Su Rankin likes to joke that she has been surrounded by men her whole life. She grew up with three brothers, has three sons of her own today, and entered the male-dominated industry of supply chain right out of college.
As SVP of Operations at Land O’Lakes, Inc., Su currently leads the manufacturing teams responsible for the production of high quality, safe product for the company’s Dairy Foods, Winfield United and Purina Animal Nutrition businesses. Since joining the team in 2013, she’s built a robust understanding of agriculture—both on the manufacturing line and the farm gate.
“Someone told me once that Land O’Lakes is in the business of calories—whether that’s calories for animals, plants or humans. And calories are not optional,” says Su. “I think our mission to feed the world here is simple, good, honest work.”
Su’s journey to Land O’Lakes has been a long time coming. Her story is one of determination, perseverance and a passion for finding ways to add her own unique value to the industry and help blaze the trail for women in the field.
Shifting to supply chain
For Su, working at Land O’Lakes feels a bit like her destiny. From her childhood, she had always been fascinated by farming, something she says must have stemmed from reading Laura Ingalls Wilder because Su did not grow up in agriculture. Her father was a chemist and her mother was a credit analyst.
“I remember having a conversation with my parents, when I was young, about why they weren’t farmers because I had this idea that being a farmer was really cool,” says Su. “And my dad said, ‘Well you clearly don’t know how much work it is to be a farmer.’”
Su still found her way to the agriculture industry, although she first attended college thinking that she wanted to be a doctor. She started as a bacteriology major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison but soon realized that she was not passionate about medicine either.
“After starting college, I realized I didn’t want to become a doctor,” she says. “There was a woman who worked with my dad at SC Johnson, Faye Yoshihara. She was a food science major, and I had never heard of that. But it appealed to me. I thought, well, people have to eat.”
So, Su became a Food Science major and graduated with a Bachelor of Science through the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin.
After graduation, Su was recruited by Hormel Foods in Atlanta as a canning foreman, overseeing production needs at a meat packing plant. She and her soon-to-be husband, Paul, moved down South to follow her career aspirations. Su was the only female foreman at the company, out of approximately 130 employees.
She was hired in a managerial position and learned how to lead and develop her team on the job. Some of it was trial and error but most was perseverance. This job helped Su realize supply chain and manufacturing was the place for her. She found mentors in other foremen and teammates and learned the ins and outs of a production line.
“I learned more exponentially in those first three years than I have in any other position,” says Su. “I always say that the people running factories are doing the most important work at any company, and I know that from experience.”
After a few years in Atlanta, when Su felt it was time for a change, she started to work for the company her father worked at—SC Johnson. For 15 years, she held positions in supply chain, procurement and mergers and acquisitions in Wisconsin and Canada.
She learned how exhausting the manufacturing jobs can be. With many positions, the 24 hours of each day are broken into three eight hour shifts. By this time, Su had worked on all three different work schedule shifts within plants and had been pregnant with one son on each shift. It was all great experience, but it was time for something new.
An offer came from Ecolab in 2010 and soon, Su moved to Minneapolis with her family.
Connecting in new ways
After two years of working at Ecolab as vice president of Manufacturing, Su wasn’t really looking for a change. She had been invited to a supply chain management conference where Beth Ford, group EVP and COO was a keynote speaker. Su didn’t realize how fortuitous this moment could be—even before she attended the conference.
“I thought, ‘Oh, if there is a woman running the supply chain of a Fortune 500 company here in the Twin Cities, I should know who she is,’” says Su. “So I looked up Beth Ford on LinkedIn before the conference.”
As some may be aware, LinkedIn notifies its users when someone views their profile.
“I got a blind call from a recruiter because Beth had noticed that I looked at her profile,” says Su. “And Beth told the recruiter to contact me about an open position. I didn’t even realize they had an opening for a vice president. After an interview, I really thought ‘This is everything I want—a really valued supply chain team and I could work for a woman.’”
New role, same passion
Moving into the role of vice president of Manufacturing at Land O’Lakes meant that Su had to do a little bit more learning; specifically, she had to go back to get her MBA at the Carlson School of Management.
“I’m really proud of getting my MBA at 48 years old,” says Su. “I learned a lot at Carlson, but it really gave me an opportunity to build my network. I didn’t have much of one outside of work besides the people I worked with on a daily basis, and the MBA program allowed me to make connections across the Twin Cities.”
Because of the farm-to-fork structure, Su says that Land O’Lakes is by far the most complicated company she has worked at. And that’s a compliment. As someone who embraces challenges, Su enjoys the daily problem-solving and dynamic environment. She was promoted to senior vice president of Operations in 2015.
“I’m responsible for the manufacturing and strategic operations for the three business units, and even though there’s commonality in what we do, the three separate businesses have very different strategies, which is what complicates things,” says Su. “My job is really to grease the skids and make it easy for my team to do the right thing every day while making sure customer needs are met.”
Now, almost four years into her role, Su feels at home—and she’s making conscious efforts to make our workplace more inclusive. She is the co-lead of the Women’s Leadership Network Employee Resource Group, has previously led United Way giving campaigns and is also on the Diversity Enrichment Council–leaders that help define the strategy for diversity and inclusion at Land O’Lakes.
“When we start out in our careers, we always are trying to get others to hear our concerns. I think I’m finally at a level where I can start being the one to listen and try to have an impact on company-wide initiatives about inclusion,” says Su.
When Su was hired, the percentage of women and people of color in plant manager positions was at 3 percent. Today, that number is 15 percent.
“It was a matter of making inclusion a priority. When we have a project or opportunities for growing leaders, are we making sure we are giving diverse people good opportunities?” says Su. “We all want good talent, and when you get a bigger pool, you get better talent.”
And Su knows that in many careers, in recent years or even today, there may be unconscious biases at play in the workplace.
“From experience, I know that I would get passed over for projects or leadership roles for less qualified people,” says Su. “And I would look around and see other women in the same exact situation. And I think that the only way we can have change is as leaders, to ask the right questions and push people to consider other ways of doing things at all levels of the company.”
Su has become a leader who values participation, cooperation and inclusion. She may not have become a farmer, but Su is leading our farm-to-fork view and establishing Land O’Lakes as a leader in our industry.
“As a cooperative, being farmer-owned, I feel like we are all in this together, we’re a community,” says Su. “It’s kind of where I originally started—going back to that childhood dream of being a farmer. After four years at Land O’Lakes, I’m more passionate than ever about our purpose and about our people.”