known for their line of Little Debbie® snack cakes, America’s leading snack cake brand.

“We looked at this platform and we said if we’re going to try and get this thing moving forward, it can’t just be another communications only thing. We said to ourselves, ‘This is bigger than us’” —Mike Gloekler

We feature communications leaders every second and fourth Tuesday of the month. Don’t miss an episode of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, brought to you by SocialChorus. Subscribe now wherever you listen to podcasts (Apple, Google Play, Stitcher, etc.)

Culture, Comms, & Cocktails Episode #24 Transcript

Chuck Gose: Culture, Comms & Cocktails is internal comms served straight up, so settle in, drink in the knowledge, some shaken, some stirred, and maybe even some with a twist, and enjoy the top shelf guests I have lined up for you. I’m your host, Chuck Gose, Strategic Adviser at SocialChorus, and on this episode of Culture, Comms & Cocktails we have Mike Gloekler, corporate communications and PR manager at McKee Foods.

Chuck Gose: Mike, welcome to Culture, Comms & Cocktails.

Mike Gloekler: Thanks, Chuck, glad to be here. Thanks for the invite.

Chuck Gose: Absolutely. Grab a seat here at the Culture, Comms & Cocktails lounge, and let’s get started. Now for listeners, Mike, who may not know who McKee Foods is, but I’m sure at some point in their life they’ve tasted one of the company’s products. Talk a little bit about who the company is.

Mike Gloekler: I would certainly hope they’ve tasted one of our products. We’re a number one in the country in sales volume, but McKee foods is a family owned bakery. We’re headquartered here in Collegedale, Tennessee, just outside of Chattanooga. Last year we celebrated 85 years as a company, but what
people are probably more familiar with is that this year we’ll celebrate the 60th anniversary of our most well known brand, and that is Little Debbie snack cakes.

Mike Gloekler: We have additional bakeries in Gentry, Arkansas and Stuarts Draft, Virginia, and we have a distribution center in Kingman, Arizona. We deliver nearly one-and-a-half billion dollars worth of smiles to America under the Little Debbie, Sunbelt Granola, Drake’s, Fieldstone, and Prairie City Bakery brand names. We’re currently led by the third generation of the McKee family, and the fourth generation is just really starting to develop their careers here while they’re learning every aspect of the business. So we’re the quiet little company with the really well known brand that most people seem to know.

Chuck Gose: And I got to be on site with a team, and I did stop at the company store on the way out and it was pretty cool to see all of those brands. I had only seen Drake’ before in Seinfeld episodes, so that was pretty neat to see that. But even with 6,000-ish employees, as you said, McKee foods is still a family owned company. So I’m curious as a communicator, is it any different being a communications professional for a family owned company than say your counterparts who might work in a regulated environment, or a publicly traded company? Does it look or feel any different?

Mike Gloekler: Yeah it does in a lot of ways. The family becomes significantly more involved in the different aspects of the company because that’s their name on the building, it’s not generations that are gone past necessarily. But sometimes … and I have worked with publicly traded organizations, one very large one in particular, but especially these days more so than say 20 or 30 years ago, it can feel sometimes with bigger companies that you know you’re just keeping a spot warm in the org chart until the next person comes around to replace you and you’ve moved on.

Mike Gloekler: But leadership changes can bring sometimes some pretty wild swings and style and drastic changes in day-to-day work focus on what the prime communication rallying point is anymore. With family ownership we feel like we get some nice stability, especially if the family is close knit and works well together like the McKee family does. And with this you get a true direction, sort of a polar North if you will, that you know doesn’t really change. Even though you’ve got external forces that sometimes swing you one way or the other or create turbulence, you kind of always know because you know the family
personally, this is the direction we need to be headed.

Chuck Gose: And how do you think that having the family be involved, you said many generations over the years, and providing that stability and guiding hand, how has that influenced the culture? Because you’ve been there now about, I think it was around 10-ish years.

Mike Gloekler: It’ll be 13 in April.

Chuck Gose: How many?

Mike Gloekler: 13 in April.

Chuck Gose: 13 in April, that’s ten-ish, we’ll go from there. How has the culture changed, or is it still very much the same that it was when you joined almost 13 years ago?

Mike Gloekler: It’s exactly the same, and I’d argue it’s exactly the same as it was when the company started in 1934. The family is the culture, that’s bottom line. And with the third generation leading this company, now every day I see the influence from the second generation leadership. Those two gentlemen have retired, but they’re still around. They’re still here often, and I interact with them a few times a year.

Mike Gloekler: So with that, I also see the influence from the first generation of leadership, and those folks I never had the pleasure of meeting, but I see it at work every day. In 1934 McKee Foods was founded, OD and Ruth McKee embarked on this project as true partners, and each played to their strengths. OD played the great role of the salesman, and Ruth was the steadfast operational manager. Her role was a particularly tough one to hone as a business woman in 1934, but Ruth proved to be tougher than that.

Mike Gloekler: She had to be because that first generation of company leadership was driven by almost pure survival in the hostile economic environment of the great depression. It was survival of the company and survival of their young family. And you think about at times they lived in an apartment overlooking the bakery floor because that’s what made sense given their situation at the time. Here they had this plant that they were paying for, why pay for housing when you could just set up a makeshift apartment upstairs?

Mike Gloekler: So that drive for survival, conservative fiscal practices, curiosity and invention, those traits were observed and absorbed by their children who worked in the business beginning in their youth. So when their sons, Jack and Ellsworth took the reins and they capitalized on those family values, those focused them to drive that next phase, which was innovation and growth that saw Little Debbie skyrocket to nationwide distribution and status as the number one snack cake by sales volume.

Mike Gloekler: And today, the third generation we see Mike McKee, Debbie McKee, Fowler, Chris McKee, Rusty McKee, they’re all informed by that same legacy. And collectively those of us who worked for them were informed by that same legacy. So we all function the same way today as they did in 1934 with an eye on being very conservative financially, and with an eye on innovation. So they, this generation of McKees, saw how their parents and grandparents valued people, and they continue to nurture that very same culture to this day.

Mike Gloekler: Now, one could argue that that long of a history could be an anchor, but it really it is in a sense, but in a good sense. An anchor that keeps you kind of where you need to be during any kind of storms on the environment, in your environment. But the way the McKees operated, it’s all those good things that we see every day that carry on and inform how we all work in our daily jobs.

Chuck Gose: Well, and you took a word right out of my mouth as you started this story, which was legacy, which is there are a lot of family run companies that even though a new generation takes over, there’s all kinds of changes with that generation. But it is that guiding hand and that legacy of the past generation. You can clearly tell that the current generation honors and respects and only wants to build on it. It sounds like even someone like yourself and the other people at the company who don’t carry that family name still feel that that legacy and ownership and responsibility to the company.

Mike Gloekler: Oh absolutely. I say over and over that we have 6,500 family owners. That’s all of us.

Chuck Gose: One of the reasons we’re talking today is last year in 2019, the team there at McKee Foods launched, so I’m curious. I kind of know the story, but I want to hear you share that with us. Where does that name come from, and what were the initial goals and objectives of launching this new internal comms platform for those 6,000-plus McKee Foods employees?

Mike Gloekler: Yeah, I think it’s a funny story because I tend to be one of those people my brain automatically says it’s got to be clever, and the more clever the better. So Mix was one of the first names our team suggested, but in my head that was too easy, it was cheating, Mix makes too much sense. But the more clever I tried to get with it, and the more clever I encouraged the team to get with it, the more keep it simple stupid was banging me in the head. It came down to the fact that really at the core, we as a company, and we as individual workers are more than a world-class manufacturer of snack cakes. At our core we’re a family bakery. Our corporate logo even says so, McKee, a family bakery.

Mike Gloekler: So whether you drive a forklift or a semi, or if you studied accounting, engineering or communication, whatever, what we are at the end of the day is we’re bakers. Our job is to bake product and put smiles on the faces of consumers across the country, and that’s it. I contribute to that, and I think of that story of the janitor at the Johnson Space Center, and when the president walked through and asked what his job was, he said, I’m putting a man on the moon. I think like that. I think that’s the way we are here. We’re all bakers.

Mike Gloekler: And in the end, the core of baking is having the right mix and the change of that mix changes what the end product is. Again, it also speaks to being a very real way for employees to be more engaged in the communication process in ways that they absolutely never were. So in that regard we’re mixing up how we do our communication as a company, and we’re letting people into the mix as far as communication is concerned. So it works on a lot of levels, and we’re real happy with it, and it made sense, and it made sense to everybody around us. So it worked.

Chuck Gose: And so what were some of those initial goals of why invest in this new platform? Why rollout mix to your employees?

Mike Gloekler: Yeah, our leaders fortunately saw the potential from the very start, which was great, and you know how hard it is to get anything done if you can’t get help from the top down. But the icing on the cake was good old fashioned data, and our company’s engagement survey pegged that the broader concept of communication, and I’m talking not communications products, but person-to-person, shift-to-shift, line-to-line, location to manufacturing location. That that broader concept of communication was an area of concern. And then my department’s employee communication survey data showed that there was a desire to modernize our communications, so that made sense to us. And then our meetings that we held with the value stream departments showed that there was a need for some more technology and agility, and it just seemed like moving to mix fit the bill.

Mike Gloekler: So we launched on, I remember it very clearly, it was our spring report meetings day. We did the big rollout to a captive audience. We launched on Tuesday, April 9th, 2019, and just 14 days after our launch, in fact I was at FutureComms with with all of you, we had 25% registration of our 6,500 employees give or take on the employee number. And about three quarters of that population is hourly with the majority of those folks desk-less. So we were tickled pink, and today now just 10 months from launch, getting ready to celebrate our anniversary, our registration is at 68% and I couldn’t be happier
with that.

Chuck Gose: Well, you should be thrilled, and that’s kudos to you and the team for reaching that audience that was clearly hungry, pun intended, for the Mix, and it’s been great to see that. And when I visited the team there in in Collegedale, which was my first time in Collegedale, Tennessee, I was so impressed by the training facility that the company had on site. That immediately sent to me the message of how McKee Foods doesn’t just care about employees, but invests in resources for employees.

Chuck Gose: What was also impressive about that day was you assembled a large group of people for that onsite strategy session, which was great, but many of those people were from the IT community there at McKee Foods, and that’s been a struggle sometimes for communicators is engaging with and getting the
IT community involved. So how did you get them involved and interested, or was it as simple as the free lunch?

Mike Gloekler: Yeah, I don’t know that it was that simple, but we looked at this platform and we said if we’re going to try and get this thing moving forward, it can’t just be another communications only thing. We need to have buy-in, not just from leadership, we have to have buy in from other departments, and they need to understand that this is something that they can work with us on, and kind of find ways to use on their own beyond what I’m thinking of doing. All I’m thinking is I need a better way to communicate with employees and get some measurement out of it, but how can different departments talk to their groups
with this platform?

Mike Gloekler: So we said to ourselves, this is bigger than us. So marketing and sales, you saw a lot of those folks there, we pulled them in. We’ve got a 400-plus field sales folks spread out all across the country. You can imagine the difficulty in trying to communicate to all of them because they’re constantly on the go. And then IT, of course, we can’t do anything in here related to technology without ITs blessing and help. Plus, there were ways that we saw that they could use this to improve their communication among their own team, as well as their communication to their customer base, which was the rest of us.

Mike Gloekler: So it made sense to all of these groups to come together and work on this together. Now, I may be footing the bill from my budget, but what I’m doing is providing a communication value to everyone else, and they get to ride on board with that and do better as their own organization is concerned because you know, rising tide all boats. So if everybody does better, we all do better.

Chuck Gose: And great to hear that you wanting to empower those people. So often sometimes, I shouldn’t say often, sometimes there are communicators who fear empowering others to just communicate themselves. Even if they’re already doing it, we as communicators, sometimes we feel like we should own all of that. So that’s great to hear that you guys are empowering those other teams. And beyond that empowerment, what has been the general response to Mix from leaders from those frontline workers? I mean, it’s April, so it’s about 10 months ago was that was that launch. Has it changed anything there at McKee Food? What’s been the response?

Mike Gloekler: Well, I think we’ll get a better idea. We’re getting ready to do our engagement survey again, and I want to see if that move that needle moves on communication from last year and the year before. But I think what we’re hearing from people is once they get a good grip of how it works and all that, and what it can do for them, that it is a great way to communicate. It is a great way to stay on top of things. It’s a great way to carry company information with you that we typically, they typically didn’t do before. People weren’t taking the newsletter out of the building with them before we got rid of it. I think that they’re realizing now that this is something that they can use to provide some feedback back up the chain.

Mike Gloekler: So as we have slowly opened up commenting and things like that, because we’re going from nobody gets to say anything about anything to opening up the floodgates. We didn’t want to do that, so we’ve been slowly adding commenting capabilities and things like that, and people are realizing, wow, I can be on the plant floor and talk up the chain directly to leadership. And I think that like you used the word empowering, I think that’s what that’s giving them, is some sense of ownership and participation.

Chuck Gose: Now the app is a big part of that, and that’s some of that mobility that you talked about. People take the content with them and consume it when and where they want, and that’s one of the endpoints of Mix. But I’m also curious, what role does email play in their overall communication strategy with with Mix? How are you using email as part of it?

Mike Gloekler: Yeah, it’s interesting because, and this could be a great caveat for anybody else who’s looking to launch or getting ready to launch their program, we were so focused on the coolness of having the app that we completely missed the mark on pushing the capability of desktop access to the platform. We were yelling, get the app, get the app, get the app, and then a couple of people were saying, I don’t want an app. I don’t want another app. I’ll never use an app. I just want my information by desktop like I used to get. And it’s like, but wait a minute, you can do that too.

Mike Gloekler: So don’t forget with the newness of the app that the desktop is a big part of that. And a big part of the desktop is getting those email pushes because that’s how our folks were used to receiving information before was I would put some sort of electronic newsletter together and send an email that says, hey, it’s available. Click here. So now we’re kind of back to that, but when people are at their desk and they’re busy and doing what they’re doing, it’s easy to miss things if we don’t push emails.

Mike Gloekler: So our use of email is growing and growing. For us, one of the core tenants of McKee Foods these days is listen to the system. So to oversimplify that, don’t hand somebody an apple when they’re clearly asking for an orange. So he have spent this first year learning how employees want Mix to work for them, and that’s what we want. This is a great tool for us as communicators, does us no good if the users aren’t happy and aren’t using it. So they’ve told us email is relevant to them when it comes to communication, so we’re using it more and more.

Chuck Gose: Or don’t give someone a Swiss Cake Roll when they want a Zebra Cake.

Mike Gloekler: No, don’t. That’s two different things.

Chuck Gose: Yeah, it’s very much and it’s kind of cliche at times to hear, but it is very true about meet people where they are, that some people want to be on mobile and that’s awesome. Some people want to still be on desktop and get email, and that’s great too. It’s about keeping them informed. So yeah, people do get excited about the mobile app because that’s something new to the organization, but there are those people that get just as much a benefit by the old tried and true reading it on their desktop, getting that email summary of stories that are in there.

Chuck Gose: So it’s great to hear. It’s not surprising that the app was kind of the focus because that’s the fun thing, but it’s great to hear that the employees spoke up and you guys are building on that.

Mike Gloekler: Yep.

Chuck Gose: Now one of the more clever channels inside Mix is called Snack Chat, and it’s a very nice play on words there. What some of the content that’s been shared by employees in that channel that’s turned into something bigger than just their share? Has it helped uncover new stories? Has it turned into anything else as a result?

Mike Gloekler: I’ll say that our original goal for Snack Chat was a little different than than the space it’s become today. We originally saw Snack Chat as an opportunity for employees to kind of run wild and free. It was going to be the sandbox where they could just just play. It was their channel, they owned it, and then our heads, as communicators working on marketing this whole new thing, this whole Mix platform to everybody, we wanted Snack Chat to kind of be the neon hot donuts now sign that brought you into the door.

Mike Gloekler: So to a degree it’s still that because it’s kind of the fun side and the playful side of Mix, but it’s got a little more direction from comms than originally was planned. So what we do is we’ll put out suggestions to employees, what do we want to see from them? And we let them flood us with content. So we’ll just ask simple questions. What makes you happy today? Or at Thanksgiving time, what are you thankful for? But give us a photo of it.

Mike Gloekler: So we get a lot of family photos and stuff like that. So what makes you smile? We’ll get the occasional cat and dog picture. It’s great, whatever. People are proud of their kids, their grandkids, their pets, and we’re giving them that platform that we didn’t use to have before to post their personal photos. So at the same time, we’ll say, hey, send in some company picnic photos from the big day down at the amusement park, and we’ll just get hundreds of them and you can take your time and look through them and find your friends and whatever.

Mike Gloekler: So the way it’s set up now is we asked for something and they submit, and they never seem to let us down. There’s some more than others who are just absolute average contributors. So it’s fun to get everybody more involved, and to make it a more participative environment than it's ever been.

Chuck Gose: And when you look at Mix in 2020, as you said in a few months you’re coming up on the one year anniversary of the launch, what are some of the goals you have? Whether that’s very personal goals from you, Mike, of what you want to see Mix become, or do you guys have some objectives from it as a team standpoint of what Mix in 2020 is going to look like?

Mike Gloekler: We’re finding all kinds of things that we can do with it that I don’t think we ever envisioned before. We’re using it as a platform to run some surveys, and we’re actually establishing outside of our firewall website that’s going to be more of a repository for documents and photos and things like that so we can try not to bog the system down too much with the fun and playful stuff. We had some folks who said the cat and dog photo is pushing this important news below the fold, so we get that.

Mike Gloekler: So that’s what it is. It’s build on the foundation, improve on the services Mix provides, like I mentioned before, listen to the system. This is not my app, this is every employee’s app, and if it’s not working for you, it’s not working for anybody. So it’s a matter of fine tune. I’ve told the team, I said, we’re never going to settle into a group with this thing, and there should be no desire to. Listen to the system, plan, try things, reflect, and repeat. And then my personal goal is I’ll always chase a 100% registration, and that’s just, I’ll never get there, but I’ll chase it. I’ll chase it until the day I’m gone.

Chuck Gose: You said it again, that listen to the system, that’s such a great lesson. And no, I agree with you, getting that 100% is a tough one. The fact that you’ve, especially with a large manufacturing workforce, as you mentioned, you’ve got truck drivers and other people whose jobs just aren’t at a desk, to get that type of registration number is great. I’m sure that as you continue to develop the content and get more people in there, that that number will will only go up.

Chuck Gose: I’ve got for you is a two-parter, and it goes back. You had referenced that you were at FutureComms last year, and I expect you to be there again at FutureComms 2020, Mike, but what would you say to someone who’s perhaps a little uncertain of attending 2020? Is it worth the investment and time to go to FutureComms April 29th through 30th in New York City?

Mike Gloekler: Pull the trigger, that’s all I could say. Pull the trigger ,book the trip. In fact, you may not see me this year because it’s such a valuable experience I may send somebody from my staff so they can get the experience. It isn’t just networking. It’s a knowledge base in and of itself, and Tom Hunter and I were the ones who went last year. We got so many ideas from those two days, and it was just an amazing use of time. And the caliber of presenters was absolutely second to none.

Mike Gloekler: Honestly, I can see FutureComms becoming the annual it gathering for communicators. I said that to Tom last year, and I believe it. I’m looking at, I don’t know, maybe I just need to budget for more people to go, but I hate to give up my seat, but I know that there’s a great opportunity for growth for somebody on my staff. So we’ll see. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll make my way out there.

Chuck Gose: Well, there’s a great group rate, Mike, so there’s really no reason not to be a part of it. Maybe you guys can get on that corporate jet you were telling me about to get the team there.

Chuck Gose: Now, on a more personal note, at FutureComms last year you told me about this group of employees, and I’ve completely spaced on the name of them, they get the taste test some of the goods there from McKee Foods. Remind me what they’re called.

Mike Gloekler: Yeah, they’re the taste buds.

Chuck Gose: Taste buds, that’s it. That’s such a good name, and I can’t believe I forgot what that was. Such a good name.

Mike Gloekler: They get to enter into an annual lottery to have a seat on this group for the year. You’re on a select group who get to try new snack cake concepts and do like AB type testing under SPs, like do you prefer this one or this one? It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a good reminder that just because it sounds like a good idea in an R and D meeting, doesn’t mean it’s going to play with consumers. It’s real people here at work who are going to let R and D know whether or not you’ve made something that they would be proud to offer to the world. So yeah, it’s a lot of fun. I did a one year and I’ll tell you, I couldn’t keep up with the time commitment on it.

Chuck Gose: I mean taste buds. That’s just, it’s too good. What we talked about the culture at McKee Foods, you’ve shared a lot of the comms activities with Mix, and great stories, great anecdotes around that, and I’m sure others will love to hear.

Chuck Gose: The podcast is called Culture, Comms & Cocktails, so I’m curious, Mike, what is your favorite cocktail? But more in particular, are there any McKee Foods, any of your products, that pair nicely? So if someone wants to have a cocktail but pair it with maybe a Little Debbie snack or something, what’s your recommendation?

Mike Gloekler: Well, here’s where I get boring cause I’m a two fingers of Knob Creek with a splash of water and a good conversation. That’s what warms my soul. So not much of a cocktail there, though I had a very delightful cocktail called a Gin’s Cup on a Holland America cruise a couple of years ago. It was cucumber based, elderflower, it’s quite nice. As for pairings, that’s got to be an original question. I am told, I haven’t done this myself, but I’m told you can’t go wrong with a Swiss Cake Roll with the grasshopper chaser.

Chuck Gose: Mmm.

Mike Gloekler: Chocolate, mint and cream can make all kinds of magic happen. So I imagine it’s a little bit like a Thin Mint, a boozy Thin Mint.

Chuck Gose: I’ll tell you what, Mike. I’ll make you a deal. If you come to FutureComms, we will go find a good grasshopper martini, I’ll supply to the Swiss cake rolls, and we’ll give it a go.

Mike Gloekler: All right. You got it. Give it a go.

Chuck Gose: Yeah, absolutely. Mike, thanks again for being on the podcast. It is great to work with you and Tom and the rest of the team. I love hearing that you want to bring others to a FutureComms in 2020. I ask that you not give up your seat and just show up. Again, there’s a great group rate out there for everybody, and hope I get to see you in New York, but thanks again for being on the podcast.

Mike Gloekler: Of course. Thanks so much for having me.

Chuck Gose: If you enjoyed what you heard from this episode and want to check out others, find Culture, Comms & Cocktails on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen. And when you do, hit that subscribe button so you don’t miss any future episodes. This has been Culture, Comms & Cocktails, internal comms served straight up. Thanks for listening.


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Chuck Gose

Chuck Gose

I am a self-proclaimed Skyline Chili connoisseur and Duran Duran fan with nearly 20 years of experience in marketing, corporate communications, and internal communications. My passion and enthusiasm for the communications profession began early in my career at General Motors and Rolls-Royce, Since then, I have focused on weaving internal communications and technology in creative ways. I'm also the co-creator of The Periodic Table of Internal Communications and The Very Hungry Communicator. But most importantly, I got to fly in a blimp once.

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