In our series “Jump-start Your Job Search,” BU Today brings you short interviews with BU alums who are leaders in their fields, such as banking, advertising, tech start-ups, journalism, or nonprofit organizations.
They talk about how they got to be where they are and what they’ve learned from their mistakes. They tell us what they look for when hiring and offer advice for those just embarking on a career.
Linda Luke’s story is a bit different from those of alums we usually feature. Luke (COM’72, SED’74) is president and owner of the Luke Group, a one-person company in Hingham, Mass., founded in 2014, that provides sales and marketing expertise to gourmet food manufacturers with a focus on cheese. Her clients’ products are sold at high-end retailers such as Whole Foods, Dean & DeLuca, Big Y, and Fairway Markets. Before starting her current business, Luke was a partner in another specialty foods industry sales and marketing business, where she was responsible for hiring and supervising a small sales force. Prior to that she worked as New England sales representative for the Cheeseworks, Ltd., a distributor of high-end specialty food products.
In today’s gig economy, with more and more people working remotely or for themselves, this veteran’s insights hit home.
BU Today: After graduating from BU, your background was in educational media. How did you get started in this niche industry?
Luke: In 1979, I was looking for something new, and I answered a classified job ad in the Boston Globe that said, “Bon appetit!” And I thought, I kinda like this gourmet food stuff. I watch Julia Child [Hon.’76]. There was no such thing as a specialty industry then. I managed to get in on the ground floor working for an importer of French products, including cheese, as an office assistant and doing sales. I worked my way up to being a sales manager, and then after about 10 years I went to work for a specialty food distributor based in New Jersey. I opened up the New England market for them, working out of my home here in Massachusetts.
That was your introduction to working solo?
Yes, and I wouldn’t have been able to take that next step in 2004 and become an entrepreneur and open up my own business if I hadn’t already had the contacts and experience I had during those early years. I started the business, called Luke and McKenna, Inc., with a partner, who was out in California. We attracted a lot of manufacturers from Europe and Australia, primarily of cheese and other things that go with it. By the time I decided to step out of that business, I had seven employees, based in New England and all the way down to New York City. The corporate office was in my home.
But ultimately that wasn’t for you?
What I realized was that I had gotten to a certain point in the old company where I was no longer able to do what I loved most, which is sell and help the manufacturers. Now I work with a couple of national brands, Red Apple Cheese for example, and a few smaller manufacturers, like Milton Creamery, based in southern Iowa, which makes an award-winning cheddar called Prairie Breeze.
What qualities did you look for when you were hiring sales reps?
I was always looking for self-starters, because they had to realize right out of the gate that they would be working independently. I had been working independently myself for about 20 years, so I knew how challenging it was. It’s not for everybody, but if it is for you, you’re going to flourish. But if somebody was so insecure that they were going to be waiting around for me to be the prompter, then I knew that was not going to work. I just didn’t have the time.
Were there certain skills you were looking for?
We weren’t selling socks or air conditioners. We were selling products that need a story to go with them. Often, it’s about tradition, especially with a lot of the European products that have been made for hundreds of years. Or in America, with our burgeoning cheese business that’s local, that’s artisanal, that’s seasonal—that’s a story too. And I wanted people who could get passionate, who were curious, who really wanted to learn about these products. I always encouraged my people to visit the farms.
What advice would you give to an employee during the first six months on the job?
You’re going to realize you’re clicking with a few people more than others and that’s going to be your tribe if you stay in this biz, and those are the people you want to take out for coffee. You’ll see the people you have known from different jobs start to seed themselves in different places in the industry. Some of the people I work with now at Whole Foods nationally, I know because 20 years ago they were working at a Whole Foods in New Jersey.
As a woman in the specialty food industry, are there certain challenges you’ve had to face?
When I first started in sales—in another field—it was very male-oriented. Every week we’d have a film—Gordie Howe telling us how sales was like hockey, Vince Lombardi telling us how sales was like football. I was never a good fit, so when I got into this food biz, it was a whole new world. I am so proud of my industry. From the get-go it has been very welcoming for women. There’re no glass ceilings. So many of these small foods companies are owned by women. All the women I started out with back in the ’70s and ’80s have gone on to own their own businesses, to be presidents and CEOs. It’s a wonderful industry that way.
What mistakes have you made during your career, and what lessons have you learned from them?
My big mistake was I wasn’t confident enough to go out on my own sooner. I should have done it earlier than I did it, and when I did it, I did it with a partner at first. So, I guess my biggest mistake was not trusting myself. And I think that’s a really common mistake for women. I think the more we can trust ourselves and realize when we do a great job, then we should toot our own horns a bit.
What’s the competition like for new graduates in the specialty food industry?
I think it’s pretty good. I sit on a scholarship committee, and I see the applications of these young kids, and there are people whose career aspiration is to be a cheesemonger. It makes me laugh. It’s great.
Are you an alum who would like to be interviewed for BU Today’s “Jump-start Your Job Search” series? Email John O’Rourke at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read other stories in our “Jump-start Your Job Search” series here.
December 11, 2019
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October 21, 2019