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The Innovation Table | John Gomez on Leadership, Culture, and Innovation

By May 22, 2024May 28th, 2024No Comments
The Innovation Table | John on Leadership, Culture, and Innovation
The Innovation Table | John on Leadership, Culture, and Innovation

John Gomez has been a senior executive at several founder-led companies where he has helped develop and scale world-class brands. Before joining CoolerX, where he currently serves as President of this innovative in-store retail media tech startup, John was the President and Chief Executive Officer at KKR owned Cardenas Markets, where he led the effort to double the size of this $1B+ Hispanic food retailer. Previously, John held the positions of EVP of Operations, Marketing and Merchandising at Trader Joe’s. He spent the formative years of his career working alongside wildly successful founder-led companies and iconic brands including Argo Tea, Panda Express and Kinko’s. John enjoys spending time outdoors and traveling with his wife of 30 years and his two daughters while also serving on the board of the Western National Parks Association.

Edris Bemanian: I recall that one of your mandates when stepping into the CEO role at Cardenas was to focus on transforming the culture through core values. And I remember walking into your lobby, and I saw “world’s largest Hispanic grocer.” That really resonated with me when you did that. You said you were vision-casting. 

John Gomez: Absolutely! Keep in mind, we had 7,000 team members in our stores, and only a few would work their way into the home office regularly. I would invite store and department managers into our office for training and I wanted them to know what our aspirations were and what we were building. It was also important for partners and suppliers to know that we were becoming one of their largest customers and a serious player on the national scene.  

I was also appealing to our own team members to keep them excited and focused on growth as we transitioned away from a family-led business to a fast-paced private equity owned business. The Cardenas family earned a great reputation over two generations and was incredibly well-respected throughout Southern California and within our team. While we were professionalizing Cardenas, we were also acquiring other grocery chains across the country and rolling them into the business. These acquisitions were unsophisticated businesses without a mature infrastructure, right? So, there’s a lot of opportunity for culture clashes, egos, competitive jockeying everywhere we turned. It was all a bit messy, and we needed a strong values-based culture and the prospect for growth to authentically keep everyone engaged and excited about their futures. Fortunately, I had a front row seat watching world-class founders build their business and I enjoyed rolling up my sleeves.  

I would classify myself as a ‘tweener’—not a founder and not your typical corporate guy either; an entrepreneurial executive, I suppose. I’m well-suited for environments with clear objectives and undefined paths. Kinko’s, Panda and Trader Joe’s were all companies that grew quickly while maintaining an entrepreneurial culture. Consequently, I sought a path to cultivate a sense of family while also professionalizing the business. Being Hispanic, I’ve always observed a profound sense of pride and unity among our community and did my best to celebrate this in every way possible at Cardenas Markets.  

We addressed the vendor community, particularly CPG professionals from companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and P&G, by re-establishing our relationships based on our new growth expectations. As a growing company with more scale, we needed to ensure that we were effectively negotiating our agreement to bring value to our price-sensitive customers and returns to our investors.  

While I’m not a fan of over-indexing on company values as talk can be cheap, I do believe in surrounding myself with individuals who share my personal values of willing to work hard, grit, integrity and entrepreneurship. At Cardenas, we aimed to foster a familial atmosphere, serving as a bridge to the future. This effort extended from our initial value/cultural building stages to our annual reviews, where company values were intricately tied to leadership engagement scores. This holistic approach, including ongoing self-reflection on our values, ensured comprehensive feedback during reviews. 

EB: Yeah, that’s really cool. Have you experienced a moment where you felt a great sense of pride seeing someone embrace the values and mindset of aiming to become the largest grocer and be treated accordingly? Was there a particular ‘aha’ moment that stood out to you?” 

JG: When I took the role of CEO at Cardenas Markets, I didn’t realize that I would also be inheriting the leadership role of President for the Cardenas Foundation, with its primary focus to deliver scholarships to our community. Our foundation board embraced this mission and decided to triple the donations hoping that investors, our team, vendors and partners would step up and be supportive. It was great to see KKR, the Cardenas family, our team and our business partners step up and support this effort to provide scholarships to at least one customer per store. Knowing that all of our efforts to grow a business also led to being able to help so many underprivileged students was certainly a proud moment for us all.  

EB: Yeah, we donated to that a few times! Very cool! 

JG: Thank you, I remember! Your money went to a great cause! 

I appreciated these events where we connected with our supportive vendor partners. As a CEO, it was always valuable to get the candid perspective of our partners. Vendors were often more open to share objective insights and the history of Cardenas Market’s evolution that would help me better understand the past, to better shape the future. When you take over a family-run business and are acquiring other companies to fold into the new business, the pace of change and drama can understandably be intense. The challenge lay in fostering a culture of meritocracy, often appreciated by newcomers but met with some resistance by long-time team members who felt as if they had already paid their dues. Our senior leaders needed to navigate this dynamic by recognizing the varying perspectives and experiences of everyone, honoring the past and building a new future.  

EB: Yeah, great answer. 

As you cast a vision, you operationalize core values, ensuring seamless integration and providing a solid framework. However, you’ve emphasized avoiding excessive reliance on them to maintain authenticity. As Cardenas approaches becoming the largest grocer globally, would you alter the vision, casting it anew for the next steps? Or would you prefer defining new expectations within the existing vision? 

JG: It’s tricky because I wanted to change the vision of becoming ‘the largest’ within six months after rolling it out. We initially said ‘largest,’ but I thought maybe it should be ‘best.’ I recalled a similar challenge while at Panda, where we often debated whether we should be trying to be ‘special’ or ‘big,’ especially when compared to a key competitor such as Chipotle, for example. At Cardenas, due to the need to grow by smart acquisitions, speed and solid execution were crucial, so I initially leaned towards growing fast. 

I wrestled with this often, thinking I should have aimed for ‘best’ rather than ‘biggest.’ It might not have changed the long-term outcome, but I could have made better decisions on how to invest capital and our team’s time.  

It’s common to revisit and reassess company values, especially during events like COVID or recessions. This is why I am weary of values that are haphazardly developed; they need to be meaningful and revisited often. In my opinion, if corporate values aren’t going to be meaningful, you’re better off just shooting for a financial outcome… teams will respect the authenticity much more than fake values.  

EB: The theme of this conversation really feels like it’s all about culture and change management and vision. 

If you were the CEO of a major brand today, like a CPG supplier, what would you be thinking about? What would you be doing?  

JG: I’d want to know that the decisions I was making were working; that there is a return on my investment. Questions like, “How do you know it will work, that it is working?” and “Why allocate budget for this again?” often can prompt lengthy 10-minute responses devoid of concrete proof points. Marketing budgets perennially face the dilemma of attributing tangible results, particularly in terms of influencing sales or margins. One of the reasons I love our mission at CoolerX is because it delivers real incrementality to brands. CPG’s can advertise at the point of purchase, supporting their retailers, instead of burning their budget on questionable social media platforms.  
At CoolerX , we’re shining a spotlight on a flaw that has existed for a long time in marketing budgets. The scrutiny intensifies as major CPG’s invest billions in marketing. The focus is shifting towards proving effectiveness beyond mere engagement (clicks and taps)—distinguishing genuine impact from the noise of hollow interactions on platforms like Facebook or Google. Our thesis at CoolerX asserts a redirection of these marketing dollars towards retailers actively driving product sales – imagine that! Imagine having customers at the point of purchase, demonstrating an unparalleled level of intent as they physically step into a store, stand in front of a product, and that, for us, embodies the pinnacle of efficacy. Incrementality is coming and so is the scrutiny over the squishy marketing budgets and performance of the past.  

Brands are currently grappling with the challenge of integrating their operations and budgets holistically. Many have established separate organizations with distinct budgets. Similarly, retailers find themselves in a similar predicament. They are entangled in traditional business models, making it difficult to determine the most effective and profitable path forward. Historically, they allocate budgets separately for platforms like Facebook, Google, and in-store activities. Some companies are recognizing this and adjusting their organizational structures, but, as with any change, there are early adopters and those sticking to the old ways. If I were leading a brand—though I’m not an expert in brand management—this would be a crucial aspect to address. There’s a significant amount of money involved, and I believe there’s room for much more efficient spending.  

EB: Yeah, you can take the private equity path, as we joked about earlier, and just squeeze all the expenses out. Alternatively, you can focus on driving higher ROI where you have a lot of spend. I would prioritize maximizing the impact of every dollar, ensuring it ties back to results. 

JG: Yep. I mean, the physical stores still account for 90% of consumer spending.  

So, that’s where the customers still are. Finding new avenues to monetize beyond the traditional methods like coupons and paper signage is crucial. We believe this is the future of retail, and it’s the business we’re in. Brands, however, need an effective vehicle to navigate this shift. We’re successfully tapping into that need. 

ED: How did you get involved in CoolerX? And what are you excited about? 

JG: Yeah, you bet. Transitioning to CoolerX posed a unique challenge for me as a seasoned retailer who thrives on leading large teams. CoolerX, being a startup with a smaller team but a strong retail focus, diverged significantly from my previous experiences. In this role, I engage daily with retailers, both on a technical and physical/store level, dealing with integrating software and hardware and understanding the needs of merchants, marketers and operators. This connection was crucial in applying my operational and merchant skills to the startup environment. 

The physical aspect of our work at CoolerX, operating as a tech and data company within a retail setting, serving both retailers and brands, and monetizing through media sales or SaaS fees, wasn’t immediately evident when our founder and CEO, Arsen, and I first connected. However, having previously collaborated at Argo Tea where I was his COO, I held immense respect for him as an entrepreneur and valued our shared business philosophy. We both believed in the balance of being entrepreneurial, relentless in pursuit/grit, and fostering a familial and stylistically casual approach to running the business, creating a hard-nosed family type business. 

Given my career’s foundation with founders or founder-associated companies, this aligns well with my preferences. At a stage in life where I sought to do something I could genuinely fall in love with, the opportunity at CoolerX presented itself unexpectedly after a Thanksgiving call to Arsen over 3 years ago. Embracing the shift to a tech startup has been more enjoyable than anticipated, with many skills proving more transferable than initially thought.  

I’ll tell you, nothing is harder than retail, so tech start-up is not as scarry as it sounds. Addressing the question I often receive about the contrast between retail and tech startup, retail’s 24/7 grind is replaced by the psychological challenges of the startup roller coaster. Despite the shift, waking up and thinking about work remains a constant, but it’s no longer the overwhelming avalanche of issues typical in a retail setting. It feels somewhat like a sabbatical, offering a refreshing change in perspective.  

ED: That’s an excellent response. Balancing incrementality and disaster management and mitigation against the potential for significant wins that truly move the needle, like the confidential victories we discussed earlier, is truly remarkable. 
And I’ve noticed a recurring theme throughout our conversation – your preference for family-oriented companies or those that strike a balance between a corporate infrastructure and a familial culture. Trader Joe’s, as you mentioned, exemplifies this blend perfectly. 

JG: I recall a conversation with an associate at KKR discussing the leadership qualities of a candidate I was considering hiring. I mentioned we were seeking someone in the middle, not an eccentric founder yet not a typical corporate figure. Almost jokingly, I said, “Maybe someone like me,” anticipating some resistance. Surprisingly, the response was affirmative, acknowledging that I don’t fit the conventional corporate mold nor the founder archetype. That’s when it hit me – I’ve found my niche… I’m a tweener! Somewhere ‘in between’ a founder and a conventional corporate executive.  

By the way, Edris, this is cathartic for me. Send me your hourly bill so I can, you know, compensate you for the therapy session.  

ED: Haha, awesome! This is mutually beneficial. 

When you mentioned being six months into casting the new vision at Cardenas Markets, and then reconsidering that vision, it immediately made me think about how we used to take huge pride in saying we’re the “fastest growing competitive intelligence company” and then later as the “largest”. And to your point, it makes me think, OK well, what does that actually mean? So now our focus is on just becoming the “best” pricing company and forgetting about all these other adjectives—become the best now! I wish that had been our goalpost from the beginning. We’re there now, but the journey would have been a lot different if that had been our mindset to start with. So, thanks for sharing that and sparking that thought. I guess you will have to send me a bill for this therapy session, too! 

What are the biggest one or two problems that CoolerX solves? 

JG: At CoolerX, we cater to three essential communities: consumers, retailers, and brands. First and foremost, our focus is on the customer experience for the end-consumer. If we’re not solving a customer problem, we believe our value is short-lived, and our association with retailers underscores the significance of looking through the lens of a merchant. Approaching the development of CoolerX with a merchant’s perspective ensures a balance between driving sales and advertising and improving the customer experience. 

Engaging the customer involves modernizing the in-store experience with contextually relevant content rather than advertising nose – call to action type content, captivating animations, bringing attention to product attributes, and making shopping decisions easier. We transform mundane displays into interactive and informative experiences, similar to online shopping with very contextually relevant content for that particular store. Whether it’s the dancing gingerbread display or heartwarming moments for holidays like MLK Day, we strive to educate, engage, surprise, and delight customers. 

From the retailer’s standpoint, our platform offers invaluable insights, from out-of-stock alerts to real-time pricing adjustments – maybe we should talk about how to work together here! This empowers retailers to optimize their offerings, improve on shelf availability, and tailor promotions and content based on various factors like time of day, weather and demographics. This real-time automated capability is a significant departure from traditional static displays and video loops, providing a level of agility previously unseen in physical retail settings. 

For brands, we offer a unique advertising avenue that capitalizes on customers’ physical presence in front of product displays. Changing perspectives and influencing purchasing decisions at the critical point of sale is where our platform excels. By adapting displays based on customer engagement and store profiles, we enable brands to attribute their advertising efforts directly to point-of-sale systems.  

In essence, CoolerX acts as a comprehensive platform, seamlessly integrating technology and data to enhance the in-store experience for customers, empower retailers with insights, and offer brands a dynamic and meaningful advertising channel with specific call to action content that drives incrementality.  

ED: That’s fascinating. In the realm of e-commerce, we often emphasized that product attributes serve as the digital shelf space. It’s intriguing to hear your perspective on how there’s an exciting opportunity to dynamically showcase these attributes on the in-store screen, right in front of the customer. It’s like seamlessly translating that concept into the physical retail space. Captions being what you search by essentially—you’re enabling that. That’s really cool. 

Which types of companies could find value in reaching out to you, especially if they are, for example, CMOs aiming for enhanced marketing performance or retailers seeking increased engagement? 

JG: Yeah, from a retailer’s perspective, the Chief Merchant, CMO, merchandising team, and category managers own the P&Ls. Marketing also plays a role in driving specific messaging for brands, so they are a key stakeholder too. It’s an excellent chance to execute your company’s marketing and merchandising strategy. All other functions including Operations, IT, Pricing, Facilities, etc. are also involved in implementing our solution.  

Brands, too, can swiftly take over advertising spaces, allowing even challenger brands to make a significant impact. How do you compete against giants like larger CPG’s? Utilizing digital space in stores offers a cost-effective opportunity for challenger brands to move beyond traditional lower shelves and stand out prominently. 

ED: Great response! Given our audience, primarily consisting of pricing, merchandising, marketing, and e-commerce, is there a connection between your product and pricing? 

JG: Absolutely, much of our integration work includes working with merchandising and pricing teams to incorporate their pricing and promotions into the content displayed at stores. The ability to swiftly adjust pricing is crucial for retail professionals, focusing on pricing integrity, compliance, and rapid responses, particularly for key items. Despite POS advancements, executing changes in the analog world remains a challenge, with delays in updating shelf tags leading to potential confusion or missed sales opportunities. Real-time price adjustments synced with the Point of Sale (POS) system ensure effective execution of pricing strategies, promptly reflected in-store. This dynamic approach is vital for understanding competitor pricing and allows for meaningful on-shelf adjustments.  

ED: You’re effectively bridging the strategy-execution gap, ensuring seamless alignment, and promptly addressing any potential customer frustrations that may arise in the process. Great job! 

Can you tell us about the Western National Parks Association? What should people know? How can they get involved? 

JG: Absolutely, I’m a big fan of both the outdoors and American history. It’s been an incredible journey with the Western National Parks Association. Working with an exceptional CEO and Chair, I’ve had the privilege of contributing to a cause close to my heart – history and the great outdoors. While everyone is familiar with iconic parks like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, their focus has been on supporting the next tier of parks, often smaller but equally significant. These parks, which may include historical monuments and hidden gems, require funding for their operations. The association achieves this by running shops within the parks, channeling the proceeds back to support various needs, be it education, awareness, or specific park projects. Guiding the organization in areas where I’m passionate, such as nature and national parks, has been immensely rewarding. It’s not just about fundraising; it’s about merging my business acumen to elevate the association’s impact. The experience has provided valuable perspective, balancing meaningful contribution with a manageable time commitment. Collaborating with like-minded individuals and utilizing our collective skills to make a positive difference has made this journey truly fulfilling, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. 

EB: I love when doing good and business align like that; it’s awesome. How about your experience with the Latino Corporate Directors Association? 

JG: I’m a patriotic American who has always embraced his Hispanic ethnicity. My father would say that I was lucky to have been born with a Cuban heart and an American mind. He often emphasizes that our generation has the best of both worlds – a resilient, gritty mindset with an immigrant work ethic, determined that no one will ever outwork us. Simultaneously, we possess the ability to think strategically and navigate complexities in the business world. It’s a fun dynamic to live through and I’ve always seen it as an advantage in the business realm.  

Regarding diversity in the workforce, I’ve never seen it as a mere box to check or an objective in and of itself. It’s refreshing to be surrounded by individuals who share the sentiment – acknowledging the advantages of bilingualism, understanding how to navigate diverse landscapes, and having a relatable approach with people from all walks of life. Growing up in an immigrant family, transitioning into corporate America, and preserving my core values, Cardenas Markets became the first community where I truly found alignment with my life experiences, and I will always appreciate this and am grateful that my Mexican ‘cousins’ accepted me into their family.  

EB: So awesome that you’re in a place where you can do what you love. How about a couple of fun questions to finish off our discussion? What TV shows are you watching? 

JG: The Good Wife is something my wife makes me watch! I prefer Yellowstone and pretty much anything Taylor Sheridan produces, and I’ve been watching The Chosen which is also fantastic.  

EB: OK, I’m going to add those to my list. How about books? Any good ones you’re in the middle of? 

JG: I’m always reading too many books. Wim Hoff / The Iceman has got me cold plunging at 5am every morning which is a trip.  

EB: Wow! 

JG: I’m also reading a David Goggins book. I’m still reading Dopamine Nation and several others that would take too long to mention.  

EB: Perfect. And what about your favorite life motto or quote? 

JG: Yes! From Shakespeare, at the beginning of Hamlet. “This above all, to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” 

EB: I can see how you’ve adopted that motto. These are great answers! Ok, here’s a fun one. What’s your favorite dish and what’s your favorite restaurant? 

JG: Ah, man, that’s a hard one. I want to go old school Cuban and say Versailles in Miami is my first stop after I land. It’s probably the most popular Cuban restaurant in the world. It’s a fun and lively place. I like the simple breaded steak with rice and beans. 

EB: John, it was a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks for your time! 

JG: Likewise! I enjoyed it.