By Erin Rigik Del Conte, Senior Editor
This April marks Jodi Gehrts 24th year in the tobacco industry, first on the tobacco manufacturing side, followed by nearly 10 years overseeing the tobacco category for Kum & Go.
For her expertise on both sides of the aisle, Convenience Store Decisions is recognizing Gehrts this year as a category management leader.
As the category manager for cigarettes and tobacco for Kum & Go, Gehrts is responsible for sales, margin, promotions, demand-generation and distribution of all things tobacco—cigarettes, smokeless, cigars and e-cigarettes. She also negotiates and implements contracts from tobacco manufacturers and works with manufacturers on strategies that support and enhance Kum & Go’s plans for growth, while meeting the demands of tobacco consumers.
One of the first projects she spearheaded when she started at Kum & Go was to increase space for the other tobacco products (OTP) category.
“With my experience from the manufacturer side and calling upon all the different trade channels for cigarettes/tobacco, I was very aware of the growth that was transpiring in the OTP category. We began expanding sets from just two-feet of combined smokeless and cigars to a combined linear space of four to six feet where space allowed,” Gehrts said. “From that early expansion, Kum & Go was able to increase product distribution/selection, sales, and most importantly, meet and exceed the growing demands of the adult tobacco consumer.”
A year after her graduation from Iowa State University, Gehrts began working as a territory manager in Overland Park, Kan., for Brown & Williamson Tobacco (B&W).
“A family friend owned a chain of grocery stores and had suggested I apply to a few of the cigarette manufacturers. I knew very little about cigarettes or the tobacco industry. I applied to B&W and was told I was chosen for the interview because I was from Iowa and people from Iowa were known for having a great work ethic and integrity,” she said.
After several interviews she was offered the position and began her “unexpected” career in the tobacco industry at age 23.
Within a few years she was promoted to an account manager position in Seattle, where her responsibilities included calling on designated chains and wholesalers in Washington. The years that followed included several “promotions, mergers and moves around the country.” With the completion of the B&W and R.J. Reynolds merger in 2004, she took the position of senior division manager in Omaha, Neb., for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco.
“At that time, I worked with a team of 19 amazing people. My team was responsible for sales, distribution and volume for three-fourths of Nebraska and three-fourths of Kansas.”
Gehrts left RJR in 2007 and began working as a division manager for a company in the Omaha, Neb. area when Kum & Go approached her to change paths.
“I really did not have any thoughts or intentions of working on the retail side, but after meeting several remarkable people at Kum & Go regarding the position of category manager for cigarettes/OTP, I knew this would be a great opportunity in which my experience would bode well for Kum & Go, the industry and me personally,” Gehrts said.
Gehrts’ favorite aspect of her role at Kum & Go is the people she works with on a daily basis. “I have the opportunity to work with so many great people, both internal and external. We truly have an amazing category management team with people from different backgrounds and experiences, yet who all operate with the same goal in mind—creating a great experience for our customers.”
One challenge facing convenience store category management today, she noted, is keeping abreast of trends, bringing in new products consumers may not know they want until they see it, and staying fresh and innovative in the eye of consumers.
In addition to researching new products and reviewing data, Gehrts credits ‘foot research’ for idea generation. “This means I look for ideas everywhere—not just competitive convenience stores, but all trade channels and all types of stores—online and brick and mortar. We need to be aware and creative in ways to attract and keep new customers while staying relevant to our current consumers.”