Steve Vekich is a straight shooter. Which makes some sense, as he’s entering his 40th year of officiating high school sports and his 30th refereeing collegiate athletics—mostly basketball and football. It’s the same gig his father had, and the image you might immediately conjure—a pillar of the community, dependable, easygoing, fun to talk to, straightforward—is exactly right.
He grew up in Minnesota, went to school in Minnesota, and lives and works in Minnesota. While he began his career in accounting, Vekich has been a marketing man for nearly his entire career, at both traditional CPG firms and those with a more diverse focus. He also led the recent brand architecture overhaul for Purina, partnering with CBX on the initiative.
We sat down with him in Minneapolis to talk about his career, his approach, and his love of sport.
You have a distinguished marketing career, but you actually started off as an accountant?
I grew up in northern Minnesota and really had no idea what was out there, so an accounting degree made sense at the time. I got started with finance and accounting jobs at Pillsbury and that opened my eyes a bit. I saw all the other departments in a big business, saw the functions, the brands, and what was driving the business. I saw how much fun the marketing folks were having, and their careers and their salaries, and I thought, that’s the place to be!
So I went back to school and got an MBA and flipped my focus to marketing. It was a great opportunity, and I worked on all sorts of brands, from breads and Toaster Strudel to frozen pizza and Green Giant. I was also able to get a lot of experience across functions as well—food services, sales B2B, B2C. It was a great education, and then when General Mills bought Pillsbury, I gained some experience there in the cereal business before leaving and working for a national photography company.
That’s an interesting next step; what was that like?
It was a privately held billion-dollar company, and I saw an opportunity to grow. What I didn’t realize, which is what so many CPG marketers realize when they leave a company like Pillsbury, is that when marketing isn’t the lead function, it’s a very different world to work. I ended up doing some business development and working with the tech team to develop a new camera system. We were doing a lot of photographs for graduations and such, and students and parents wanted to order online, so it got me into e-commerce and was great training.
And from there I was able to move back to a more marketing-focused role at Land O’Lakes, working on Purina and leveraging experience across B2B, B2C, retail networks…it was a nice fit with my experience. I’ve been largely focused on our Farm & Ranch retail channel business—selling and marketing, and also working on Purina websites and, of course now, the brand architecture project.
I know a bit about this from our side, of course, but tell me how you got involved with the Purina brand architecture project from the tractor supply business?
Because I don’t work on a particular species or sub-brand, I could see how those products were developed and marketed in silos, with decisions being made independently. There’s been no continuity, so we ended up with a massive bowl of spaghetti. For some reason in the world of feed, sub-brand names are all the rage. They don’t mean anything and can be goofy, and I don’t know why that’s the case when things are so functionally focused. It took me back to marketing fundamentals and didn’t make sense, so I brought it forward to my VP, who recognized the opportunity.
We have massive brand recognition with the checkerboard, and on some bags, you couldn’t even see it. I’d experienced something similar with Green Giant, and I told the team we’re not getting the value from the brand we could. Feed is a low-margin but high-volume business—multiple millions of bags are there facing consumers every day—and we weren’t leveraging that asset.
At first, we got a lot of pushback from the species teams who were concerned, but we found some truisms across goat and horse and rabbit owners; at the end of the day, we’re all people. Quite honestly, CBX and your organization really made it possible, showing what could be done, how we could improve the mega- and master-species brands all at once. Your team took a smart, broad-based approach across insights, strategy, design, even temperament. You helped keep us calm and moving at a good cadence, and did it the right way—visiting customers, farms, PhDs. Your team took a lot of bullets and wasn’t afraid, and Tim Scott joined as CMO at Land O’Lakes and he was a huge advocate. Anytime there’s change, two things are guaranteed. People want to know what’s in store for them, and there is some fear of the unknown, so I’m delighted at the result. It’s been a tremendous job, and we’re taking our time and rolling things out at pace.
You’ve been doing this—marketing—for a long time, and with some big brands, and all in the same general geography. Can you talk a little about what’s changed?
I’ll tell you what hasn’t changed—if you follow the consumer, you’ll be successful. Having worked across industries, it’s really easy to get distracted by other things—certain people’s opinions, financial decisions, powerful customers. But the more you focus on the consumer, the more successful you’ll be.
In terms of what has changed, the biggest thing for me is that the retailer used to have all the power. Now, while brands have some of the power, it’s really the consumer who is in charge. Everyone is trying to figure out how to be right there with the consumer when and where is best for them. Even in the past three months, we can see the companies that have adapted. Necessity is the mother of invention, and you can’t be afraid to tear down what’s been working. It’s easy to look in and hard to look out—but now’s the time to look forward and farther ahead.
The big guys—Amazon, for example—have done well, evolving, putting things out there I didn’t think I needed. And Tractor Supply Company has done a pretty good job, investing in digital platforms and store pickup, and in their employees, ensuring they’re safe and well-compensated, with training and resources available, because anything we invest in our team really goes straight to the customer.
Lastly, and a slightly different topic—I understand that you’ve spent a lot of your life moonlighting as a referee. How’d that happen?
Indeed. If there’s a season, this will be my 40th year doing it in high school, and my 30th in college. My dad was a ref; it was his passion, his source of income. I got into it in college—it was a great part-time job for a college kid. I was young and fit and could work all week.
But it’s changed a lot in the past 10 years. Ten years ago most of the yelling came from parents, and now it’s mostly from players and coaches. There’s so much more on TV, it gives people direct access to see behaviors, and they’re modeling what they see on TV. The mental approach to the game has had to change a lot. I talk about it with my referee friends—40 years of friendships, and we have some stories you just can’t make up.
It’s a really nice balance with marketing. Marketing always gave me the ability to enact change, to make a product, team, or process better to make it successful for tomorrow, the next month, the next year. That’s where I get my energy. I can run a brand, but that’s boring. I like things when they’re broken, like to get in and fix things. Officiating is a clear rule book, but you have to apply that to what’s happening, you have to read the team and the coaches, to make the game benefit. I do love that they’re so different.