by Brian Nordli
March 27, 2018

When a company hits a high-growth phase, leaders face as many challenges as they do opportunities. For Susanna Ghaemi, Brian Gillis and Tim Alvis, it was exactly that combination — challenge plus opportunity — that attracted them to SPINS.

In 2017, when the company shifted its product library to the cloud and increased automation, it needed leaders who could inspire people to innovate.

Gillis joined to lead SPINS’ commercial team, and Alvis was attracted to the opportunity to grow the retail applications team. Ghaemi had worked on the library operations team for seven years. She left for another opportunity and came back recently to take the team into the future.

“I was never far from SPINS, working as a subject matter expert and consultant,” said Ghaemi, now director of library operations. “Eventually, I found the opportunity I was searching for at SPINS – career growth at a mission-focused organization with a talented team and an entrepreneurial atmosphere.”

We spoke with these leaders about how they drive innovation.

 

SPINS Kitchen
Photography by alison williams
SPINS office
Photography by Alison williams
SPINS office team
Photography by Alison williams

 

FOUNDED: 1995.

EMPLOYEES: 176 local; 235 national.

WHAT THEY DO: SPINS collects data to provide retail consumer insights, analytics and consulting for the health and wellness industry.

WHERE THEY DO IT: Chicago.

THE VIBE: SPINS offers a Vibrancy 360 program, which includes volunteering opportunities, on-site gym and workout classes, meditation and flex time.  

 

SPINS co-workers
Photo by Allison Williams
Susanna
Photo provided by spins

 

Susanna Ghaemi, Director, Library Operations

Ghami leads the 23-member library operations team at SPINS, which works with UPC records to evaluate characteristics about consumer packaged goods. The team balances the art of assessing product positioning in a market with the science of technical efficiency and normalization.     

BEYOND WORK: Ghaemi enjoys spending time with her family.

 

Tell us about your history with SPINS. What brought you back?

Susanna: I have worked with SPINS’ product library team in a variety of roles since 2009. After almost seven years of learning everything there is to know about the product library, I ventured out independently and focused on growing my technical expertise. But I was never far from SPINS, working as a subject matter expert and consultant. Eventually, I found the opportunity I was searching for at SPINS — career growth at a mission-focused organization with a talented team and an entrepreneurial atmosphere.

 

What made 2017 a foundational year for the company?

Susanna: The product library migrated our data management platform from a legacy system to a cloud-based solution. We changed how our research experts view and enter product information on the front end and overhauled the back-end system. The result was greater efficiency and enhanced quality control. Manual tasks like cleansing data files are now performed automatically.

That allows our team of subject matter experts to focus on quality and capturing the most influential product characteristics in the natural industry. As we mature our use of technology, we can more efficiently add in new solutions and continuous improvement to our processes.

 

Where is the team at now and where do you want to take it?

Susanna: Library operations is on the cusp of significantly accelerating and deepening our management of the hundreds of millions of data points constituting the product library. We are breaking out of “the old way” of doing things — from the technology that we use, the subject matter expertise we possess and how we work together. It will allow our individual contributors to complement each other’s skill sets and work together to achieve the quality, consistency and velocity targets ahead of us.  

We are breaking out of ‘the old way’ of doing things — from the technology that we use, the subject matter expertise we possess and how we work together.”

How will you get there?

Susanna: The blueprint for our plan begins with bringing together the energy of library operations with the new positions we have developed on the team. Every person, in every role, serves a purpose and is integral to our success story.  

 

What do you look for in an ideal candidate?

Susanna: Great candidates do not have to have all the answers, nor do they simply check off boxes on a list. Our strongest job candidates have a thirst for knowledge and enthusiasm for the natural products industry, which drives them to ask critical questions. Given the entrepreneurial environment at SPINS, I appreciate candidates with a track record of taking ownership and collaborating to see a project through.

 

SPINS Team
Photography by Alison williams
Tim
Photo provided by Spins

Timothy Alvis, President of Retail Applications

Alvis heads the retail applications team at SPINS. His team helps customers discover, learn about and add products that help them live healthy lives.

BEYOND WORK: He enjoys writing software and reading in his spare time.

 

What attracted you to SPINS?

Timothy: I started my career as a software developer, which led to co-founding a series of software startups. After the birth of my first daughter, I went to Amazon and worked in product leadership inside of AWS, and followed that with teaching Microsoft’s partners how to build products. I joined SPINS because it’s a company with a mission it believes in, and one that I believe in as well. It’s evident inside and out, from the programs SPINS has for its employees, helping them maintain a healthy lifestyle, to the products it produces and releases to market.

 

What opportunities does joining at a high-growth period provide? Any challenges?

Timothy: Opportunities and challenges are strongly related, especially in high-growth companies. You have to take care to keep the company culture intact as you add new people to meet those opportunities. You must be willing to say no to a hire if they’re not a cultural fit. You also have to fine-tune your instincts when it comes to prioritizing which opportunities to pursue first, how many you can pursue at a time, and which are better left to partnerships.

Opportunities and challenges are strongly related, especially in high-growth companies.”

Where do you see the retail applications team going in the future?

Timothy: SPINS is part of a market-wide evolution. Machine learning and highly elastic compute resources give us the ability to provide actionable insights that help our retailer and brand clients improve the quality and efficiency of their work. They can leverage these advances to give customers the information they need, when they need it, whether on their computer or on their phone at the store.

We talk with people in nearly every role to learn what questions and problems consume their days and consider it our mission to solve those. Helping our customers discover new products that fit their lifestyle, while also saving a bit of money, makes it all the more rewarding for us.

 

Tell us about innovations you plan to introduce or new ways of working.  

Timothy: Genuine customer obsession must be the cornerstone of our work. This drives every decision we make, every technology choice, every feature we add to a product or product we add to market. It’s easy, especially with a group of brilliant engineers, to get lost in adopting technology because it has many potential uses or has been used well somewhere else.

For us, those are great clues for where to look, but it’s not how we decide what we build. We fall in love with problems and look for the best solutions. Having an amazing team doesn’t hurt, but it’s our team’s culture that is going to drive innovation more than anything else.

Whiteboard
Photo by allison williams
Brian
Photo provided by spins

 

Brian Gillis, Executive Vice President, Commercial

Gillis provides guidance and support to the commercial team. His team focuses on sales, retail development, customer solutions and marketing. The team uses data to help clients understand trends and provide the appropriate offers for their consumers.   

BEYOND WORK: Gillis enjoys fitness training and playing Civilization (a strategy game on the computer) for hours at a time.

 

Tell us about your background. Why did you decide to join SPINS?

Brian: I worked at General Mills for more than 13 years, at a very large retailer (Loblaws in Canada), and as a big data consultant for the last eight years. Those experiences as a retailer and a manufacturer have helped me find solutions that work for both. I’ve also worked in Canada, Brazil, Colombia and the U.S., which has given me a unique view on retail, consumers and building a high-performing team.

I jumped at the opportunity to come to SPINS. I’m a huge believer in its mission to improve access to health and wellness products for consumers, and I believe SPINS can be a major catalyst for the industry. I was also attracted by the potential of game-changing analytics. 

We can now run consumer decision trees based on specific consumer needs — such as how someone who is diabetic buys cereal — and produce programs for retailers and manufacturers that better meet consumer needs. Finally, I was looking for a culture that was highly ethical, open, fast, passionate.

We will shift from providing data to providing insight that drives results.”

What goals do you have for the commercial team?

Brian: Our goals are around improving the value of our data assets and insight delivery to both retailers and manufacturers. We will shift from providing data to providing insight that drives results. To do that, our foundational data must be delivered faster, aligned with retailer needs and in a format that is immediately actionable.

 

How will you get there?

Brian: Our sweet spot is health and wellness. We have the data assets, the deep understanding of product attributions, the unmatched knowledge of the natural product industry and the talent and technology to lead the way on health and wellness strategy for retailers. We recently added longitudinal data understanding to our toolkit. This provides a deeper understanding of how customers engage with all products at a retail store, but especially in health and wellness. 

 

Describe your team culture. Do you do anything fun with your team?

Brian: We are collaborative, playful and irreverent — but professional when it comes to delivering for our clients. I believe culture is the sum of hundreds of little things that are reinforced every day. From the Vibrancy 360 initiatives to the little things. Every Friday, we have a voting session on issues, like Coke or Pepsi, or Taylor Swift or Kanye. We debate, fill a whiteboard with pop culture references and laugh.

We also have a Friday breakfast club. We talk about successes and concerns in the business, but also our personal lives. These activities further team intimacy, which builds trust, encourages healthy banter and ultimately – results. We trust each other, and that makes it a better place to work.

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