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Rise to the Top of the Food Chain

Many people have finesse when it comes to working in the business field. Some enjoy owning their own small business; others seek to share their talent for business with larger companies. For King University alumnus Mike Ridenour, he not only works for a large business; he is the head of industry relations for The Kraft Heinz Company, the fifth-largest food and beverage company in the world and the third-largest in North America.

Growing up, Ridenour was drawn to the idea of a career in business. “My father was an amazing influence leading me into the business field. He worked for a private sporting goods company based in Knoxville, Tenn., with a sales territory covering Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee, and Southeastern Kentucky. [My father] created a lot of relationships across his territory with many people that continue to last today. Watching my dad build these relationships with people and understanding that it is hard work and dedication to be the best person in business was truly inspirational. I have worked hard to develop similar talents in my own career and attribute my success to his inspiration and my personal desires to be viewed in a similar way as people viewed him.”

The decision to attend King College (now King University) was an easy one for Ridenour, having grown up right beside King’s campus. Both of his parents graduated from King; his father - David, who is a member of the King Athletic Hall of Fame, graduated in 1965, his mother, Elizabeth, was a member of the class of 1963. Additionally, his mother’s siblings graduated from King - David Brantley (‘71) and Carol (Brantley) Kendall (‘65), and his sister, Elizabeth (Ridenour) Testerman graduated from King in 1986. Ridenour’s neighbors, the Winships, also had ties to King, were both employed by the school. “The positive impact of King College on my parents and the connectivity of the College growing up were an inspiration for me to attend [King].” Ridenour graduated in 1985, majoring in Business Administration and Economics.

It is rare today to find someone who has been with one company more than a few years. Ridenour stands apart; he celebrated his 30th anniversary with Kraft in Aug. 2015. “I started with Kraft right out of college working as a sales rep. My mom was thrilled with my decision to work at Kraft, as she had grown up near a Kraft Foods plant. My first job at Kraft was a sales job where I called on grocery stores. Then through a number of opportunities, I’ve done a lot of different jobs during my career at Kraft. My role has probably changed 15 times with the majority of the responsibility being either direct sales or leadership with customers.” Prior to his current role, Ridenour served Kraft as customer vice president of industry relations.

“Cheryl and I have been married since 1986, right after I stared at Kraft. She has really been the reason for our success. We have moved 11 times over those 30 years working in different locations.” Ridenour’s wife, Cheryl, was a member of Virginia Intermont’s class of 1985. She transferred and graduated from Georgia Southern. Currently, Mike and Cheryl reside in downtown Chicago with their two children Callie (Loyola ‘15) and Sam (DePaul ‘17).

H.J. Heinz Company and Kraft Foods Group, Inc. announced their merger on March 25, 2015. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal by Annie Gasparro, “The combined company . . . has a market value of more than $96 billion, combined 2014 sales of [$28 billion], more than 46,000 employees, and dual headquarters in Pittsburgh and the Chicago area.”

“My role has been very instrumental as we brought the two companies together. I was recently named the head of industry relations for sales, reporting directly to the president of sales. With the new role, two of the most significant responsibilities include maintaining and developing stronger business relationships with all of our customers, as well as the food industry associations. Together, Kraft and Heinz have eight brands worth over one-billion dollars each. To work for this new global company is an amazing blessing for me.”

Ridenour says when he began at Kraft, he never dreamed his career would lead him to where he is today. “I am proud of the accomplishments I’ve had, and I think the amount of experience I have naturally with all of our customers has put me in a great position to be successful in my new role.”

Looking back to his time at King, Ridenour says he feels the school prepared him in many ways, including the support of the Presbyterian religion at King that focused on education, and the ability to pursue personal dreams of playing sports after high school such as tennis, golf, and serving as the trainer for the basketball team.

“The combination of playing sports and pursuing an education at the same time helped me grow as an individual. Participating in sports while focusing on an education is not an easy task, and I would say the same for whatever extracurricular activity a person pursues. During my days at King, there were two people who were inspirational leaders, and that was Dr. Burke and Coach Nida who taught me how to be an effective leader. I will forever value those experiences. I would be remiss though if I didn’t say there were other mentors at King that stood out as inspirations to me –Dr. Snyder, Dr. Inez Wagner, the Winships, and of course Jewel Bell.”

For students today looking to soon enter the business world, Ridenour gives this advice. “The biggest opportunity for college students today is to pursue internships in the business field and take advantage of leading clubs or groups that have a heavy emphasis on the community. Students can separate themselves from others by taking advantage of workplace and/or community leadership experiences. These external experiences, in my mind, demonstrate leadership capability in addition to providing students with networking opportunities for the future. If you are a person that is thinking about changing your career, clearly, networking in the field you are pursuing is critical. You have to like what you do, and you have to be willing to learn every day and be humble in your role.”

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