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Denise Leathers

(continued from September’s cover story, Hotshots)

We didn’t ask how old they are, but these frozen and refrigerated food industry leaders have been around the block a time or two. What’s it take to thrive in this business? They have some thoughts.


COO, Ateeco Inc. (Mrs. T’s Pierogies)

If you look up the word “reinvention” in the dictionary, you might find a photo of Tarzwell, who, after 55 years in the food business, has reinvented himself a few times. He’s been at Ateeco for nearly eight years, but the road that led him there has been full of twists and turns. That’s why it’s so important to keep learning, growing and evolving, says Tarzwell. “As Darwin said, ‘It’s not the strongest or the smartest of the species that survives, it’s those most willing to adapt.’”

Mark Tarzwell

Beyond that, he says, success requires hard work and sacrifice. But you also need to love what you do. “Without that, the work becomes too much of a chore rather than a challenge or something you get satisfaction from. It’s true that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

What’s changed the most during Tarzwell’s long career? Technology tops the list. Yes, it makes the job easier in a lot of ways. However, “It also tends to isolate people…. My generation built strong and lasting relationships, and I see that as a challenge for the future,” he says.

One change for the better is the growing number of women in the industry today. “Advocating for women in the workplace has always been important to me because I want my three daughters to have a fair chance,” says Tarzwell.

‘[Technology] also tends to isolate people…My generation built strong and lasting relationships, and I see that as a challenge for
the future.’

He’s also a big supporter of the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association (NFRA), and suggests young people new to the industry take advantage of the networking opportunities it offers. “I’ve been on the board for over 20 years and treasurer for the last three,” says Tarzwell. “Our annual gathering of top frozen and refrigerated executives from retail, manufacturing, logistics and sales organizations is incredibly valuable, providing an opportunity to meet and discuss business with most of your major customers or suppliers in a few jam-packed days.”


Director of Sales, Bimbo Bakehouse

Although he earned a teaching degree in college and taught for a year afterward, Robaczewski was drawn to the fast pace of the grocery industry. He’s spent 39 years in various roles, from retail buyer/category manager to broker to his current position as director of sales for Bimbo Bakehouse. It’s in that position where Robaczewski celebrated his greatest professional achievement: tripling annual sales of Bays English Muffins. How did he get to that point in his career?

Tom Robaczewski

Good role models, a strong work ethic and a passion for the job are all important, answers Robaczewski. “But I believe one of the key reasons for my success in the industry is integrity,” he says. “Follow through and do what you say you’re going to do.”

Another piece of advice from some- one who’s seen it all: Listen. “Regardless of what side of the desk you sit on, there is a lot to learn from the many experienced people in this industry,” says Robaczewski. “Despite all of the available data and technological advancements, this is still a relationship business, and mutual growth and partnerships do exist.”

‘Despite all of the available data and technological advancements, this is still a relationship business, and mutual growth and partnerships do exist.’

That’s one reason Robaczewski is so bullish on the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association (NFRA), where he’s currently finishing up a three- year term on the Board of Directors (he also serves on the Refrigerated Committee). “I would encourage my younger colleagues to get involved,” he says. “There is some great collaboration throughout the organization. Not only can you learn a tremendous amount from other board members, it’s a great way to be a part of molding the future of the frozen and refrigerated food industry.”


VP Sales & Product Development, Louis Foods

Mehl joined her family’s meat brokerage business in 1987, and quickly picked up communication and sales skills as well as an under- standing of the protein business. As a woman in
a male-dominated field, it wasn’t always easy, but she worked hard to expand the company’s customer base. Fourteen years later, she bought the business and ran it herself, while simultaneously raising a family. “It was very challenging to balance work, travel and home life, but I am proud of the accomplishments that came from those sacrifices,” says Mehl.

Robbe Mehl

She’s also happy to see women better represented in the executive ranks, and she’s committed to sharing what’s she learned by mentoring the next generation of female leaders. Her best advice for those hoping to succeed in this industry? “Even if it makes you uncomfortable, I strongly advise young professionals — male and female — to get out of their comfort zones and try networking,” she says. “Perfecting the art of conversation and cultivating relationships is crucial to sales success.”

Another thing Mehl suggests —and wishes she could tell her younger self — is not to be afraid to make mistakes. Because there’s always something to be learned from them. “For me, the only time you truly fail is when you have failed to try,” she explains.

‘Even if it makes you uncomfortable, I strongly advise young professionals — male and female — to get out of their comfort zones and try networking.’

Although Mehl dissolved her brokerage in 2015, she leveraged her experience in the meat industry by joining the staff at Smithfield Foods. She later moved into her current role as vp of sales and product development at Louis Foods. Having logged 36 years in meat and deli sales, “I could not be prouder to be part of this industry,” she says.

Denise Leathers

Denise Leathers

Denise is the Editorial Director for Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer.

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