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USF Business Grad Does Good: Rich Martino, VP of Mondelēz, Returns to Address MBA Class

By Keith Morelli

Rich Martino speaking to Andy Artis and the MBA class

TAMPA (Dec. 6, 2016) -- Rich Martino still carries the swagger of a kid growing up in the Bronx, but it's softened a bit by a move to Florida with his family three decades ago to care for an ailing grandfather in New Port Richey. He stayed in the Sunshine State long enough to graduate from the University of South Florida with a business degree.

That was in 1984. This week, he returned to his old school as an accomplished and successful businessman; confident and candid about his career and his current executive position for perhaps the largest snack-food company on the planet.

He heads eastern U.S. sales for Mondelēz International, formerly Kraft/Nabisco, which manufactures a wide swath of snack-food companies including Oreo, Chips Ahoy, Ritz, Triscuit and Wheat Thins. And there's Cadbury, SourPatch Kids and Trident gum, just to name a few.

"I was just up in the dean's office," he joked. "First time I was there without legal counsel."

Nice icebreaker from the kid from New York who returned there after graduating USF to forge his path in the world of big business. Martino began his career with Kraft Foods 32 years ago as a sales representative in New York City. Since then, he has held 16 assignments in five different states and he has climbed the ladder with this philosophy of management: Go the extra M.I.L.E: Motivate your work force. Inspire them. Lead them to success. Empower them to do the job with little oversight.

"Having someone here like Rich, with his wealth of experience and business insights, is a remarkable opportunity for USF and the students enrolled here," said Muma College of Business Dean Moez Limayem.

"He is a perfect example of how successful a person can become with the right education, drive and determination. He's an inspiration for our students here; students who hope to follow similar career paths."

The MBA course stresses the connection between classroom study and the real business world and is fortified by the lectures delivered by business leaders in the program's Leadership Speaker Series, said marketing professor Andrew Artis, who teaches the class.

Part of the series aims at teaching students lessons that aren't in the classroom. Martino delivered one such tidbit.

He said his company works to perfect its mentorship program, which not only pairs experienced employees with new hires, but also works to have the younger workers mentor the business veteran in ways of new technology and research.

"It's reverse mentoring," Martino said. "The mentor becomes the mentee."

Artis, who is the academic director of the MBA program, said the thrust of the speaker series is to have corporate executives explain new ideas and trends, like the mentor/mentee concept, long before they ever show up in a textbook.

"The comments about reverse mentoring really grabbed the students' attention," Artis said. "Traditionally, mentor relationships operate in one direction where the mentor gives and the mentee benefits.

"He told the students that they bring new skills to the workplace — like the use of technology — and are more attractive as mentees when they are willing to help their mentors grow and learn."

Artis told Martino that all his students were about to earn MBAs, and Martino didn't have one. Given his success, are the students wasting their time pursuing a master's degree?

"Never," Martino replied. "Getting an education is never a waste of time." He said if they were going into marketing they would need that advanced degree; if they were going into sales, they might not need it. But either way, he said, an MBA is a valuable tool to have in the box.

"You can more easily figure out how to do things, how to solve problems," he said. "Really, you learn the ability to learn, to take input and analytics and use that to solve problems."

But he cautioned the soon-to-be grads not to rely solely on the diploma.

"Don't think that because you have an MBA, you will get to the top of the house," he said. "You have to perform as well."

Students these days are sharp, he said, but so were students in his day. There is a difference, too. He said then, business-college grads were willing to start at the bottom and work their way up. That's what he did, starting at an entry level sales position.

Now, he said, students seem to want to start at or near the top.

"I won't say they feel entitled," he said, "but you just don't start off as vice president."

It's been 10 years since he last visited USF, when he toured the campus to show his children where he went to school. He said he hopes to be a regular visitor one day.

He easily engaged his young audience, sparking questions about the company, his leadership style and how to succeed in a fast-paced world of big business.

He talked about his products mostly being impulse buys; that the way they are presented on the shelves of grocery stores has a lot to do with sales.

"Nobody has cookies on their shopping lists," he said.

But, one student asked, with the advent of grocery delivery services, was Mondelēz concerned about that taking the impulse-buy variable out of the equation.

Certainly true, said Martino, 54, but the best and brightest at his company are studying ways to come up with a new marketing strategy that will overcome that. He paused.

"Good question," he said.

He said he was impressed with the curriculum, including a course on professional selling.

"A lot of business graduates don't really know what selling is," he said. "It's more than pushing a product. It involves analytics and negotiation. We use data in every decision we make."

And maybe a little more. In front of each student was a bag of bite-size Oreos or Animal Crackers, compliments of the speaker and the cadre of corporate execs who came along with him and lined the wall at the back of the room.

Mondelēz, which means "delicious world" in Latin, was formed four years ago out of Kraft/Nabisco and sells mostly snack foods, the most lucrative in the stable of goods, he said, because of the products' global appeal.

"We're a 4-year-old company," he said, "that sells 100-year-old products."

But times change and those 100-year-old products have to change also. Now, there is a push to make the snacks healthier; less sodium and artificial coloring. Sales of those items are huge, he said, as are sales of the tasty decadent products that may not be the healthiest of the line.

"We are getting a lot of emails on this," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of them say, 'Don't screw up my Oreos.'"

Keeping Oreos and other Mondelēz products on the shelves, in front of consumers, is Martino's job. He commands a sales army that covers the eastern United States.

He has more than 1,600 sales representatives working for him and he oversees annual sales of about $2 billion. Net revenues for Mondelēz last year were estimated to be about $30 billion. The company employs 100,000 workers in 165 countries around the world.

Leading such a workforce can be challenging, he said. Sycophants are easy to read and the real leaders emerge by continually accepting more and more responsibility without complaint or hesitation.

He gave these words of advice during the hour-and-a-half presentation: "If you really want to find out how you're doing, don't ask your boss. Ask the people who work for you."

And this:

"As you go out there looking for careers, make sure it's a match with what you want to do because this really is like a marriage."