“The most exciting thing about a career in supply chain is that you’re never done. You’re always striving to optimise, to improve, to gain an advantage and understand the opportunities that are out there in order to get better and continue learning,” says Fareen Mehrzai, Director of Supply Chain at Golden Hippo. For the past year Mehrzai, a highly experienced supply chain and operations director with a proven track record for leading integrated operations programmes for globally recognised brands, has been doing all those things at Golden Hippo.
The business is one of the United States’ leading direct response marketing organisations, building and marketing category-leading brands and unique, best-in-class products direct to consumers in four areas: supplements, beauty, and pet and human food. Each of these is driven by Golden Hippo’s overarching vision of helping as many people as possible, capitalising on its unique organisational culture to provide the highest quality of service, and focusing on sustainable health and wellness. The latter is neatly summarised by its tagline - ‘a good life begins with good health’.
Since 2018, Golden Hippo has been on a significant supply chain transformation journey built around three key elements of people, service and cost, and driven to achieve a supremely strong and well-performing operational engine. Mehrzai, who joined the business in October 2018, has led this transformation, building, mentoring and leading a team that both embodies the company’s culture and is resilient and agile enough to manage the change process. “The last year has been really exciting,” she states. “You never fully understand what you’re getting into when you take on a new role, but the opportunity to join Golden Hippo at this point in its evolution was an intriguing one. We’re on a strong growth trajectory, and there is an energy and synergy rooted within the company’s culture unlike any other. In many roles, you either join a business to maintain or to create - here we get to maintain the foundations we have and build for the future at the same time.”
Expanding on those foundations, Mehrzai describes Golden Hippo as a unique business that owns and operates its brands and is vertically integrated. A culture of openness, collaboration and innovation underpins every aspect of its operations and has ensured an enviable level of strength in depth. “We have experts in every field,” she affirms. “Whether that’s brand ideation and creation, product development, copywriting, media buying, video production and editing, right through to reputation management and SEO, distribution and fulfilment.”
The company’s founders and senior management team embody the culture that has made this possible. For example, Mehrzai describes an environment that fosters ideas and a creative approach to operations, and which thrives on values such as test everything and fail fast, allowing the best idea to win regardless of its origin, being responsible for and learning from mistakes, and mentoring and educating others.
“When I was building my team, I realised relatively quickly that I could find the best technically sound and proficient individuals in whichever role I was hiring for,” Mehrzai comments. “But, if they don’t embody and embrace those aspects of our culture that make us so strong, then it will be really difficult for them to thrive here. We’ve built a team of strong supply chain professionals who are agile and flexible, and who consistently go above and beyond to service our internal and external customers. I attribute that in part to great recruiting, a strong onboarding programme and a culture that strives to be employee-centric.”
A lot has changed for Mehrzai in the 12 months since. Principally, her role has been the driving of Golden Hippo’s supply chain transformation in order to take it “from transactional to world-class” - a task she likens to changing the wheels on a car while it continues on its journey. “We didn’t have the luxury of stepping back, observing for three months and developing a plan of attack, it was all hands on deck from the very start,” she explains. Initially, Mehrzai set out the key elements of a world class supply chain: people, service and cost. These factors led to the forming of defined teams within the supply chain group based around planning, procurement, analytics and more.
“Supply chain, in any organisation, is not a revenue driving function, it’s a support function,” she states. “Every day, the goal for my team and I is to provide more value to the business and always question how we are servicing every brand, team and individual.” Golden Hippo’s ownership of its brands provides a unique supply chain challenge, in that Mehrzai and her team’s customers are all present in the same working environment. A significant part of the transformation, she notes, has been around changing the supply chain team’s role in these relationships from one that was defensive or reactive to being proactive and forward looking.
“The approach that we take with all our vendors or partners is ‘their success is our success’,” says Mehrzai. “As a result, many of the key milestones in our transformation journey so far have been centered around fostering stronger partnerships, particularly for our supplier partnerships, and setting out a framework and roadmap for progressing from a transactional relationship to being more agile and forward-looking.”
Mehrzai is a highly experienced enabler of change, with a proven record of strategic planning, process management and team management at companies including Nestle, where, over her tenure she held various leadership roles in supply chain, procurement and process improvement. Despite that experience, Mehrzai concedes that embarking on Golden Hippo’s transformation journey has provided a new challenge. “What it takes to be successful in a 150-year old organisation is very different to the way in which you apply yourself in a younger business,” she explains. “You have to be more flexible in how you approach problems, but not necessarily with regards to what you’re trying to achieve. When people join our team, for example, I tell them that I absolutely don’t want them to go with the flow, I want them to create their own waves.”
Reflecting on this aspect, Mehrzai credits her varied career experience with providing several skills that are transferable to Golden Hippo’s working environment. In particular, she points to two pivotal moments: having the opportunity to build a strong process improvement mindset during her early career, and spending the next years in “one of the best supply chains in the world” at Nestle, which she describes as a great training ground. On the former, Mehrzai says that having the opportunity to earn Six Sigma Black Belt certification early in her career “forever changed how I think about and approach any problems I face. It’s a particularly important mindset to adopt if you work in a supply chain-related role”.
Leadership is an important skill to Mehrzai. As a strong people leader with a record of mentoring and developing top tier talent, she enjoys sharing those skills learned over her career with others at Golden Hippo. When it comes to team building, she is a proponent of continuous improvement and a ‘zero waste’ mindset, and always looks to foster an environment that is both supportive and collaborative. “I’m lucky that this kind of culture already existed at Golden Hippo when I joined,” she explains. “Our cross-functional collaboration, for example, has been one of the key aspects of our success. There’s little bureaucracy and the timely sharing of knowledge and expertise is really important to how we operate.”
On a more personal level, Mehrzai enjoys the opportunity to educate and mentor new or younger members of Golden Hippo’s team. Outside of her role, she is a proud faculty member of the California State University Northridge, Systems and Operations Management Department, where she teaches future operations leaders. She admits her passion for educating comes as a result of how much she enjoys her work, explaining that “the opportunity to translate even a fraction of that energy and passion to tomorrow’s supply chain leaders is so exciting to me. The best leaders I’ve worked for in my career were not only great at producing results, but also teaching and nurturing as they progressed; we’re all capable of so much if we have people around who support and educate us.”
Mehrzai seeks to encourage and build relationships in an organic fashion. “Really, it should be about having people in your life that you can learn from, go to lunch with or reach out to when you have any issues. We have an amazing mentorship programme at Golden Hippo that I encourage everyone to be a part of. Whether part of a formal mentorship programme or not, sharing, encouraging and building advocates around you that can ignite your passion are so important, whatever level or role you operate in.”
With that sentiment in mind, Mehrzai highlights how Golden Hippo’s supply chain has been driven by every individual in the organisation. Top-down leadership is naturally a key facet of any change management process, she states, but empowerment across each level of the business has been key to implementing new practices. “Every idea might not always be possible,” she adds, “but for an employee to really feel free to voice their opinion is part of what makes this organisation unique”.
This sentiment is carried over in Mehrzai’s advocacy of Golden Hippo’s ‘operational engine’, as she explains. “Often you look at businesses like ours from the outside and you see the obvious success factors, which are undoubtedly impressive. What’s not always seen is the work of those behind the scenes, which in many ways is the fundamental basis on which all other successes are built.” Golden Hippo’s operational engine, she says, is built for B2C operation. However, as part of the wider transformation journey, the company is now exploring retail opportunities and actively building its international presence. “When you already have an engine that is built with the inherent flexibility and responsiveness that ours has, you have a significant competitive advantage when exploring new opportunities. In terms of our evolution, it will play a significant contribution to our growth in 2020 and beyond.”
On future growth, Mehrzai is a firm believer that a supply chain has no beginning or end and, instead, continues to be an evolutionary process. There is, she confirms, still some distance to go in Golden Hippo’s transformational supply chain journey, particularly in terms of improving processes, digitising more of its supply chain and continuing to nurture its key supplier partner relationships. “We’re well on the path to being a world-class supply chain organisation, but we’ve many milestones ahead. Some examples include looking to continue building our process for scale, further developing and nurturing key supplier relationships and supporting the organisations objectives by enabling cost competitiveness. There are always opportunities to improve, to learn and to work more effectively. That’s what makes the job so rewarding.”