As TreeHouse Foods moves forward with its TreeHouse 2020 initiative, Rich Holland leads the way through his continuous improvement efforts. 

Rich Holland is a man of many talents. He can sing. He can tell a great story. And he can fix damn near anything … especially inside a bakery plant.

“Throughout my career, I’ve been the ‘fix-it guy,’ he said. “Whenever something was wrong, it seems like I always got it. It’s been that way since I was growing up. I worked on things, and I fixed them.”

This ability — coupled with his leadership skills and passion for people and the baking industry — has propelled him through dozens of acquisitions, three life-cycles of his company and up the ladder to senior director of manufacturing for Oak Brook, Ill.-based TreeHouse Foods. It’s also earned Mr. Holland the distinction of being namedBaking & Snack’s 2017 Operations Executive of the Year.

In the beginning
TreeHouse’s Princeton, Ky., plant is not only the place where Mr. Holland’s career began as a third-shift sample room specialist in 1993 — a Ralston Purina-owned facility at the time — but it’s also the previous muffler manufacturing plant where his father worked before Mr. Holland was born.

Looking back, Mr. Holland remembered having to fight for that job, not because of competition; he was overqualified. Management assumed he’d be unhappy and wouldn’t hire him.

“On April 1, I had taken our last $300 and moved us [to Princeton],” he recalled. “I told them, ‘If I can’t feed my family, I won’t be happy.’ On May 3, they hired me.”

During the next few years, Mr. Holland moved from quality to customer service and logistics and was voted as team lead to oversee computer projects and then eventually moved into the assistant logistics manager role. In retrospect, his early days at Ralcorp were foreshadowing. Mr. Holland is not a one-and-done kind of guy, and sticking to the status quo isn’t in his DNA. 

“I challenge people — and myself — to think every day, ‘What am I going to do that will make this place better than it was yesterday?’” He picked up this mentality from his dad, summarized in just three words: and then some. “My dad always said, ‘Everybody’s just looking to get by … you do whatever you’re asked to do and then some. Go above and beyond, and you’ll set yourself apart from the rest.’”

Even with this work ethic, Mr. Holland attributes his success not just to hard work but also a bit of dumb luck.  

“It seems like every time I stick my toe in something, I fall into it, and it just works out somehow,” he said. “I’ve been in the wrong place at the right time. When my company needed somebody, they’d say, ‘Let’s give it to this guy.’ I knew my bosses were putting a lot of faith in me, and there was no way I was going to fail.”

If one were to chart Rich Holland’s career on a graph, it would look more like zig-zag than an upward trajectory. A few moves might look like steps backward — a supervisor even referred to one of his job changes as “a waste of talent”— but Mr. Holland had an end game.

At Princeton, he went from logistics manager, running warehousing and transportation for multiple facilities, to production manager.

“I was reporting to the vice-president of operations and then had to report to a plant manager,” he recalled. “But I knew in the grand scheme of things, it’s what I needed to move through operations. The idea was that I’d cut my teeth as the operations manager at a difficult plant, and then they’d move me to a smaller one to run it.” 

Ralcorp’s acquisition of a Lofthouse cookie plant in Ogden, Utah, became the first notch in Mr. Fix-It’s figurative toolbelt. After starting up a new 120,000-square-foot freezer, he moved on to restructure plants in Dothan, Ala.; Newport, Ark.; and South Beloit, Ill., among others.

“Any time we had an acquisition, I was the first guy who went into the plant,” Mr. Holland explained, recalling that he often was seen as “big brother,” or the guy sent in to change everything and who was not to be trusted. In reality, though, the opposite was true.

He learned early that the role of continuous improvement was to deliver a seamless integration of an acquisition and not only streamline operations for employees but also deliver cost savings for the company.

“My No. 1 job was to get people to trust me,” he said. “I was there to make their jobs easier.”