Tricia Wallwork of Milo’s Tea Company: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a C-Suite Executive
Trust immediately and empower your People to unlock their genius! Some will let you down along the way but the innovative owner mindset you will unleash is worth it. We recently started high performance work systems in our production facilities to empower our front-line plant associates. Within weeks, we were receiving innovative ideas from People closest to the action and had improved plant efficiency.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Tricia Wallwork.
Tricia Wallwork is the CEO/Chairman of Milo’s Tea Company, a family owned, certified women owned beverage company that manufactures and distributes all-natural beverages throughout the United States. Tricia joined Milo’s in 2004 as the Vice President and General Counsel and began leading the company in 2012. Under her leadership, Milo’s has grown into a national beverage company, the #1 refrigerated tea item in the United States and a Zero Waste Manufacturer with a 1% Giving Back Profit Pledge. Tricia has been named a Woman Who Shapes the State of Alabama, Top Woman in Grocery, EY Entrepreneur of the Year (Southeast and National Finalist, Family Business), Top 40 Under 40, Executive of the Decade and Top CEO. Tricia is passionate about the community and currently serves as a Trustee at the Birmingham Museum of Art and the Birmingham Business Alliance. She frequently speaks about Milo’s, women in business and leadership. She has two children with her husband, Troy, who founded DataPerk, a managed service provider headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
At twenty-one, I went to law school with the naïve idea that I could save the world, or at least make it a better place. At first it was amazing, as I got a dream job clerking for the 11th Circuit (the federal appellate court) with a brilliant judge who taught me so much. Once I started practicing law, though, I quickly realized this was not what I was looking for culturally. Around the same time, my parents were at a pivot point with our family business, Milo’s, and we started talking about me joining the company. I never thought I would work in the family business. I knew nothing about manufacturing, distribution, CPG, retail or pretty much anything that we did (other than make tea that tasted like my grandmother used to make) but was eager to reinvent my career. So, in 2004, I traded my high heels and suits for a hair net and steel toe boots and spent the next eight years learning the business: riding route trucks, visiting our customer, getting to know our consumer, and so much more. In 2012, I became CEO and Chair. That is when I really had the chance to get back to my passion and purpose which is to use my platform to enrich the lives of our associates, customers, fans, and the communities we serve. Back in 2012, we sold a unit of Milo’s every 1.75 seconds and had less than 40 associates. Today, we have grown over ten-fold, selling 2 units per second, and employ almost 500 people. The opportunity to lead this remarkable growth trajectory in a purpose-driven, family business has been the highlight of my career and, one day, I am sure I will say my legacy!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
There have been many interesting stories in my career, so it’s hard to pick “the most” interesting. The experience that may be most interesting to readers happened over the past year during the Covid-19 outbreak. When I realized this global pandemic was going to shut down our offices and threaten our manufacturing, it was a very scary time. Instead of sitting back and watching this happen to us, we rolled up our sleeves and truly made lemonade out of the lemons we were handed in this horrific situation. We were able to pivot quickly amid such chaos only because of our strong company culture which prioritizes people over profits, and it guided our decision making. We quickly added full time sanitors, nurses for wellness checks, and expanded our communication loops dramatically including a daily video from me educating, sharing brutal facts and, hopefully, a message of caring and hope.
Thanks to our culture of putting people first, I’m proud to say the Covid-19 pandemic has made us more connected than ever as a company even though we are still practicing physical separation and distancing.
The takeaway for other leaders is that spending time and effort on culture is not the “soft stuff” — it is the hard stuff that is your secret sauce especially in times of uncertainty or chaos.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
There are so many amazing quotes. However, I was struck by a quote I heard very recently — “Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn”. I am a big proponent of amplifying brutal facts. This is not to blame, shame, or find fault. It is to work together as a TEAm to address mistakes and opportunities, and then grow from them. I believe these are not mistakes if we learn from them, admit them openly, and anchor those lessons so that they are not repeated but used as an explanation of why we have certain norms.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
I read so much. In 2021, I have read or re-read “BE2.0” by Jim Collins, “3HAG Way” by Shannon Susko and “Humanocracy” by Hamel and Zanini, all of which I strongly recommend. We just started a book club at Milo’s, and it has been a lot of fun to read business and leadership books with our TEAm, get their takeaways, and, most importantly, witness light bulb moments. Teams that learn together succeed together!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
At Milo’s, we are committed to people first, which means we value people over profits. This is our “why” statement. It’s why Milo’s exists. Sure, we manufacture and distribute the best tasting, better-for-you natural beverages. But that is what we do. Our why statement, our core purpose, however, is to deliver Milo’s Moments to our fans, customers, TEAm, and the communities we serve. One of the most rewarding things for me is seeing a new associate’s “aha!” moment when they see our people first approach in action.
A recent example occurred at our new plant in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after the severe winter weather had the state in a water boil emergency. Our Tulsa TEAm collaborated with our plant in Alabama and corporate to figure out how to bottle badly needed fresh drinking water for those in need. They came in on their day off to bottle the water, accomplishing all this with labels and needed safety standards for a new item within 24 hours. There are so many aspects of people first here in this story — empowering the TEAm to innovate and to make a difference, helping our communities in need and collaborating to see a vision executed. This makes our company stand out because it shows the genius of the Milo’s family.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
I would encourage young people to learn from osmosis, taking in the good and bad examples of behavior, leadership, and the like. With my mentees, I am emphatic that they should not emulate any one person but be decidedly themselves! We are each as unique as our experiences that got us to where we are today. So, cherry picking the lesson and determining how these apply in our life and career stage is important. I feel strongly that the opportunity to build other leaders is the greatest gift of leadership. It’s also vital when you are leading a growth company because a pipeline of leaders is key! Engineer your organization so you have a deep bench, and this will not only lead to business success but also satisfaction that you were able to change lives.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
When I began my career, there was a misplaced assumption — based on decades of “that’s how we’ve always done it” — that you were the boss because you had all the answers and were the smartest. Obviously, this isn’t the case as no one has all the answers, and no matter how smart you are you can always learn something from your colleagues. Thankfully, I never followed that train of thought, and that has made all the difference in our culture and our people at Milo’s.
You are a successful business leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Drive — I am gritty and do not give up. I think big. I push. I set huge goals and encourage everyone that I work with to do the same so they can achieve more than they ever thought possible. As a young CEO, I never thought we could become the #1 selling tea item in the USA, but through the relentless pursuit of our goals, we did just that against international companies with larger teams, budgets, and resources.
Feedback Focused — I do not shy from challenging situations or conversations. This means that I treat feedback as a gift and offer it quickly focusing on the behavior and not the person. I seek this not just for others but for myself. No one can improve without feedback, and I like to receive feedback as much as I am eager to provide it.
Trusting — I trust immediately. Certainly, this has backfired many times, but the value of extending trust immediately far outweighs the pain when one is let down.
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 C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
The CEO’s most important job is to own culture. Other leaders in a company need to exemplify that culture, but as the CEO, you must live and breathe the culture that you want to see. If you get that right, the success will follow because you will have the right people in the right seats focused on the right goals and behaving according to your shared values.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
CEOs have no bosses. Seriously? I have millions of bosses — internal and external. They are the millions of people who enjoy our all-natural beverages every day, and the customers who trust us to get these products made, on shelf and marketed to their shoppers. Milo’s associates are my boss just as much as I am theirs because they depend on me to make decisions that support our unique culture. And, of course, I answer to our Board of Directors and our stockholders as well. The bottom line is that we all must be accountable to all stakeholders so we should make decisions on a daily basis to ensure we address the needs of all.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Too often, I think C-Suite leaders feel they need to be in charge and micromanage all aspects of the business. Instead, I encourage collaboration and trust. Surround yourself with people smarter than you and listen to them. Those closest to the action know more than you. Respect that and value their input in word and deed.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The time to continue to reinvent/evolve oneself and the organization in a growth company is grossly underestimated and, oftentimes, ignored. The fact is that leaders in all areas of the company have a duty to constantly learn and evolve themselves and their teams. The amount of time I and other leaders spend evolving and reengineering the organization is vast and critical to success. Nevertheless, I oftentimes feel like I am on tour singing the same songs every night of the week. The satisfaction by seeing someone “get it” or, better yet, “see it,” is all the reason to keep singing that tune every day!
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
Number one, the best thing about being a leader is your opportunity to build other leaders. I definitely didn’t realize this early on as I was so focused on the win! We recently promoted an associate to lead our new Tulsa plant who started out at Milo’s 13 years ago driving a forklift. The fact that we could build this leader into someone ready to lead a plant (and the largest capital investment in company history) was a Milo’s Moment for sure.
Number two, trust immediately and empower your People to unlock their genius! Some will let you down along the way but the innovative owner mindset you will unleash is worth it. We recently started high performance work systems in our production facilities to empower our front-line plant associates. Within weeks, we were receiving innovative ideas from People closest to the action and had improved plant efficiency.
Number three, never stop learning and evolving yourself. If I was still Tricia 1.0, my board would show me the door. As a young CEO in a growth company, I have been forced to reinvent myself numerous times to keep up with what the organization needs and what I need to be successful. Don’t stay stuck because that’s how you’ve always done it. Evolve and grow yourself and you will be able to keep growing and scaling your organization and team.
Number four, be vulnerable. Transparency on your strengths and opportunities helps others see you as human and cultivates trust. Openly admit your mistakes. Showing my own humanity and struggles in daily videos (think dirty laundry and no makeup) to our associates amid COVID let them see me as a real person who was just trying to do the best, she could during chaos to keep everyone informed and safe. Be real. People will appreciate it and be real back.
And Number five, , most importantly, Celebrate your many mistakes along the journey. These are no mistakes if you learn from them! I have experienced so many failures in my career, but because of a relentless pursuit of learning these have been transformed to steps along the journey. Reframe your mindset on mistakes. If you can transparently admit what went wrong, what you learned from it, and how you will evolve, your TEAm will thank you. No one is perfect, and this will show your TEAm that it is okay to mess up, that this is the only way to get transformative innovation.
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. :-)
At Milo’s, we are hyper-focused on sustainability and diversity, equity, & inclusion. We call this “Milo’s Makes a Difference”, and while it’s nice to have all the certifications and seals on our labels, we started this initiative to make the world a better place. I truly believe that anyone can make a difference, whether that’s recycling your plastic bottles or working for a nonprofit. My advice would be to use your influence to be a driver of good for those that you touch — customer, associate, fan, and the communities you serve. You will create a purpose that will drive results not only for your organization but to make the world and the people in it better.
How can our readers further follow you online?
They can follow me on LinkedIn, and we’d love to have readers check out our Facebook and Instagram accounts, @drinkmilos!