Wet Noses CEO Johnni Rodgers, ’12, had always wanted to run a business. Chicago Booth helped to lay the foundation. Her own drive and focus did the rest.
- March 15, 2021
- Booth Women
At many stages of her career, Johnni Rodgers, ’12, has leveraged a personal mantra to define her path forward: What needs to be true? A former boss at Kraft Heinz used this phrase to encourage teams to tackle previously unsolved problems through a new lens.
“It put into words how I had approached my personal endeavors up to that point,” Rodgers said. “I would identify what I wanted to do, figure out how others got there, then start working toward the same thing.”
Rodgers knew from a young age she wanted to lead a business. After several years in CPG Sales roles, she set her sights on brand management. She observed that brand managers at General Mills, Kraft, and P&G essentially operated as CEOs of their brands. To become one herself, what needed to be true? She’d need to expand her business and financial acumen. This brought her to Booth’s Evening MBA Program to round out her skill set. “I wanted to be the type of brand manager who was responsible for the top-line growth as much as they were the bottom-line P&L.”
After Booth, Rodgers joined Kraft as an associate brand manager for a brand-new product, Planters Peanut Butter. The team quickly learned a tough lesson. Perceiving a threat to their market share, already established peanut butter brands viciously protected their shelf space. The product line flopped and was ultimately discontinued. “Every role since then, my competitive defense strategy has been on point,” Rodgers said. “I wasn’t ever going to let that happen again.”
She went on to have several notable successes at Kraft as brand manager. Rodgers relaunched Taco Bell in-store products, which at the time were a $100 million business. Following the Kraft Heinz merger, Rodgers brought Cracker Barrel Macaroni & Cheese from idea to full market launch in just nine months. It grew into a $60 million business by its third year.
“I left no stone unturned in understanding what needed to be true to accelerate the business. I approached it from a comprehensive business perspective rather than just from an advertising perspective.”
Rodgers moved to Bel Brands USA in 2018, where she quickly jumped at the opportunity to lead the turnaround for The Laughing Cow. The 100-year brand had been declining since 2012. Several teams at Bel had tried to turn it around, and she was intrigued why they hadn’t been able to.
Rodgers came back to her mantra. “I left no stone unturned in understanding what needed to be true to accelerate the business,” she said. “I approached it from a comprehensive business perspective rather than just from an advertising perspective.” She partnered with her insights team to understand weak points across the business. She scrutinized the price point, cut product lines to focus on best-selling SKUs, and redesigned the packaging. The recipe was reformulated. After a year renovating the product and brand, Rodgers and her team relaunched The Laughing Cow from negative double-digit growth to positive double-digit growth.
With her blend of strategy experience, marketing expertise, and business acumen, CEO was a natural next step for Rodgers. In fall 2020, she stepped into the CEO role at Wet Noses, a private equity–backed manufacturer of organic, human-grade, GMO-free pet treats.
“The goal is to double or triple the company in the coming years. I have this business with a broad range of levers to pull. What needs to be true to triple it?”
Rodgers had just a few months to learn the business and develop the three-year strategy to present to the board by the new year. “The goal is to double or triple the company in the coming years,” Rodgers explained. “I have this business with a broad range of levers to pull. What needs to be true to triple it?” She’s focused on honing the Wet Noses brand and leveraging their strategic advantages, including their human-grade certification and ability to produce and package pet treats in their own facilities.
She found herself drawing from her favorite class at Booth, Steve Kaplan’s Entrepreneurial Finance and Private Equity. “The course helped me understand the various nuances and factors that go into valuation, which helps me better understand the perspective of my board and investors today. As I’m building business strategies, my firm understanding of valuation concepts helps me navigate the balance between all the factors I need to consider as I look to maximize this company’s value.”