Kraft Heinz — one of the most ambitious and polarizing companies in the U.S. food industry — is a place where the young and hungry can thrive, where those who don’t buy in are left behind, and where results matter above all else.
CHICAGO — Certain kinds of people thrive at Kraft Heinz, one of the most ambitious and polarizing companies in the American food industry.
They’re the types who can keep their desk clutter-free save for no more than two personal items, per company policy. The types who get amped up gazing upon charts of sales data posted on the walls at both headquarters locations, in Chicago and Pittsburgh, to see how they measure up to other teams, knowing a sizable bonus awaits the winner.
More than money is at stake, though. Those who succeed at Kraft Heinz relish the battle to be the best.
“It’s part of the culture and in the blood to be competitive, always fighting for that next win,” said Michael Ferranti, Kraft Heinz’s head of people and performance for the U.S. commercial business.
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Working at Kraft Heinz isn’t for everyone, as executives readily admit. The company, backed by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and Brazilian private equity firm 3G Capital, has a well-earned reputation for vigorous cost-cutting — good for shareholders, not so much for the hundreds of people laid off since Heinz, already owned by Buffett’s firm and 3G, acquired Kraft in 2015. Those who survived the cuts have been challenged to do more with less.
Kraft Heinz, which reported about $26 billion in sales last year, isn’t apologizing for any of that, though executives say the company doesn’t get enough credit for investing money back into the business.
The Chicago Tribune interviewed six Kraft Heinz employees provided by the company at its Chicago headquarters in the downtown Aon Center skyscraper, and another six current and former employees who spoke on condition of anonymity.
From those talks, a clear picture emerged: Kraft Heinz is a company where the young and hungry can thrive, where those who don’t buy in are left behind and where results matter above all else.
“We want to win,” Ferranti said. “And frankly, there are some who will adapt and there are many who won’t. That evolution over several years and quarters will determine who’s really in for the long haul.”
Ferranti’s trajectory provides a glimpse into the Kraft Heinz culture. Before the merger, he worked in Asia as a finance and operations executive for Burger King, another 3G-controlled company.
Now, at 34, with only about two years of human-resources experience, he oversees the professional development of about 4,000 salaried workers in the U.S., where the company conducts most of its business.
Experience doesn’t mean much at Kraft Heinz. Far more important are buy-in, ambition and, ultimately, results. And while Ferranti declined to provide an average age or tenure for Kraft Heinz employees, former employees interviewed for this story said many of the more experienced workers had been laid off or left on their own since the merger.
Of course, that’s meant opportunity for others. Alyssa Bronikowski, 29, previously worked at Walgreens’ corporate headquarters in Deerfield, Illinois, before coming to Kraft Heinz. Bronikowski said she likes that she’s rewarded with financial incentives for hitting certain clearly stated goals.
“One of the things I really struggled with in some of my previous roles is that you work twice as hard as the person next to you but you might be compensated the same. I love at Kraft Heinz that you are compensated for the work you put in,” said Bronikowski, senior manager of industry relations and sales communications.
That, in short, sums up the philosophy behind Kraft Heinz’s system of meritocracy.
Work hard. Hit your goals. Good things will happen.
“The Kraft Heinz system and monetary rewards have been life-changing for me,” said Stacey Johnson, 32, head of leadership and inclusion. After working for Teach for America for 10 years, Johnson said she was able to buy a condo after only about one year at Kraft Heinz.
These warm and fuzzy feelings aren’t shared companywide. One current employee in the Glenview research and development office said the reality of merit-based pay hasn’t lived up to its promise — a view shared by some others who have left the company. Despite a generous bonus for all employees last year, raises and promotions have been few and far between in the research and development office, even for people hitting their goals.
“I certainly think morale has taken a hit,” said the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for his job.
Roughly 700 people were laid off in August 2015 when the company decided, after the acquisition, that it would move its Chicago-area headquarters to the Aon Center from suburban Northfield. Smaller rounds of job cuts have since followed.
About 1,500 people now work in the five-floor Aon Center office, with 600 to 700 others in the company’s research and development office in suburban Glenview, spokesman Michael Mullen said.
The company’s extreme cost-cutting has gone under the microscope since its failed bid to acquire Unilever for $143 billion in February. Some analysts have questioned whether Kraft Heinz’s reputation is now hindering its ability to make a deal. After a recent disappointing quarterly earnings report, CEO Bernardo Hees defended the company’s business model and philosophy.
Kraft Heinz is widely expected to make another acquisition, sooner rather than later, because that’s the established 3G pattern: buy a company, cut costs, expand profit margins and acquire another company. Repeat.
Company executives, meanwhile, insist they don’t need another acquisition to expand the company’s top line through increased investment in marketing and launching new products.
What’s clear is the 3G method of zero-base budgeting — a cost-cutting mentality that calls on employees to think of company dollars as their own — has changed the historically stodgy processed-food industry, forcing other food companies to sharpen their own knives in order to compete. None has proved as adept at expanding profit margins as Kraft Heinz.
What does this mean for employees? As one example, workers are allowed to print only 100 pages per month, black and white, double-sided. And as part of a new pilot program to eliminate distractions and increase efficiency, employees can have no more than two personal items on their desk.