Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
January 13, 2023

Adding a COO Position in High-Growth Food Manufacturing

For start-ups in the food industry — in sectors like alternative proteins, fresh food and organics — sky-high growth and product buzz often, after a few years, run head-first into reality: Scaling up at the same pace suddenly becomes exponentially more complicated. And the people on hand, while intimately familiar with the company, often lack the expertise to navigate the company through this increasingly complex environment.

In our experience working with companies in this sector, we have found that often the best way to manage this transition is to add a dedicated leader — whether a COO or a similarly titled position — to help the business transform its operations for the next phase of growth.

Operating better

There are many ways to define COO, but for food start-ups, the key part of the title is operating: This leader needs to manage end-to-end operations, from planning and sourcing through manufacturing and on to distribution and logistics.

Earlier setups tend to be more tactical and more hands-on, with more junior leaders working hard to get things done on a day-to-day basis, but likely without the expertise to help the company ramp up, nor the long-term vision to make changes related to where things are going.

Whether the title is COO or not — chief supply chain officer or a “head of” operations or supply chain position could be enough — we have seen how one dedicated leader overseeing all of these functions can ensure cross-organizational structure and processes and help break down silos.

The elements of a successful COO

The specific challenges of the scaling-up phase point to the key attributes of a leader in this position. Shifting your company to a national distribution model with major retailers, compared with working in a small region with local companies, is vastly more complex — and potentially more expensive. Beyond that, later-round investors tend to be pickier about where they invest their money and the returns they are getting.

So what are the major attributes of a successful COO in these companies? Here a few key ones.

  • Diverse operational background. Ideally, a new COO will have foundational experience in a blue-chip company where they learned best practices, as well as experience in more entrepreneurial environments. They are likely to bring depth in a particular area, such as manufacturing, but will have broad experience across the operational spectrum. They may or may not come with more extensive experience either overseeing a P&L or managing back-end functions like technology, finance and HR. In terms of industry, a food background is important, due to the regulatory and food safety requirements.
  • Problem-solving ability. Regardless of background, a top COO will have a demonstrated ability to solve problems, learn quickly and adapt to the needs of the day. The leader won’t simply bring in a playbook from previous experience and expect it to work. Rather, this person will be hands-on and intuitive, and be ready to take on many key tasks him or herself.
  • Strong communication skills. The new operations lead must also be able to clearly communicate with the company’s other top leaders about the importance of operations activities. Further, as we noted above, investor pressure tends to increase as food companies emerge from the early stages, and this leader will need to work with other leaders and/or investors to alleviate concerns and manage expectations. This leader must also be able to work closely with existing staff, gathering their valuable insights on how the business runs while also clearly communicating the operational vision for the company, their role in it and why it’s important.


The good news is that these positions are quite attractive opportunities for operating executives, offering not just important leadership experience but also the chance to have a large impact on a company, rather than an incremental change for a big company. As food industry startups look to successfully navigating their next phase of growth, finding a strong COO is a critical step.