Alok Advani Of SuckerPunch Gourmet: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO
There’s no on the job training, you just plug in and go. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a plan. But the decisions aren’t always clear. Just put one foot in front of the other and don’t second guess yourself.
As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Alok Advani.
Alok Advani is the CEO of SuckerPunch Gourmet, makers of pickles done differently, a bolder Bloody Mary mix, functional pickle juice shots, and travel-size pickle chip pouches. Since joining the company in 2019, Alok has focused on bringing SuckerPunch Gourmet front of shelf and top of mind for consumers. He expanded SuckerPunch’s presence from 4,000 to 14,000 stores nationwide, and led the launches of products in two new categories: Functional Hydration and Digestion Shots, and Pickle Pouch Snack Packs. Under his leadership, the company has experienced a 500% revenue growth, and breathed life into a sleepy category.
Prior to SuckerPunch, Alok held roles in finance and brand management at a variety of CPG companies. During his tenure as Brand Manager at Conagra Brands as Brand Manager, he led the “emerging brands” acquisition portfolio, integrated the Frontera business across 100 SKUs in 12 categories, launched 22 new products across Ambient, Frozen, and Refrigerated categories, and added nearly $20MM in annual revenue. He also collaborated in the development of Michelob Ultra’s first-ever Superbowl commercial during his time at Anheuser-Busch InBev.
He holds an MBA from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business and a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Northern Illinois University. In his free time, Alok mentors young CPG professionals, is active in the Chicagoland Food & Beverage community, and enjoys cooking and baking new recipes in his kitchen. He is an avid woodworker — and has even taught hand-tool classes at the Chicago School of Woodworking. He is a Chicago native and still resides in the greater Chicago area.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in Chicago in an immigrant family. They didn’t have formal education, so entrepreneurship was a natural way to earn a living. As a teenager I worked for the family cell phone business, and that was my first blush with entrepreneurship.
But I was young, so I also wanted to get as far away from the family business as possible. I loved all things food, so Kraft Foods seemed like a natural place to start my career. From there, I went on to a variety of functions at a number of CPG companies, but there was always a desire to get back to entrepreneurship.
I’m grateful for the classical training from those CPG companies, but even more grateful for the early entrepreneurial experience. I draw on both daily. And if teenage me could keep my cool while working with his family everyday, there is nothing that my SuckerPunch family could do to throw me off.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The day my phone rang and the person on the other line asked if we wanted to brew a pickle beer with them. All of a sudden I learned that pickle beer was the new hot thing. I had flashbacks to my days at ABInBev. I thought to myself: “We make the best pickle, why not the best pickle beer?”. We were so excited to do this collaboration with DESTIHL Brewery, that we immediately sprinted to get it done. It was our fastest innovation to date. All the credit goes to DESTIHL for that.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I simultaneously laugh and cringe when I think back to my first job out of college at Kraft Foods. I had a degree in economics but no internships and had never taken a finance class in my life. Kraft took a flyer on me. By the end of my first week, I walked into my manager’s office and explained to him that I was capable of so much more than what they had me doing.
He looked me dead in the eye and said “based on what?” Of course I didn’t have a good answer. To his credit, he consistently found opportunities for me to learn and grow. The lessons for me were: don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, but make sure that you have a good reason for why you deserve it. And to wait your turn, because no one is entitled to anything.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Two people come to mind: Greg Keller from Frontera Foods, and Steve Lacy, from Meredith Corp.
Greg started out at Kraft, like me, before becoming a founding member of Frontera. Whenever I’m faced with an internal issue, he’s been there, done that. But beyond advice, Greg has never stopped encouraging me or believing in me. There was a solid two years where he would call me once a month and say “I met with the founder of Company X, and I think you should be their CEO”.
Steve is a SuckerPunch board member and has become a great friend in a short period of time. He has been the most accessible mentor I have ever had, and it’s never lost on me how much he cares about me and my career. I’ve taken that as inspiration for how I interact with my own team. Start with genuinely caring for the person and the rest becomes easier.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I think that one of the most important reasons is that diversity leads to innovation. I have seen tables where everyone comes from the same background, where conformity is king without them realizing it. A diverse team is less likely to take things for granted based on similar ways of thinking. This naturally makes debates more fact-based than opinion-based.
A diverse workplace allows us to check our biases, and not make dangerous assumptions. But it’s a consistent practice. We can’t just make diverse hires and kick up our feet. These team members have unique voices that need to be included in critical conversations. It’s a consistent practice that pays dividends.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I have certainly experienced what it is like to be a racial minority here in the US. That uniqueness comes with a lot of pride in my heritage, and a lot of pitfalls with systemic racism. But I am not an under-represented minority in the business world. So while I can understand what it is like to be a minority from one very particular perspective, it’s important to expand that perspective.
First, one must recognize diversity. Name it in all its forms. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to turn a spotlight on it. We can’t say “I don’t see race,” we have to recognize that diversity makes the world a rich and beautiful place.
Diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice. When I joined SuckerPunch, people looked the same, talked the same, and thought the same. You can’t flip a switch and change that overnight, but you can think more broadly about recruiting practices for new hires, vendors, and partners. So that’s what we did.
We’re a small company, but in a short time we gained more diversity in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, and even neuro-diversity. And giving these new team members important roles and a seat at the table ensured inclusion and representation.
We believe that this leads to more equity, but we recognize that this is a long-term play.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
First, set a clear vision for the company. Then align people and strategy to execute that vision in a way that is unique to your company. Two companies could have the same vision and execute in very different ways. And that comes down to the people. How your people execute is a function of the culture. A CEO can and should steer the culture, but it’s not completely in the CEO’s hands.
Second, organizational design — that comes back to the culture, the strategy, and the vision. The CEO should be specific and deliberate in how they design the company for success, harmony, and equity. People trade their time for things like money, ownership, or even experience. I believe that the CEO should be able to look those people in the eye and say “this is a fair accounting and a fair trade”.
Finally, and specifically for a capital-intensive startup like ours, the CEO makes sure that money is flowing. That could be bringing in outside capital, closely managing cash flow, or simply making sure that we are making good decisions.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
That we have it all figured out. We don’t. There’s no on the job training, you just plug in and go. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a plan. But the decisions aren’t always clear. Just put one foot in front of the other and don’t second guess yourself.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The board hired me to help take the company to the next level. And I thought to myself “oh, they need someone to take over the founder role.” But the way a founder operates and the way a CEO operates must be different. And the biggest difference is between doing and leading. Founders built their companies by being Swiss Army knives and leading the day-to-day in multiple functions. So that’s what I did at first. A morning in the warehouse, an afternoon analyzing data, a sales meeting to end the day. That stuff was fun and it was very “startup-y.” But the job wasn’t to “do.” The job was to lead.
I found out that the need to jump into every project or negotiation is a recipe for burnout. More importantly, it robs your team of critical growth opportunities. And if your team doesn’t grow, your company can’t scale. It took me some time to realize that SuckerPunch didn’t need a second founder. It needed a CEO.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Nothing would ever get done if everyone was cut out to be an executive. I don’t want to live in that world!
Leadership and vision settingare obvious, but more important is integrity, specifically keeping one’s word. The executive needs to consistently follow through on what they say, or no one else will. Sometimes that’s scary because we often sign up for things thinking “well how am I going to do that?”. I’ve seen executives who didn’t exhibit this quality and ham-fisted their way to success, but it’s on the backs of their people.
Secondly, we talk about problem solving a lot, but I think that problem identifying is key — or more than that, a mindset of continuous improvement. To grow a startup, you need to grow internal capabilities, and that requires a constant cycle of change.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Don’t take ourselves too seriously. SuckerPunch is all about fun and flavor, and it’s sometimes hard to keep our eye on the “fun” aspect. Especially during a pandemic when the staff is working remotely. But it’s part of our DNA, so weekly and monthly meetings, all start with about ten minutes of wasting time and being goofy. We have team retreats to reset, and we always try to remember that this is supposed to be fun. It’s just food.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I try to do this in the community, and the most satisfying way for me has been to mentor young CPG professionals. I love seeing new founders gain confidence.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Founders and CEOs are not the same: It is not my job to be Founder 2.0. It is my job to be the CEO. In a small company they are similar, but not the same.
- It’s all about the people, and the people are all different: I am constantly switching gears between board members, investors, internal team members, consultants, etc. Oftentimes the conversations have the same theme, but are packaged very differently.
- Have a clear vision and don’t stop talking about it: I still have work to do on constantly beating this drum. But it comes back to the people. We must share a vision and all be in pursuit of it. That shared vision makes conversations so much easier. I took that for granted when I started, and I still have a long way to go.
- Be decisive in personnel decisions: I came in on a turnaround agenda, so I had to make tough staffing decisions early on. In hindsight, I still took too long. It’s not always pleasant, but it’s always your job to make tough decisions and act quickly, otherwise the team will suffer, and that’s not fair.
- The workplace will keep changing: The workplace is changing so quickly. From work-from-home to much-needed conversations about diversity and inclusion, employees have a rapidly shifting point of view on what the workplace should provide for them. This requires quick and constant evolution in organizational design.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
A minimalism movement. Between environmental concerns, increased debt and anxiety from social media, I believe that now, more than ever, we need a break. And it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, people can start small. I’d like to see corporations embrace this by understanding their role in it and working with employees to simplify.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Let go or be dragged” — Zen Proverb
This is a simple quote that is a catchall. Work, health, relationships, hobbies. We cling to a lot in life and it’s important to remember that we can just let go. It is tempting to run away from the bad times and wring joy out of the good times like a dishrag.
This quote is a reminder to me that nothing is perfect and yet everything is fine. In business, I remember that it’s just pickles. In my personal life, I remember that clinging to an outcome won’t guarantee that it will happen. I am at my most content when I have done my best and let go of the rest.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I am a brand nerd, so I would love to have lunch with David Aaker. He’s been very influential in how I think about branding and storytelling.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.