As part of FoodNavigator-USA’s ongoing series of 60-second interviews with the movers and shakers of the US food and beverage industry, we caught up with David Sheluga, a veteran of F&B market research and consumer insights on the challenges of predicting trends 10 years down the road, how the learning never stops and what in the world a ‘King’s Breakfast’ is.
Tell us about your current position at ConAgra Mills/ConAgra Foodservice.
I work in Commercial and Consumer Insights, supporting ConAgra Mills. This division makes flours and specialty grains and sells those as ingredients to others. I’m responsible for finding the inspirational insights that influence our decision makers that will have impact on our growth. When we say ‘insight’, we mean that special ‘ah ha!’ moment when you see something differently or see something new. And then I must convey that insight in clear and compelling ways so that our decision makers say ‘ah ha!’, too. That is the inspire step. And then I need to follow through, to influence, to ensure the insight is used in important decisions that guide our initiatives.
What’s your background?
I grew up in a blue-collar area of Pittsburgh. My father was a factory worker. At a young age, I knew that I did not want to work in a factory. So I went to college and then to grad school. I had an interest in both business and psychology. But I didn’t know how to blend the two interests. I had the great fortune to be accepted into the Consumer Psychology graduate program at Purdue University. I studied under Dr. Jacob Jacoby, one of the great pioneers in consumer psychology. My degree led me to Quaker Oats in a marketing research role. I’ve been in market research, consumer insights ever since. I’ve worked for foods companies such as Quaker, Keebler and ConAgra. And I’ve worked for independent research companies that support the food industry.
What do you like about working in commercial development?
You would think that plain white flour would be a boring topic for an insights person. But quite the contrary. My research is very broad, crossing time, health trends and product categories. I look back as far as 30 years to develop understanding of issues such as bread consumption, obesity and public policy. What I love is that I have the time and freedom to dig deeply into issues. Or to cast widely across issues. I’m learning all the time. And I work with many smart, experienced, curious people who appreciate my work.
What's the hardest thing about your job?
Some of my work is predicting the future, five or 10 years out. I look at a lot of historical data and current data to understand macro-trends. But the hard part is conveying those predictions to others and influencing them to act now. I can persuade you to carry an umbrella to work today, because it is going to rain. But it’s very hard to persuade you to take an umbrella to work five years from now, because I predict it’s going to rain.
Is there such thing as a typical day? If so, what does it look like?
To hear my kids say it, I stare into a computer, push papers around, and talk with people. Hahaha! There is no typical day. But most days are some combination of meetings, handling emails and paperwork. The most fun part of my day is reading news feeds related to trends that I follow, writing up research findings in our executive summaries, and looking at data for my next analysis.
If you could have one 'do-over' in your career, what would that be?
For a kid who grew up in a factory town and who had no idea what ‘business’ meant, I’m very happy and content with my career. Things have turned out quite well.
What do you usually have for breakfast?
On weekdays, I have a cup of tea or two. Then I eat an early lunch, around 11:30 or so. On weekends, I’ll make what I call The King’s Breakfast—things like pancakes, or eggs benedict or sautéed potatoes. And fruit. Lots of fruit.
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