by Jennifer Barnett Fox
Dave Hipenbecker’s sparsely decorated desk at Kroger’s Cincinnati, OH, headquarters is crowned by two small Succes-sories plaques: “Teamwork” and “Focus.” These motivational messages have far more than an aesthetic purpose. Their presence serves as a constant reminder to Mr. Hipenbecker, director of network strategy and project engineering, and his team that focus and teamwork are the real reasons everyone is there.
“It’s all about honesty, integrity and including people, the same as it is with your family,” he said.
A consummate family man, Mr. Hipenbecker was drawn to the strong, supportive atmosphere of Kroger, a company known for its people-centric culture, three years ago. Greeting his visitors with a smile and a straightforward “Why me?” question about being named Baking & Snack’s Operations Executive of the Year, Mr. Hipenbecker quickly estab-lished that the baking industry’s recognition of his contribution is the result of teamwork involving a number of people.
“I don’t do this alone,” he said. “It’s a team effort.” In fact, Mr. Hipenbecker only initially shared the news of this award with his wife and a handful of Kroger superiors and co-workers.
Mr. Hipenbecker settled on a career path of engineering in junior high, and his introduc-tion to the food industry began 31 years ago with General Mills, where he held multiple positions in plant operations and engineering. He then moved to director of engineering at President Baking, which became a part of Keebler, now the snacks division within The Kellogg Company, and later to director of design engineering and packaging develop-ment at Kraft Foods. As he began to talk about his present employer, Mr. Hipenbecker visibly brightened, recalling his dream to work for Barry Blackwell, the passionate and well-respected Kroger executive (Baking & Snack’s 2005 Opera-tions Executive award winner), and become part of the supermarket chain’s culture, which places its employees and customers in the driver’s seat with a companywide customer-first strategy. “At times you just need to stop, look at what’s going on around you and listen to what people have to say.”
Mr. Hipenbecker’s intuitive focus on people and an inclination to never stop learning made him a natural match for Kroger. He joined the team in August 2007 as division engineering manager for bakery/deli/dairy. Then two years later, in December 2009, his initiative and drive landed him a promotion to his current position.
“There is a culture within Kroger that views people as assets, and there are employees who have been here for 25 to 30 years,” he said. “You don’t keep talent without doing right by people.”
Long before coming to Kroger, Mr. Hipenbecker recognized the importance of a people-centric leadership approach, earning a graduate degree with a human resources emphasis, which he chose for its focus on the individual. “No one works for me,” he asserted. “It’s my job to make sure our engineers have the resources, time and tools to get things done in the right way.”
Currently, Mr. Hipenbecker’s team consists of 14 project engineers, six industrial engineers and an engineering ad-ministrator. Together, the group strives to meet the changing demands of Kroger’s broad customer base and evolving consumer needs on both the deli and bakery sides of the business. His day-to-day go-to team includes Kay Smith, engi-neering administrator; Mike Zoller, general manager of supply chain; Joe Solimini, division engineering manager, deli and bakery; and other division engineering managers Larry Noe, George Wagers and Prentice Cawley.
MAKING HIS MARK.
When asked about professional milestones, Mr. Hipenbecker smiled before stating he hoped he had not hit them yet, but he quickly shared details about the company’s latest expansion: the Country Oven Bakery in Bowling Green, KY. The plant’s $10.6 million building expansion will produce cake products for Kroger’s in-store bakeries. (See “Expect the Unexpected” on Page 34.)
“It’s a big milestone with what we’ve done at Country Oven,” he said. “This is an effort by a lot of people, but I like to view my accomplishments more around family. I love this job, and I just come to work every day and do my job.”
Recognizing that leadership must evolve to be effective, Kroger encourages its employees to strive for a healthy bal-ance between work commitments and personal time, although Mr. Hipenbecker acknowledged the challenge of these constantly changing priorities. Inherent in this goal is his personal opinion that there are no second chances when it comes to important family events such as birthdays, anniversaries and children’s sporting events.
Despite a job requiring many hours spent in plants, meeting with equipment manufactures or spending time in vari-ous airports around the world, Mr. Hipenbecker strives to find his own balance between work life and family time. He is active in the Milford Lacrosse Club in Milford, OH, which recently won a state championship, by lending a hand to coaching lacrosse when in town. He sometimes schedules time off midweek to attend his children’s events. Photos taken by Mr. Hipenbecker of his son Matt’s Division III National Championship lacrosse team and his children’s other sporting events decorate his office walls.
A personal commitment to teamwork was especially evident through Mr. Hipenbecker’s willingness to make the 10-hour out-of-state drive to see his son’s lacrosse team play midweek games. Fueled by the excitement of his son’s win-ning team and a few hours of sleep, he would make the lengthy journey to and from the game to be at work the next day.
“Through teamwork, we make this work because it helps keep people focused,” he said. “Everyone needs help, and we are only as strong as our weakest link. At Kroger, there are no silos, so we must be flexible about where we need to go.”
The company has long been a model of positive change for both the industry and its employees, and Mr. Hipen-becker cited the company’s goal of finding the right people at the start and involving them from the beginning as the best way for everyone to understand expectations. This, in turn, means fewer decisions are based solely on a vision cre-ated behind the desk. “The best way to learn is on the plant floor,” he said. “The best part of my job is that it’s never the same every day; it’s always a new challenge.”
Kroger’s strong company culture is further supported by the expectation that the learning process should never grow stale. Mr. Hipenbecker works daily as a parent and a corporate executive to adapt to the real-time communication needs that involve extensive travel, e-mail and texting, supply chain questions, production location needs, or customer support and transportation issues. “We can never lose our focus on the customer needs and expectations,” Mr. Hipen-becker said.
As a parent of four children, Mr. Hipenbecker learned new technologies such as texting to communicate with his children in ways that ensured they would respond back. From a business perspective, changing consumer needs have encouraged Kroger’s employees to stretch their definition of “customer satisfaction” to ensure they always provide what the customer wants, plus a little bit more.
“Our customer is changing, and the economy also forces us to change,” he said. “This is an opportunity for the future and not a stumbling block. I’ve always embraced change; change is good, and this has only been strengthened by Kroger’s culture.”
Beyond his contributions at Kroger, Mr. Hipenbecker’s can-do attitude and desire to continue learning directly benefit industry partners through his participation as one of the five bakers involved in the Baking Industry Forum (BIF). The BIF bakers work alongside with five BEMA members toward the goal of reducing waste within the industry. Mr. Hipenbecker proudly described Kroger’s involvement in the progressive and inclusive group that promotes solving problems through the discussion of designs and standards.
“Life is about involvement,” he said. “We have a goal to make it better across the board, and that means we’re willing to listen and work together.”
Mr. Hipenbecker acknowledged that the industry must remain competitive, but by being willing to share issues, one can work together to raise the standards of the entire industry. BIF and BEMA bring the industry back to itself, he con-tinued.
“For years and years, the industry has bought new 50-year-old technology, but for the past four to five years, the in-dustry has been headed in a positive direction, and that’s because there’s been an effort to be more inclusive and a will-ingness to share ideas,” he said.
One of the major changes within the industry he has observed is an increasing penchant to add more science applica-tions such as applying servo motors to processing equipment. Also, the industry is doing a better job of observing trends in the dairy, meat and deli industries for cross-purposes including sanitation, blending and flavor additions. He also cited sanitary design as one of the major attitudinal changes among manufacturers as the industry copes with fre-quent changeovers and proper sanitation for allergens.
Backed by strong personal convictions and a sound company culture, Mr. Hipenbecker helps to move the baking in-dustry forward with a people-centric focus that benefits manufacturers, suppliers and consumers alike.
“A job well-done is simple if you’re providing the customer what they want plus a little more,” he concluded.