2017 Best EMBAs: Tristan Simpson, USC (Marshall)

Tristan Simpson

USC, Marshall School of Business

“Driven multi-tasker, helpful, inclusive, social director, people-focused leader, ballsy contributor, seeking next insight and challenge.”

Age: 47

Hometown: Los Alamitos, CA

Family Members: My immediate family…Two sons- Beckett, 16, and Sam, 18. My family origin is father (Allen) and mother (Margot who passed from breast cancer in 2015) and 12 siblings.

Fun fact about yourself: I came from a very large, multiracial family – am the third born of 13 children, 10 of whom were adopted. Current ages span from 19 to 51 years old!

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of California, Irvine – BA in English

Where are you currently working? Ready Pac Foods with over 3,500 employees based in Irwindale, California is the market leader in the rapidly growing single serve salad market through our Bistro Bowl line of products as well as a leading supplier of fresh vegetable, fruit and snack products. With a current revenue of $800 million+, we were recently acquired by Bonduelle, a France-based multi-billion dollar vegetable producer.

If you are shopping in the produce section of your local grocery or Club store, mostly likely you are buying a Ready Pac product!

I am proud to be the Chief Marketing Officer and lead over 30 talented individuals of the Innovation Team within Marketing, Corporate Communications, and Research and Development.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: Any extra time I have is first-and-foremost dedicated to my sons (following their water polo games at Los Alamitos High School and the Long Beach Shore Club) and running (I ran the Long Beach Marathon in 2008). I’ve also spent time last year getting my son set up at ASU in its School of Engineering.

Professionally, I lend my time to several organizations focused on marketing in the food industry such as the following:

  • Member, CMO Club, 2016 Committee Member, Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Fresh Executive Council, 2015
  • Committee Member, Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) Communications, 2015
  • Board Member, Produce for Better Health Foundation (5 A Day), 2003 – 2006
  • Committee Member, Fresh Produce & Floral Council, 2002 – 2005
  • Committee Member, Produce Marketing Association, 2004-present

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Throughout my career in Marketing, I’ve focused on people, trying to bring out the best in my teams and being the champion for the consumer. So, going into a class of 70+ people at USC, especially a class of so many leaders, I looked for ways to bring people together by leading regular social activities and organizing football games and monthly happy hours. Over time, I saw how much our success in the program was really ensured when we operated as a cohesive team. The better we worked together, the more we learned.

The activity I’m most proud of, though, was leading a fundraising drive for a classmate whose very young daughter was diagnosed with cancer. We were able to raise funds to provide my classmate and her daughter with gifts to bring them joy, dinner for them to take a reprieve and kind well wishes.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? In my professional career, I’m most proud of my role in the profitable turnaround of Ready Pac Foods. When I joined the organization in 2011, the company was in a completely different place. The company was suffering in many ways, some monetary but also in morale and culture. However, with the support of our CEO Tony Sarsam, who joined the company in 2014, I helped him build a robust and regular internal communications program, which included quarterly Town Hall meetings, monthly newsletters and quarterly video messages from the CEO for the frontline. All of these were focused on recognizing associates who demonstrate our “Ready Pac Foods Difference” – the way we share our corporate mission, vision and the core values. We also refocused our efforts on innovating in our industry, re-energizing our customers and associates with new products, and showing our leadership in the changing fresh foods market.

In the six years since I joined the organization, I’ve seen our sales go up, our costs go down, and our safety record improve to the point that we have just been purchased by a multi-billion dollar European global foods company (Bonduelle) that is very supportive of our future path and is a great partner.

It has been extremely satisfying to watch our company grow, work alongside so many genuine and talented people and to have a role in its success. Taking a company that was suffering and being part of an incredible management team that turned it around, and building a strong, talented Innovation Team to keep us going are the achievements that have made me the most proud.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? My favorite professor was Professor James Cunningham, who taught Macroeconomics. Keeping us focused was hard, when we’re all juggling life, work and family. He was entertaining, authentic, and didn’t take himself too seriously! He kept us listening to the subject matter and was so hilarious. His unorthodox delivery was completely engaging.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? From a personal perspective, after I graduated with my undergraduate degree, I had a sense like I HAD TO go back to school. Then as I grew in my career, raised kids and looked at where my time was being spent, I realized that I WANTED TO go back and get greater context to the kinds of areas I was actively involved in on the job.

The timing for this program was ideal for me in my professional career. It turned out that during my time in the program, I was involved in a transaction of the acquisition of Ready Pac Foods. I was part of the Executive Team that went through the entire process. The USC EMBA program mirrored exactly what I was going through and the courses I took were invaluable to me in educating me along the way. My experienced faculty were critical to guiding and supporting me in my learning process and it was so helpful that the course content was exactly parallel to what the M&A process was for me. Step-by-step, we walked through the elements of a transaction process when it really mattered most to me. It was so refreshing for me to be in a safe and supportive environment in my EMBA program to teach me what I needed to know to eventually have a very successful outcome, both professionally and personally. It was serendipity!

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? What I enjoyed most were the relationships with my classmates. I learned a lot from them, even though they may not know it. Allowing me to learn as a leader, when to lead and when to give others that opportunity.

I felt myself being more of a teacher and mentor in addition to a classmate. For example, there were times when I would lead a study group, and we were determining who would present a subject in class. I’m often in that role at work, so I’m comfortable stepping up. But, in this situation, you let someone else shine. I would encourage my classmates to present, reminding them that this was the best setting to learn.

This experience of working so closely with my classmates was also a great refresher on working on a team and the dynamics involved.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education. Good luck – that’s really all you do. I don’t have one story in particular, just a lot going on, managing a large team, going through an acquisition, raising a teenage scholar athlete. My life is already crazy, and business school just added another piece to the crazy pie. Pick any day and you will find a juggling act so your calendar is your best friend.

What is your best piece of advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s executive MBA program? My advice would be to stay open and curious. The program will challenge you in ways you don’t expect, like active listening and interpersonal skills. It’s not just about the books and tests. So, be open to learning at every opportunity as it is presented to you.

I would also share what I learned from my mother, who was a Ph.D. with 13 kids: You can always find the time and energy for the things you find important.

What was your biggest regret in business school? I don’t have any! I knew when I went back that it was the perfect time to go. One day, when I was running in the hills near my home, I had an epiphany that it was “my time.” I was going through a divorce and focusing back on me and what my life plan is or needed to be. And I realized I had a specific window of opportunity I didn’t want to miss to take this step.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I most admire Michelle Constant because she rocks! She is the founder and CEO of a homeland security consulting firm, had a baby during the program, and still was completely absorbed, listening and watching in class! She is so impressive and, at first, when I saw her at the beginning of the program, she was so put together and I wasn’t sure how closely I would be able to get to know her. I have grown to see a kind, generous, nurturing, driven and intelligent woman who is doing it all! Truly inspiring to me. She reminds me of my mother.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I was running in the hills and realized it was the perfect time to take this step.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…I’d be looking for my next challenge. Maybe another marathon? I’m already thinking about what I should do next.”

What is your favorite company and what are they doing that makes them so special? Professionally, it’s Starbucks because they stay true to their purpose and who they are as a brand. They have done such a great job to engage and connect with consumers in promoting a lifestyle rather than just a product.

Personally, I admire White House/Black Market because they are so creative, timely and relevant and continue to surprise me as a consumer as well as reflecting my sense of style and my personality. They dress women in a way that’s fun, but also business appropriate. They understand women and our diverse interests (business to casual). I am a diehard fan and shop them way too much!

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I’d like to continue to do what I love: consumer marketing and working with companies that are ready to be disruptive. Not just companies that say they are, but truly mean it. I would like to continue to provide value in my experience in the fresh, perishables CPG industry as well as building stellar innovation teams and products.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? First I would like to thank my children. They were great role models for me as they navigated their way through high school while I was in my program. One entered high school and the other graduated while I was a student as well and the three of us supported one another in a way that was so important for me to succeed.

I would like to thank my parents for being such great role models of attitude and perseverance. I also would like to thank Tony Sarsam, my CEO, for his unwavering support from the beginning where he helped me research business school options, saw the vision and believed in me.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I hope they remember me as a ballsy, authentic, goofy classmate who would do anything to help anyone at any time.

Favorite book: Professional – Good to Great by Jim Collins. I loved the use of data to explain why businesses thrive. I also didn’t realize when I read it that it fit me personally as well.

Personal – Path to Love by Deepak Chopra. It’s a very spiritual read about finding love from within and realizing your self-worth.

Favorite movie or television show: I admire really brilliant writing, so I love the movie Shawshank Redemption and the television shows Orange is the New Black and Modern Family. All have such great writing.

Favorite musical performer: Green Day. I’m going to see them twice this year, and I’ve been a fan since they started. I took my son Sam to see them years ago and it was his first live concert.

Favorite vacation spot: I love Tahiti. It’s a beautiful place that is in Technicolor and a great place to turn your brain off.

Hobbies? I love being outside in nature, running on the beach, gardening. I enjoy cooking and entertaining. And I love being with my kids and watching water polo, live music and live sports together.

What made Tristan such an invaluable addition to the class of 2017?

“Tristan has a seat at the corporate table as the Chief Marketing Officer for Ready Pac. She joined Ready Pac in 2011 to help lead a remarkable turnaround to an underperforming company. Under Tristan’s leadership and vision, she helped shape Ready Pac into a leader in the fresh food industry and increased its revenues to $800 Million dollars.

As impactful as Tristan is, she wanted to expand her contributions beyond marketing and learn about the finance and strategy side of the business. Despite her demanding job and her first love of raising her two sons, she enrolled in the USC Marshall EMBA Program. She was not satisfied with just her seat at the table, but she wanted to understand what the other seats are all about. More recently, Tristan’s seat at the table expanded as she experienced first-hand the negotiations of the sale of Ready Pac to Bondeulle (EuronextL BON).  Bondeulle announced in March 2017, that it has acquired Ready Pac for $409 Million USD, a multiple of about 11x adjusted EBITDA. Coincidentally, Tristan was experiencing this during the EMBA program.  She was able to use and put into practice what she has learned to understand and contribute to the complicated negotiations.

I have the immense pleasure of meeting Tristan as a fellow classmate at Marshall. I admire her spirit, energy and passion for her life, family and job. I have watched her juggle an intense traveling schedule, rally and set goals for her team, meet with investment bankers and balance time for her sons and friends. I watched her struggle and triumph over our class projects and sending her son to college. All throughout, she remained positive, optimistic and focused on her goals. Tristan is a loyal friend and it a blessing to go through the USC EMBA program with her.”

Anna Tom
Senior Vice President
U.S. Bank