Inside Track: On the frontlines of business
Air Force veteran advances through Kellogg’s ranks with a mindset of service, integrity.
As a self-described military brat, Joe Zortman knew as a kid he was likely to serve his country one day, but he says he never could have imagined also becoming the vice president of a global organization. Now, he is celebrating 20 years at Kellogg Company.
Zortman’s big break came in 1999 when he was an IT support contractor working to upgrade Kellogg employees’ computers. Sue Karibjanian, then senior vice president of sales, was impressed by his personality as he whipped out a deck of cards and began performing a magic trick while they waited for her slow computer to reboot.
“I think at first, she was like, ‘What is this cat doing?’ And then I did a magic trick and she’s like, ‘Why are you in IT? You’ve got a personality. You should come work for me in sales.’ I said, ‘Make me an offer.’ That was a Friday, and on Monday morning, there was an offer letter on my desk,” Zortman said.
Karibjanian petitioned Kellogg’s human resources department to waive the college degree requirement for the role she wanted Zortman for — sales reporting analyst — successfully arguing that his four years of active duty military service with the U.S. Air Force more than qualified him for the job.
Over the next 12-plus years, Zortman took on roles of increasing responsibility within Kellogg’s sales and finance channels.
He leveraged the company’s tuition assistance program to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in business management from 2003-07.
Zortman’s path toward his current role began when he was promoted in 2011 to director of business development for Kellogg’s global sales team, which involved leading “the standardization of capabilities and tools for the integrated business planning (IBP) process, sales planning and forecasting for the global business units.”
In 2012, he and his family moved to Dublin, Ireland, so he could work at Kellogg Europe in the role of senior director of sales and operations planning. He came back to the U.S. in 2015 as vice president of business management, leading the sales and operations planning for the $3.1 billion U.S. Snacks division back to positive net sales volume growth.
Last year, Zortman was tapped to lead the new IBP team for North America, which he said “develops end-to-end demand generation leveraging data science, manages the risk and opportunities for the strategic plan and leads the sales and operations execution (S&OE) process.”
Zortman said he feels at home leading his IBP team because he is comfortable in each of the disciplines represented, having worked in them all during the past two decades.
“We use predictive mathematics, we use consumer trends, and internal and external data, and our goal is to come up with an operational outlook for the company that drives our financial process, our supply chain process and our commercial process. … Our team is made up of folks that have been in sales, marketing, finance, research, supply chain operations and logistics, and that allows us to be able to operate end to end — so from the first idea of a commercial program all the way through getting it delivered to the store on time, in full and into the shopper cart.”
He sprinkles his descriptions of the IBP team’s work with military metaphors.
“It’s a fun job because it’s an operator-type role. … We’re on the front line. There are a bit of guerrilla tactics to figure out a bias that exists, and if you were to think of a military operation, your operations go as best as the intelligence that you’ve been given,” he said.
“Our job is that intelligence side. It’s looking where the trends are, trying to predict what’s going to happen next and informing the leadership where that risk sits and ways to mitigate that risk,” he said.
Zortman came from a family of farmers and blue-collar workers who have served in the military since the Revolutionary War.
His grandfather served in World War II, and his father and uncles served during the Vietnam War. His brother is an Air Force pilot, and his son just graduated from West Point and is a second lieutenant in the Army at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Zortman was born and raised on military bases, including Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Lewis, Washington; and Fort Carson, Colorado.
“The adage is military ‘brat,’ or ‘born, raised and trapped,’” he said, chuckling. “It’s kind of a cadence you learn when you’re a young kid. … The military was always going to be an option for me.”
Enlisting in the Air Force, Zortman became an auto mechanic. He was stationed in Alaska and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for most of his active duty commitment from 1993-97, after which he served an additional four years in the Army Reserves before an honorable discharge.
During his transition to civilian life, the dot-com boom was ramping up.
“While I was in the Air Force, I started to cross-train and learn a bit about computers. I had a knack for it and became a Microsoft geek, got some Microsoft certifications and started working for a consulting firm up on the oil pipeline (in Alaska) which had the contract for Kellogg’s,” Zortman said.
His wife, Aurora, was ready to move back to the Lower 48, where he then began his career at Kellogg.
One of the biggest draws to working at Kellogg was about values, Zortman said. He believes strongly in “duty, God and country,” and he saw alignment between that ethos and the values of W.K. Kellogg, Kellogg’s founder.
“Everything he did was for the people, either for his employees or for the environment and community,” he said.
Those founding values have been formally codified by the company as “K Values” — integrity, accountability, passion, humility, simplicity and results.
Another attraction was the company’s commitment to veterans — from its job listings site, which candidates can use to type in their military job title or code and see results that fit their skills; to its KVets & Supporters bERG; to awards as a veteran-friendly employer and partner; to a culture of volunteerism and philanthropy toward veterans.
Zortman said he is thankful the company took a gamble on him, and he sees that spirit still active in the way the company recruits veterans.
“You are looking for dedication, you’re looking for work ethic, you’re looking for ‘Are you willing to roll up your sleeves and get dirty and really get the work done?’” he said.
In addition to hitting the 20-year mark at Kellogg, Zortman said his biggest accomplishment so far has been his growth as a leader, illustrated by a recent personal story.
“When I had an employee’s husband call me the day before Christmas Eve to let me know that his wife was going into surgery and he didn’t know what to do as far as the benefits (at) the company and her role, I answered the call, and I was able to give him the confidence to just take care of his wife and not to worry about what’s going on with policies, and I would be able to work with our teams to make sure that she was taken care of,” he said.
“One of my big accomplishments is when I can be that leader, that when real life happens to our employees, I can be on the standby for them and be able to support them through what we actually sacrifice for all the time here: (family).”