German Chavez: 2015 Operations Executive of the Year

by Joanie Spencer
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Everyone has an opinion on what it takes to be a leader, whether it’s moxie, vision or attitude. But when it comes down to it, a true leader must accomplish one thing: Get those behind you to follow. This is a lesson that German Chavez, vice-president of manufacturing, Mission Foods, Irving, TX, learned since starting with the company more than two decades ago. And it’s a lesson that has not only brought success for Mission Foods but also one that has ultimately earned his recognition as Baking & Snack’s 2015 Operations Executive of the Year.

A Mexican immigrant, Mr. Chavez’ ethic and leadership philosophy can be traced back to childhood when he would accompany his father to Lions Club meetings. Then in the early 1980s, he came to the US as an exchange student to answer an internal calling to learn the English language. Afterward, he received a degree in biochemical engineering from Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey, one of Mexico’s most prestigious universities, and returned to the States to seek his future. But after finding no more opportunity for work than an assistant manager at a Burger King in California’s San Fernando Valley, Mr. Chavez discovered it wasn’t so much his esteemed credentials as it was his passion for people and pride in his work that laid a foundation for success.

Thus began his mission to help Mission Foods, a division of Mexico-based Gruma SAB, take over the world, one person and one tortilla at a time. “I think my most important accomplishment is to have grown with Mission Foods over these 22 years,” Mr. Chavez recalled. “When I started, this company was only a few plants, and I’ve helped it grow to 21 with a presence not only in the US but also in Europe, Asia, Australia and Russia. I’m Mexican, and this is a Mexican company and a Mexican product. I’m proud of that.”

One direction

Everyone knows the key to efficiency is to work smarter, not harder, and that means making sure people are all aligned with the same goals. For a leader, the first step is sharing a vision of success. This is a lesson Mr. Chavez put into practice as plant manager in the Dallas location 15 years ago, when that particular operation was not seeing much success.

“When I came in as plant manager, I had the title, but I had to earn my employees’ trust,” he recalled. “If I wanted to make real changes, I needed people to trust me and see what I was seeing.” What he saw was a group of extremely dedicated individuals who were not all focused on the same thing. “Every employee was working really hard, but I noticed that some were pulling one way, and some were pulling another; we were just going around and around. That’s when I realized we needed a clear vision, and I gave them a picture of where we needed to go.”

Within a year, the Dallas numbers turned around, and the plant was exactly where the company wanted it to be.

This mentality was not only a key to success for the Dallas plant, but it has also played a vital role in the recent success of Mission Foods as a whole, as Mr. Chavez explained that the company’s values and vision line up directly align with his management style. “In my 22 years at Mission, I see the company is more aligned than ever,” he said. “Of course, everyone has different management styles, but we have a leader with a very clear vision of where the company has to go.”

Simplifying, systematizing

The best way to keep operations moving in one direction — the right direction — is by simplifying processes wherever possible. Out of the nearly 7,000 employees at Mission Foods, almost 6,000 of them report to manufacturing and Mr. Chavez. Simplicity truly is the key to alignment, not only for manufacturing but also for the company as a whole.

“One of my goals is to systematize what we do,” he explained. Mission Foods has a long history of longevity when it comes to employee tenure, and Mr. Chavez has worked to take the intellectual property that comes with 20 to 30 years of tenure and carry it into a system of success well into the future. “I want to make sure we leave our knowledge so that the company can use it for many years,” he said.

He cited companies like Burger King — where he first got his start — as a model.  “When you go into a Burger King, who is taking your order? Who’s in the kitchen? A teenager. Companies like this are being run by teenagers. How are they able to do that? By systematizing what they do,” he explained. By creating a standardized system for operations, he explained, it not only makes it easier for people to join the company, but it also makes it possible for employees to successfully work in any area of a plant, in any plant location.

 Simplifying and systematizing begins with taking things back to basics, a strategy that has proven successful for Mission Foods over the past few years, according to Mr. Chavez. “It sounds cliché, but it’s really what we’ve done. We’re going back to what we do well, and that’s make good, fresh tortillas the right way.”

After a process of SKU harmonization, Mission Foods reduced its number of SKUs by about 50 to 60% to hone its product offerings and eliminate some of the dead weight. “It’s not that we reinvented ourselves; we went back to what we do best. Our Chairman of the Board, Juan Antonio Gonzalez Moreno, and our CEO, Javier Velez, have brought back full alignment and focus in our core business. We have been extremely successful following his strategy and working together as a team,” he said.

Tortilla takeover

In addition to maintaining a common vision, Mr. Chavez identified another key quality that every leader must have to run manufacturing operations successfully: passion. “That’s what it takes to really understand what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re not just making tortillas. We’re feeding people. And little by little, we’re conquering the world with tortillas.”

To illustrate this tortilla takeover, Mr. Chavez described the growth Mission Foods is experiencing in places like its Mountain Top, PA, plant, where tortillas, he said, were often referred to as “those little round things.” While historically, California has been the strongest tortilla market, Mr. Chavez indicated that the growth the company experienced has typically fallen in line with industry growth. However, Mission Foods is looking to expand into markets where it can grow at a higher percentage over usual industry rates, such as in the Midwest, Northeast and Eastern Seaboard.

“There are more players in these areas, and more consumers are switching to tortillas from bread,” he suggested. “Hopefully, they’re going to purchase from a company that is making tortillas the right way. Little by little, more people are turning to us for consistency because they know the quality is going to be there. They’re going to pay a little more and be at a premium, but they know they’ll be eating a good, wholesome tortilla.”

While there are many great tortilla manufacturers, Mr. Chavez noted, he hangs his hat on the high standards for excellence by which he and Mission Foods live. “There are manufacturers out there doing really great things, but unfortunately, there are many that don’t take food safety or employee issues as seriously as we do,” he emphasized, identifying these areas as tension points in acquisitions. “These are the most difficult things when we acquire someone. We are very strong in quality and people — we never put profit in front of these two things,” he said.

In fact, when asked about his mentors, Mr. Chavez immediately pointed to the picture of Gruma founder, Roberto Gonzalez Barrera, citing his vision of where he wanted to take his company. “We opened up the biggest tortilla plant in the world in Rancho Cucamonga — it was a huge building — and Don Roberto said, ‘It’s not big enough.’ He had a very clear vision of where this company was going,” he recalled. “And now his son, Juan Gonzalez Moreno, has taken over with the same drive, if not even more.”

As Mission Foods continues to grow and expand into new markets, the human factor remains a high priority for Mr. Chavez. Relocating personnel to a new plant — especially into new regions — brings a host of other challenges, including turnover in management. “In Pennsylvania, we were able to bring in local talent and promote them,” he said. “The production manager is from the area, and the sanitation, maintenance and warehouse managers started at that plant, as well.”

The right fit

With vision, direction and passion, the next step in successful operational leadership, according to Mr. Chavez, is lining up people with their specific skills and strengths. “I try to detect what people are good at — really good at — and what their passion is, and I match that to the different tasks in a plant or in the company so they can really flourish,” he said.

For example, Ernesto Escamilla, director of manufacturing in the Pacific Northwest region, is heavily involved in statistical process control and programs like Six Sigma. Hernan Tijerina, director of manufacturing in the South Central region, is focused on numbers and analysis, so Mr. Chavez placed him in charge of budgets and feasibility analysis for specific projects. “These are their core strengths and what they love to do,” Mr. Chavez said. “I wouldn’t give Hernan responsibility for statistical process control. Could he do it? Sure, he’s a very smart guy. But I know that’s not his passion. His passion is numbers.”

Meanwhile, people like Scott Shafer, director of manufacturing, East region, Paul De La O, director of manufacturing, Southwest region, and Armando Garza, director of manufacturing, North Central region, are best suited for the plant floor, so Mr. Chavez assigns them to the newer plants to train and develop staff.

“What we really do here is manage people and processes,” Mr. Chavez pointed out. “Some people think it’s harder than that, but once you’re able to align all the different people into what it is we do, that’s when we’re successful.”

To that end, Mr. Chavez places a heavy emphasis on promoting from within to develop talent and grow the company. “We look for internal candidates that are eager to grow and eager to move up — people who know it’s going to require sacrifice, and we’ve got employees who want to do that. We have a lot of good, young talent here,” he said.

In fact, one might consider Mr. Chavez a kind of talent scout. When he’s looking for people to develop and grow, his criteria goes beyond formal education. Considering his own career trajectory was founded on hard work more than the clout of his degree, an individual’s credentials will often take a back seat to experience, passion, work ethic and good old-fashioned pride in a job well done.

When he visits a plant, Mr. Chavez takes the time to walk the line and interact with each employee. “Sometimes I’m looking for that person who is detailing a piece of equipment or has the area well-organized or just a general sense of pride in his or her work,” he noted.

The biggest quality he’s looking for, though, is a willingness to get down to business on the plant floor and bring the tortilla making process to life. “A lot of people just want to be behind a desk, but our line of work requires floor time, no matter what position you’re in,” he declared. “Someone once told me the baking industry is a contact sport. That’s how we need to treat it; we need to be in contact and engaged with employees. You can’t do that from behind a desk.”

Heart of a leader

While Mr. Chavez’ operational philosophy has been perfectly aligned with Mission Foods for two decades, he also follows strict personal principles, putting ethics, honesty and humility at the forefront. And while his employees follow him as a leader, the people always come first in his heart and mind.

“I tell my employees that the reason I am where I am is because of them,” he said. “I am no better than anyone — I’m just another human being, I just had different opportunities.”

Whether it’s a regional manufacturing director, a mechanic, a packer or a warehouse manager, Mr. Chavez looks for ways to learn from the people surrounding him. “I talk to everybody because you can learn from anybody. If you share your knowledge, you can also learn from other people,” he said.

 When it comes to ethics and honesty, truthfulness is a key principle for Mr. Chavez and one he works to instill in his employees, especially when it comes to making mistakes. “If someone makes a mistake, I expect that person to bring it up; that’s how we can solve the problem quickly,” he explained.

In his book, mistakes are almost always learning opportunities. “If a person makes a mistake and it costs the company $20,000, if he or she is honest about it, I’m not going to fire that person,” he said. “It was a learning experience that ultimately cost the company $20,000, and let’s be honest, a lot of courses out there cost that much. If my employees are honest and up front, that carries more weight than the mistake.”

For Mr. Chavez, humility is a much more important — and realistic — quality than having all the answers. “Some people think that just because I’m the vice-president of manufacturing, I have all the answers, but that’s not true,” he asserted. “What I do know is who has the answers. You can be successful as long as you know where the answers are, not necessarily what they are.”

Regardless of the level of success he reaches, Mr. Chavez will always put the people and the products first. “My values and the values of the company are the same. We don’t put profits in front of people or quality.” And his emphasis on these two things is reflected in how he received the Operations Executive of the Year award. “This award belongs to Mission Foods and its people.”

Weaving these principles together makes everything else fall in line on the path to success. “I preach to everyone that we have to take care of our employees,” Mr. Chavez said. “We need to make Mission Foods a place where people want to work. Make it enjoyable. Make it fun. Make it something people can be proud of. And relax … we’re just making tortillas and feeding people.”

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