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Carl Motter Of Van’s Kitchen On The Future Of Retail

An Interview With David Liu

One of the most important things, in my opinion, is storytelling and being able to captivate people. If you look at the trends, people want to know where their food comes from. And consumers love the experience of being able to connect to things so storytelling is key to getting people to feel comfortable with your business and your products. Think of a sweater that is from another part of the world that inspires someone to understand the people in Peru who maybe knitted that sweater. The colors that come from there could teach you something about another culture and other people. And you may not be able to travel there today, but you’re going to be magically transported to an experience that takes you outside of your own physical space and to somewhere else. And I think as human beings when we’re under stress or pressure or we’re not feeling well, we want something that lifts us up. It makes us feel better.

As a part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carl Motter — CRO.

Our “Egg Roll Guy” began his career at the University of North Texas, where he would meet love-of-his-life, Theresa Nguyen, and graduate with a BBA. Carl has always been driven and independent (qualities he no doubt honed as a Scout), but he wanted to learn how to incorporate his desire for perfection with his business knowledge. In 1993, Carl joined the Van’s Kitchen family, confident that he could make a difference in the young company. Over the next 20 years, he would lead the purchasing department by setting strict standards and acting as buyer for all of Van’s Kitchen’s raw materials. In 2012, technology became more important for businesses and the company’s needs changed. To assist, Carl flexed his computer savvy and took on the role of Chief IT Officer. After building the purchasing and IT departments, Carl then became Chief Revenue Officer, and he is currently focused on getting our Made to Love egg rolls into Convenience stores nationwide.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The story of how I got into this business was that ultimately I made a joke to my father-in-law over dinner. Teresa and I were not married yet, and the people at dinner with us were pitching my father-in-law for a job in the future. And when they left, I kind of, as I typically do, spoke my mind fairly unfiltered. I just said, “well, you know, based on the way they pitched you, I’d be a better salesperson than they would. I could do a better job of that.” And so I kind of left it at that. Then a couple of weeks later, my father-in-law called and said, “were you serious about working for us?” I said, “no, I was just kind of talking.” And he asked me probably one of the most profound things at that time, “would you consider it?”

I was in my 20’s at this point. So working for the company didn’t exactly jump out front and center because I was having fun doing what I was doing. I kind of thought about it, and as I say, one of the more mature decisions I’ve ever made in my life was I could see that they could grow into a national business. He was planning to buy a building, was in the process of getting a loan and really hit a stalemate when it came to expansion. So I came back to him and said, “I tell you what, if you get the loan, you get the new building, I’ll come on board.” After that conversation, he got the loan, the building and I’ve been here for 30 years now.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

The most interesting story that’s happened to me since I started my career is that I am called the egg roll guy, and I kind of liken that to being like the ice cream man. I had a company that I worked with, they were a service provider for graphic arts, and I would always bring hot egg rolls to their shop. And they started getting on the intercom and saying, “the guy is here, the egg roll guys here,” everybody would come up and be grabbing hot egg rolls. So much so that I would have to bring my friend his own box because he worked in the back of the shop, so when people would ask me to describe what I do, I just always kind of said, “well, I’m the egg roll guy.” That’s kind of what my nickname is, where it came from and what I’m known as.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Yes, I am. We are about to launch a Better For You line of egg rolls. It’s built off the foundation of our traditional formulas, and it’s going to meet the needs of some retail space that we’re not currently in. We’re concerned with people’s health, so we want to do our part to make a good thing even better.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There is. I don’t have a whole lot of story behind it, but his name was Mr. Robert Hoch. He retired as an executive at Texas Instruments, a fact which at the time was not actually known to me. He was a family friend and he eventually became my mentor. He would invite me to go to lunch and just talk with me, and he would ask me, how would I get to accomplish the things that I wanted to accomplish? What were my dreams? What were my goals? And he always encouraged me to try to tackle those and to meet my dreams head-on and try to make them happen. And then when you do that, set new ones. What he did was he really showed me that you have to pay it forward. He did it for me. He never asked for anything. There was no expectation that he had to do it, but he shared his valuable time, knowledge, and experience with a young guy and really set me up to be able to do that, and then also to be able to be a mentor myself. I have a few people who I’ve been mentoring, so I share my knowledge, time and experience with them so that they can help achieve their dreams too.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Yes, and the way I believe I do that is not only to try to bring success to the “roll models,” that’s what we call each other at our company, but to help lift up the underdogs and the least of these, to rise up, conquer challenges and fulfill their dreams. I try to encourage and teach as much as I can. As we tackle challenges in business, I try to help them to understand what the situation looks like, what we’re doing about it and how we’re staying true to our values.

I also believe in volunteerism, and I volunteer with the Boy Scouts primarily. I took a new position at the district level in the Dallas area, and I have a district responsibility as a committee chairperson to help the district run, which in turn touches thousands and thousands of young people’s lives on a daily basis. I’ve seen how the program helps young people, both my sons are eagle scouts, and it really unlocks the ability for someone to find the passion for the merit badge program. It exposes scouts to all different types of experiences that they may not learn growing up. They can learn things that may actually help them start a career, where I see a lot of people struggle as they go to college without a clear path in mind, and frequently they’ll get out of college with a lot of debt and without a great plan on how to use their degree, and it makes me sad to hear. I think Scouts is a great way to help people find out what they like and don’t like before they make those heavy investments of time and treasure to something that they think they like but really aren’t certain. Then on the side, my wife and I believe in giving our time and talent to many different charities, both locally, nationally and globally.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

First and foremost, one example that I’ve seen smart retailers do was to form a partnership with an online supplier, i.e. like an Instacart, someone who is not chain-specific. So many retailers may have their own online fulfillment, but I’ve seen those that don’t. Instead of trying to build it, they partner. And it gives them more immediate access to be able to service those clients’ needs in a way that does not make the distance aspect be the issue.

Another thing that I did see, which I thought was pretty smart, was not just shopping locations, but it was how restaurants behaved to the pandemic. I saw a number of great restaurant chains open up some of their proprietary sauces or formulations so that people could, in essence, make their favorite dish at home during the lockdown. I think that was smart because it maintained that brand presence in the consumer’s homes. And granted, the restaurant itself isn’t making money at this point off of those consumers, but it is keeping that brand loyalty alive on the hopes of them coming back when things opened up, which many of them did. I thought that was very smart. The sharing of knowledge in a positive way for the consumer because you want to keep in touch with them, you want them to care.

The supply chain crisis is another outgrowth of the pandemic. Can you share a few examples of what retailers are doing to pivot because of the bottlenecks caused by the supply chain crisis?

Definitely having a better relationship with their suppliers to maintain a surety of supply. I like to make the example of most suppliers just like the grocery store or retail outlets. We don’t keep a large inventory of products for them available in our system. So for us to be able to, we have to have better forecasting. All of the retailers that I know that are very smart about having a deeper partnership share vital information that can help their suppliers have a better insight into what their needs will be.

Some of our clients live off of our lead time. However, many days when they order our products, we’re supposed to be delivering within that time window as supply chain challenges linger. Some of our retailers reached out to us and said, “Hey, how can we help you? Other than extending the lead time, how can we help you have the right amount for us?” And our answer typically is to give us a forecast that we can work off of and then we can come back to you and tell you we can hit a certain percentage, but we can manage expectations. Then if we can only give them a ballpark percentage, they can plan off of it. So it’s really amping up those negotiations or discussions with the two partners to have a better understood expectation, because if you don’t have it to give they won’t get it, and they’ll need to look somewhere else to fill that void.

How do you think we should reimagine our supply chain to prevent this from happening again in the future?

This almost ties into my answer above. I’d say having more lead time is the biggest factor in reimagining the supply chain, and for businesses to stay hyper-efficient and use their resources. If we aren’t using our resources, then it’s a waste. Another way to account for future supply chain issues is perhaps to keep buffer stock in for situations like the one we are currently in, and be prepared for the unexpected. That’s what’s going to help because we’re in this hole and it’s going to take a while to dig out because for me to be able to build up stock, I’m going to have to have enough raw materials to make that happen. I also have to manage my clients expectations on how much I can produce and give to them in what time frame.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

You know, I struggle with this one because I like both. I like to be able to buy some items online without having to go anywhere, do anything, look at reviews and compare other goods. I want to see it, touch it and try things on before purchasing. I would not buy a car online without ever test driving it, right? I think there’s always going to be a need for some of that physicality, but I do think it’s going to change radically. I believe you’re going to have a more hyper-media where you can go somewhere and you’re going to put on VR goggles and be able to see what the suit looks like on you. Where you can test it by walking around and you won’t necessarily have all that in your own home, which will go somewhere to experience it. You’ll have force feedback gloves on so you can touch it and feel it, and be able to do this in a way that could bring all different types of retailers to this experience, like you’re going through a virtual mall. But it’ll be a location that you go to use the experience instead of having to invest in each and every home.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

I think really what happened was we had a giant explosive growth in retail to match people’s spending habits, but then stores started to merge. You ended up with a lot of redundancy. There’s probably a Macy’s within a few miles radius of my house or work, and more than one of them is kind of redundant. When I grew up, Macy’s was a retail chain that I knew of that existed in New York. When I went to New York, going to Macy’s in New York was special, it was a destination. I believe for the retailers and the malls, they have to become a destination that people want to go to again, that’s not ubiquitous that they can just find at every other street corner. I believe that’s where there’s a difference with retailers like Lululemon, Kroger and Costco.

How many times do you go into Costco and see something new? You may go in there to get milk. You may be going in there to get your favorite dog or cat food, but you’re going to see something new that wasn’t there the quarter before. And that’s where they’re bringing that treasure hunt mentality in. You don’t know if your favorite cookie is going to be in stock from one week to the next, so you’re going to stock up because you’re afraid it might be gone the next time you get there.

As for Kroger, they focus on the basics. Great food at low prices and serving their customers. I mean, I saw them through the pandemic constantly messaging that their people are their best asset and we want to keep them safe. I mean, they publicized exactly what they were going to do to help people get through it, and they lived up to that brand promise.

I personally don’t shop at Lululemon, but I happen to see their clothing on people all over the place. They have captured a desire for people to have fitness and fashion. Practical is all I can attribute it to now. This is because I think that is something that’s going to shift as more people are going to work out more at home than in gyms. How do you motivate people to do it? And I think using technology where you can get a coach who is experienced, who may live in California, in your home, helps you on a more personal basis. And you know, hey, it’s safe because they’re not breathing on me. So I’m not going to get COVID from it, but I’m still going to get a great workout.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

I personally, as a U.S.-based manufacturer, hope that consumers really start looking at what’s made in America and continue to make it a priority to buy American-made products and build that resurgence of American-made manufacturing. Some countries in the globe hold a lot of keys to what we consume, and it is important for more people to be aware of where these products are coming from. The biggest piece of advice I would give retail and e-commerce companies is to encourage their consumers to stay loyal and support their favorite domestic brands. I believe that building brand loyalty, especially with competitors like Amazon, is incredibly important in a brand’s success.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

One of the most important things, in my opinion, is storytelling and being able to captivate people. If you look at the trends, people want to know where their food comes from. And consumers love the experience of being able to connect to things so storytelling is key to getting people to feel comfortable with your business and your products. Think of a sweater that is from another part of the world that inspires someone to understand the people in Peru who maybe knitted that sweater. The colors that come from there could teach you something about another culture and other people. And you may not be able to travel there today, but you’re going to be magically transported to an experience that takes you outside of your own physical space and to somewhere else. And I think as human beings when we’re under stress or pressure or we’re not feeling well, we want something that lifts us up. It makes us feel better.

Along with storytelling, I still believe that the four P’s are extremely important when trying to build a fantastic retail experience. For those that don’t know, the four P’s are product, price, place and promotion. Retailers have to balance where to use them and how much is important, depending on what the industry is or what the items are. I believe smart retailers or smart producers have to continue to keep the basics in mind. If not, you end up getting off kilter somewhere along the way. You can have the best product in the world, but if it’s not available, then you have a problem where you will be failing your consumers.

I think a lot of times I will say we are in demand to try to get solutions out faster because we all talk about how the world seems to keep moving faster and faster. We forget about going through those basics, what about the product? Does this fit? What about the price? Is it appropriate? If we price it a little higher, will this help or hurt us, or lower it if we price it a couple of cents less when we get better economies of scale with volume? You know, that’s where I think sometimes I’ve seen the greatest failures is when people miss one of the obvious p’s.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

One thing that I wish I knew when I was younger, and what I hope the younger generation will be more knowledgeable about, is simple money management. Learning how to budget, how to save for your future and how to learn and invest wisely.

I think there needs to be a renaissance of just basic knowledge and rely on an educational system that helps people understand that their choices have impacts on their financial outcomes. Most times we’re balancing a lot of different things at once and frankly, learning how to turn pennies into dollars overtime is not sexy, but it’s hugely impactful in your life if you can find a way to balance your financial abilities.

With the everyday demands that people have, you will be able to save money for a rainy day, for emergencies, save money to travel, send kids to school and all sorts of things. It’s really within your grasp, but I think a lot of people feel helpless because nobody ever took the time to help them learn the basics. I see that as a failing in our schools because we used to have things like home economics and more helpful classes that were valuable and we’ve lost them, and we de-emphasize the importance of learning about real-life situations at a young age that could help you out in the future.

How can our readers further follow your work?

I am somewhat active on LinkedIn, but I would say a pretty limited amount. I have appeared in a podcast called The Answer Is Yes hosted by Jim Riley, where readers can learn more about me and my experience. I would say I am continually trying to be open to how I can positively expand my sphere of influence so that I can share more with others and that they could see and learn from what I’m doing.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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David Liu

David Liu

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David is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, a unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication