Back in 2004, Jay Thompson began the second phase of his career when he started a seven-year stint at PepsiCo. He found himself energized in an unfamiliar setting, working for a company that made products he could literally go to a store and hold in his hands. “It certainly lent itself to more cocktail conversations than being a tax accountant or management consultant,” Thompson jokes when speaking of his previous roles. Now, as the executive vice president and chief financial officer for East Coast snack giant Utz Quality Foods, Thompson is using his extensive and varied experiences to earn finance a seat at the table and make it an essential team member in corporate decision-making.
Thompson began his post business school career in 1998 after graduating from Harvard Business School. Before his career renaissance at consumer-facing companies, he served in a number of prior advisory roles. He served as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs, a tax accountant at KPMG, and a manager for Bain & Company prior to arriving at PepsiCo.
“As an advisor working for client companies, I learned the importance of being customer focused, which is certainly important in the business I’m in today,” Thompson says.
Even in business school, Thompson felt a need to work more closely with customers; it just took him a few years to get there. The variety of Thompson’s advisory roles did offer him a competitive advantage, though. “I learned to develop a set of pattern recognition,” Thompson says. “I’m able to think across the different companies and industries I’ve worked in and identify something that others may not have thought of because they’ve been focused on a single business.”
When he joined PepsiCo, Thompson endeavored to work for branded companies that made a variety of products because that’s what made him excited about his own role. So, Thompson helped oversee financial roles for Gatorade, Tropicana, and Naked Juice, among others.
In another role following his time at PepsiCo, Thompson served as CFO at Chobani, where he was introduced to the distinct style of working for a founder-owned company. At the ninety-seven-year-old family-owned Utz, he would encounter a similar style and emphasis on culture. “I’m making sure that I understand what is important about the culture at Utz: trust, passion, and a willingness to do whatever is needed for the company,” Thompson says.
Although Thompson’s tenure at Utz is still undoubtedly fresh in comparison to the company’s rich history, he’s determined to make an impact. “In addition to closing the books, doing the accounting, and paying the bills, I define success as finance having a seat at the table when important decisions are made, because business leaders are unwilling to make those decisions without finance there,” Thompson says. That means looking for ways to close the books in a timelier manner. It also means generating and analyzing financial results to identify opportunities to make the business run better. Thompson believes empowering finance has the added benefit of pairing trusted team members with leaders in sales, operations, and marketing to help the company become more data driven.
“Jay’s experience and background allow him to look at the practices and successes that Utz has already established and provide crucial insight and direction as it continues to grow its business,” says Larry Laubach of Cozen O’Connor.
One challenge that Thompson didn’t plan on tackling, however, was updating Utz’s accounting system. Because the company had such rapid growth in the past decade, Utz’s system was no longer adequate for either the size or complexity of the business. So, Thompson has spent significantly more time on that front than he had originally planned. In fact, he brought in a seasoned senior controller to help spur the transformation. “I haven’t typically thought of myself as a process person in terms of building a better accounting process, but we’ve spent just as much time there as on financial planning and analysis,” Thompson explains. “This is an area of finance I don’t understand as well, so it’s been a good education for me.”
On top of revamping the accounting systems for the entire organization, Thompson immediately saw two acquisitions come under his purview. In September 2016, less than a year before Thompson joined the company, Utz acquired Southern snack food brand Golden Flake, and the company is now poised to acquire Phoenix-based Inventure Foods. Thompson and his team have fully integrated all the accounting, transaction processing, and payroll functions for Golden Flake into Utz’s system. In the process, Utz raised new lender-based debt facilities to pay off current credit facilities, to buy Inventure, and to buy out a minority equity investor. “That’s been a massive undertaking,” Thompson says. “But the deal has gone very well.”
Working to integrate the Inventure brand is paramount for Utz looking ahead, but with the refinancing completed, Thompson says he’s also relishing having a moment to take a look at the knitting and more widely survey a company that has grown so quickly, even in Thompson’s short time at the helm. As finance continues to carve out a more integral role at Utz, Thompson isn’t content to let the chips fall where they may. Instead, he’ll ensure they’re falling right where he wants them to.
It All Started in One Kitchen
Utz Quality Foods can trace its roots back to a small kitchen in Hanover, Pennsylvania, where founders William and Salie Utz began making Hanover Home Brand Potato Chips in 1921. From there, the company grew out of that kitchen into the largest privately held snack company in the United States, producing almost five million pounds of snacks per week.
But some things haven’t changed. To this day, the company is still family owned and shares that collaborative and caring culture. It’s a mind-set that Jay Thompson and the entire Utz team take to heart.
“That history has forged a strong culture where the family truly cares for the associates, so there’s things that you don’t find in a lot of companies these days,” Thompson says. “The company has continually added jobs, especially in the core Hanover area, so there’s a lot of longevity where associates have been with the company twenty, thirty, forty years. So, I think all those things have bred loyalty in the workforce. The company is both family owned and family run, where the family takes care of the associates and the associates make sure they do everything they can to make the company successful.”
MorganFranklin Consulting congratulates Jay Thompson for being featured in Profile magazine. MorganFranklin Consulting is a strategy and execution management and technology consulting firm working with companies to address critical finance, technology, and business objectives. We are honored to work with Jay and Utz and look forward to their continued success.