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Making technology an ingredient of Rich Products' growth

Yexi Liu enjoys visiting Rich Products' plants around the world, meeting the employees and getting a feel for the local culture.

Liu joined Rich last summer as its chief information officer, and has traveled to Mexico, Brazil and China.

"I was joking with the plant general managers that the best job in the plant is actually the R&D department, because at the end, you taste everything," he said.

Liu, 44, is an executive with a quick wit who came to Rich from Westinghouse Electric in Pittsburgh. Prior to that, the China native also worked for SPX and Ingersoll Rand, two other industrial manufacturers.

Now Liu is part of the leadership team at Rich, a food products company with $4 billion in annual sales and a new CEO in Richard Ferranti. Liu has been getting up to speed on the food industry, with his predecessor, Paul Klein, retiring at the end of 2019.

Q: What drew you to Rich?

A: I think there are several things. One thing is the Rich company's reputation in the food industry and their long history of innovation. That was the initial thing that attracted me here. Once I got to know our executive team and got to know the company culture and the values, I knew it was the right fit for me. Think about this, it was 75 years ago when Rich created the very first nondairy whipped topping in the market, really revolutionizing the industry.

The second thing is, in the conversation with the executive team, the commitment from the company about the technology. How we use technology today to drive the next chapter for Rich's. I think that is another big factor for me to join the family.

Q: What does a chief information officer do?

A: I think a chief information officer, these days compared to 10, 15 years ago, it's a big change. … Part of what's important for this role is to really understand the businesses: their strategy, the market, financials, understand the competitive landscape, understand the overall industry trends.

The technology is not supporting function anymore. The companies, they know how to use technology to end up changing their business models, changing the way to engage our customers, our associates, our suppliers, to find a way to revolutionize the business model in the market.

Yexi Liu in Rich Products' refurbished information services department. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

To do that, you've got to understand the businesses. That's really the most important job I think, for the CIO these days, to be part of that executive team, shaping the future and the strategy for the company, and make sure technology is going to be a major part of the company journey going forward.

Obviously, the CEO and the company look at me to be a technology adviser for the businesses: what is trending in the market, what disruptive technologies can be leveraged in our product line, in our factories, in our sales force, in our associates.

As Rich Products retools leadership, message is clear: Innovate or else

Q: You're new to the food industry. What do you carry over from your other jobs?

A: The environment I came from is more discrete type of manufacturing. This is more process oriented because of food. I've visited nine plants so far. They have similar challenges: How to do lean manufacturing, how to improve their productivity and efficiency, how to better leverage their direct labor. … How we leverage our plant maintenance solutions and mobile applications, changing from time-based maintenance to predictive maintenance.

Those are trends in broader manufacturing. We can learn from them, and with that, we reduce the cost and and we can upskill the workforce to make sure they spend more time in the value-added activities.

Q: What is the competition like for hiring tech workers?

A: I think it's beyond the food industry. It's whole the industry, beyond the Buffalo market. The tech skills, the workforce in the market today is a pretty hot market.

Q: What impact do you hope to have at Rich?

A: I think it goes back to, what's a CIO's role? I want to continue this transformation, this digital journey for Rich's. We are working together on the 2025 strategic plan now. It's a very important part of the plan. Digital is going to be a key capability.

For Rich Products' tech staff, cubicles are out, 'neighborhoods' are in

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