You might expect manic energy and mile-a-minute conversation from an innovation executive at a major food company. Mario DiFalco, Del Monte Foods’ Senior Director, is quite the opposite. Languid, relaxed, and thoughtful, DiFalco has spent the past decade at Del Monte after stints at companies including Nabisco and Wrigley, the last eight years of which he’s run Innovation and New Ventures. CBX has been working with Del Monte for close to 15 years, and Mario sat down with us for five questions, as part of our Straight Talk series.
1. Tell us a bit about your journey and how you got to where you are today?
I enjoyed math and science when I was young. I studied chemical engineering in undergrad and did well. My first job was with Nabisco, and what really interested me was the why behind why we were developing new products, rather than the processes required to make them. I quickly realized that I wanted to get closer to the consumer. I enrolled into the University of Chicago nighttime MBA program and joined Wrigley’s, where I helped bring new products to market in the US and abroad. After my MBA, I moved to Northern California, which is where I wanted to live. I live an outdoor lifestyle, so the Bay Area suits me well, and I’ve been fortunate to work in innovation for a number of tremendous brands.
2. Innovation is a big word without context. Can you talk to us about what it means at Del Monte and how you go about “leading innovation”?
We aspire to be recognized as a leading consumer goods innovation company. At the crux of what we’re doing is company transformation, which starts at the top with our leadership and their support. It’s about innovative and progressive thinking—it’s not just with products, it’s much bigger: go-to-market strategy, how we market, structure our teams, etc.
We’ve had success with new products and new channels—entering the frozen category, for example, showing up in new areas of the store, but we’re just starting the journey.
We take a lean start-up approach—aka agile innovation, which is a term that gets thrown around a lot. Innovation used to be a linear process, but we build in a lot of iterative feedback early in the process so we can quickly improve and/or pivot. We make food, after all, so there’s a lot of melding of our phases so we can get product to our consumers to get feedback faster.
3. The success Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have made in the past 18 months has put plant-based proteins at the forefront of a lot of consumer conversation. What is Del Monte doing on that front?
It’s actually great to see awareness growing. We’re one of the original plant-based food companies—we’ve been doing this for more than 130 years—and the trend you mention has come as we’ve expanded the Del Monte Veggieful sub-brand (a line of vegetable-based snack and meal varieties) and have gone into new spaces, bringing new products to consumers looking for animal-protein alternatives. We also have Del Monte Veggieful Pocket Pies launching in May (two flavors with plant-based protein), which fit in well with the Veggieful sub-brand and have put us at the forefront of bringing that option to new categories.
It’s part of the evolution of the innovation work and what we can deliver for our consumers. We have an ethos, a program, “Growers of Good”; it’s the crux of everything we’re doing with the brand. It spans a partnership with the farmers and the promotion of healthy eating and innovation. It’s a core tenet Del Monte uses to bring veggie goodness in a delicious way to lots of other categories.
4. What are some of the biggest challenges in building an innovation platform at a company with such a long and storied history?
As I said, innovation here has been possible because of great leadership and the support to move our business forward into new and exciting categories and channels. We have a pretty flat organization, and the real challenge is considering how to maximize all of our resources— people, insights, brands, infrastructure, etc. We’re coordinating all of it in real time. We have wonderful production locations, so we’re trying to understand how to maximize the value that’s there, and how to deliver on this innovation dream in the most timely and meaningful way.
5. On a different note…certainly an interesting and innovative time to be alive. As someone who leads innovation teams, any advice for others?
For people that are just coming up, I’d suggest they develop strong points of view, be passionate and have conviction, and let people know about it. Today’s leaders react to people who can bring something new to the table and make it happen. People who follow the process are great, but those who stand out can see beyond the four walls of their cube or office.
For companies, I’d say the same thing. In this day and age, with direct to consumer you can click a button and get a meal or food delivered to your door. The traditional approach isn’t going to work anymore. The speed at which our industries are changing, how they’re providing food and drinks and snacks to consumers, is driving companies to rethink their approach. For our traditionally slower-moving industry, things are changing at an unprecedented rate. The key is continual learning—this is your craft, you have to stay current.