A Taste for the Supply Chain

Focus Brands is expanding its most popular product lines from restaurants onto store shelves thanks to Marie Zhang’s expertise

Marie Zhang must always be on her toes. After all, being in charge of the global supply chain for Focus Brands’ bakeries, ice cream shops, restaurants, and cafés through licensing and co-manufacturing, she knows that every day brings about new challenges. Now, the vice president of the international supply chain is facing another challenge that may turn out to be the biggest of her career. “My group is taking the core product from our six restaurant brands to reach customers when they’re not in our restaurants,” Zhang says. “It’s more of a licensing model.”

Zhang joined Focus Brands in July 2015, and she’s leveraging her manufacturing experience to extend its supply chain beyond the company’s main restaurant brands. By expanding its licensing program, the company has launched branded products for Cinnabon, Auntie Anne’s, and Carvel that can now be found in Wal-Mart, Target, and Costco, as well as grocery and convenience stores. It has also released Moe’s branded products in BJ’s Wholesale Club locations, and the Focus Brands roster includes McAlister’s Deli and Schlotzsky’s Deli as well.

It’s a new frontier for Zhang, but she’s the perfect executive to handle it. Her late father, an auto executive in China, always pushed her to go outside her comfort zone to learn more about herself and the world around her. After earning her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Jilin University in China, her father urged her to go to the United States, where she earned two master’s degrees—one in chemistry and the second in food sciences and technology—at Iowa State University.

Zhang’s father didn’t stop encouraging her though, even after ConAgra Foods hired her as manager of research and development (R&D) in 1994. “I remember sitting in a big corporate headquarters, working bankers’ hours,” she says. “It felt pretty good. After I received two master’s degrees, he said in terms of education I was doing okay, but in terms of real-world experience I had zero. I had to get out and learn from manufacturing people.”

After two years, Zhang left ConAgra to become director of research and development for food safety and quality assurance at Peer Foods Group Inc. in Chicago. The move pushed her beyond her comfort zone. “I was working twelve hours a day, six days a week,” Zhang recalls. “For half the year I left home in the dark and came home in the dark, but I learned a lot.”

She was involved in just about everything, from quality assurance and food safety to regulatory compliance and product research and development. But Zhang says the most important aspect she learned from those years at Peer was how vital the supply chain was to business operations. “I realized the supply chain is the most important thing because you have to make sure the customer can afford the product, too,” she says. “I learned how to improve the whole process, by leveraging buying power to lower overall costs without lowering the product integrity.”

In 2004, she impressed a group from Peer’s new parent company, Honeybaked Ham, while leading them on a tour of a plant. That led to an offer she couldn’t refuse. As Honeybaked Ham’s vice president of supply chain, R&D, and food safety and quality, she led supply chain management functions, new product innovation, and commercialization. She had worked tirelessly to reach that point in her career, but she remembers her father’s advice as she was leery of growing complacent. “I pushed myself to take risks, like he had pushed me,” she says. “I know that if don’t do that, I can’t learn and improve.”

Zhang left Honeybaked Ham in 2013 to take a new role at Long John Silver’s, where, as chief innovation officer and senior vice president of supply chain, R&D, and quality assurance, she was part of a massive effort to breathe new life into the brand and menu while streamlining the supply chain for 1,300 restaurants around the world.

In her most out-of-her-comfort-zone job yet, Zhang is pivoting from her experiences in proteins to desserts and snacks. “It doesn’t matter which retail field you’re in, you have to provide the whole package to the consumer,” she says. “In food, that package includes three key components. One is that the product has to taste good and deliver on consumers’ eating experiences and expectations.” She adds that the product also has to be safe and it must be affordable.

Delivering all three on a global scale is no easy task, but Zhang says she thrives on the challenge. “I think my background in manufacturing helped me,” she says. “Basically, once R&D creates a product, I will not change the product. My opportunity is how to make it the same product more efficiently and at a lower cost.”

Zhang explains that in terms of revenue, licensing is quicker, there’s less investment, and more revenue involved. The key, she says, is to find the strategic vendors and partners to grow the business together. She adds that since she started at Focus Brands, she has concentrated on finding the right strategic vendors to help the company evolve as the growth of the licensing program surges.

It’s an ongoing process, Zhang says, but her goal is to concentrate volume and production to a few key vendors and build long-term strategic partnerships. “We leverage our buying power by working with only a few strategic vendors,” she says. “They lower our labor costs because every year we’re bringing in new business and volume for them.”

Zhang is also working to improve the company’s forecasting abilities so it can better anticipate future shifts in raw materials pricing and hedge against cost increases. But she understands that goes hand in hand with securing the right kind of vendors, as everything comes full circle.

“The biggest challenge for me is the overall visibility,” she says. “Supply chains have become extremely complex. Having total visibility of all our vendors’ and their suppliers’ production process, distribution, financial stability, food safety, and product quality is extremely critical to our success, but it also creates the biggest challenge.”

Zhang aims to resolve this challenge through communication with vendors. “The closer we work with them, the more they will share with us, the better we manage our supply chain, and the better we support our customers,” she explains.

The supply chain leader’s role at the global company promises to expand Zhang’s expertise more than ever before. As a result, Focus Brands plans to expand its successful licensing program in the United States even further around the world. These international efforts risk less direct control and visibility over parts of the supply chain, yet Zhang is prepared to tackle any unforeseen hurdle that lay ahead so Focus Brands can flourish.