University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 186: Inviting Change Into Your Career With Emi Cardarelli

August 03, 2022  |  By Matt Waller

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This week Matt is joined by Emi Cardarelli, Head of Wholesale Club - Customer Development at Unilever. In the episode, Matt and Emi discuss her 13 year career at Walmart and the many opportunities it provided for her across multiple parts of the business. Then, the pair transition to Cardarelli's current experience at Unilever. Finally, Emi leaves students with the advice to find a company that shares similar values as you, be prepared for change, and build your network.

Episode Transcript

Emi Cardarelli  0:00  
The only thing constant is change. It's okay to be upset about certain changes, but figure out how you're going to tackle them and how you're going to move forward with it.

Matt Waller  0:12  
Excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business and the lives of people we meet every day. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College and welcome to the Be Epic podcast. I have with me today Emi Cardarelli, who is the Head of Wholesale Club - Customer Development at Unilever. She has been in Unilever for four years prior to that she was at Walmart for 13 years. She had an international graduate assistant experience at Procter and Gamble. And she also has an MBA from the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Emi, thank you so much for taking time to visit with me today. I really appreciate it.

Emi Cardarelli  0:59  
Matt, it's a pleasure. I'm happy to spend some time with you.

Matt Waller  1:02  
You've had a really great career in retail and CPG. You've had experience in sourcing and supply chain. You have experience in private label, sales, sustainability, customer development, you've really seen a lot of different aspects of retail and CPG. How have you liked your career? Are you glad you went into this direction?

Emi Cardarelli  1:29  
It's been amazing. It's been a roller coaster. But I don't regret any of it. You know, a lot of times I get asked, "Would you do something differently?" I'd say No, I said the decisions I've, I've made have all worked out and they've all served their purpose. It's been a great ride and the ride is not over yet.

Matt Waller  1:45  
Well, Emi, you got involved in CPG pretty quickly, I guess while you were in the MBA program, you did that work with P&G through the assistantship? 

Emi Cardarelli  1:55  
That's correct. 

Matt Waller  1:56  
You know, we still do that. We really encourage students to do internships while they're in the MBA program. We believe it helps. Do you think it helped you?

Emi Cardarelli  2:07  
Absolutely. I'd say I was fortunate enough to have obtained the graduate assistantship, because that helped, you know, not only financially covering, you know, tuition and a stipend and just putting a little bit of peace of mind when it came to that because I came on an international tuition status. So that was a huge relief for me as I was younger, and for my family that was supporting me. But the opportunity to have done that graduate assistantship really opened the doors to employment opportunities. And that's how I ended up at Walmart. In addition to the professors I had bringing in guest speakers, it was a combination that really opened those doors.

Matt Waller  2:43  
Well, and then you, of course, went into Walmart, and you had lots of different experiences as a Buyer, a Merchandise Manager, in sourcing and in supply chain and private label, but you spent a total of 13 years there. I know most of that was in Bentonville. But you also had some experience in other places, is that correct?

Emi Cardarelli  3:08  
That's correct. I'll share a little bit of the background with Walmart. When I wrapped up my MBA, as most MBA graduates do, you start searching for jobs, and you're very well aware of what, you know, the mean salary is depending on where you are, and I was looking through all those stats. I had received an offer to come speak to some executives at Walmart, Laura Phillips, who just retired had been a guest speaker in one of my classes and she invited me to meet with her. So I said sure. And I came up and I was actually very unaware of the magnitude that Walmart was having just lived in the US for a year at the end of my master's degree. And having not had much exposure to it besides the internship. So I just said, "Yeah, Laura I'll come on up." And I called her one day and I said, "Hey, I'm in the area." And you remember about 20 years ago, I don't want to date myself, but going from Fayetteville to Bentonville was a long way. There was nothing in between. And she invited me in and I met several of the executives in the grocery department at Walmart. And it was just a really, really good feel. As I walked through the hallways, you've been to Walmart headquarters, it's unlike many others. And when I walked in, it was no windows and rows of cubicles. But what I saw were people helping each other and people welcoming me, they didn't even know who I was. And I was just there for a quick chat and I was very much attracted to that. Then after that visit, I actually received an offer to join Walmart, but the offer was to join as a buyer trainee. And I was looking at the buyer trainee salary, Matt, and I was looking at the mean salary for an MBA and I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder or an MBA head as we call it sometimes and I was like I don't know about this, you know, I know I should be a little bit higher than what they're offering me. But on the flip side, you know, I took it as a, an opportunity to get my foot in the door, and I said, this is it, I'll step in the door and we'll, we'll see where it goes from there. So I did that. And I spent some months in the store. I spent six months in the Fayetteville store, the Mall Avenue store, which was a lot of fun. And then I went back to corporate, did my buyer training in potato chips and soft drinks. That was a lot of fun. Then I became the adult beverage buyer. I was one of the few adult beverage buyers aka liquor, which was a lot of fun and unknown. A lot of people didn't know at the time that Walmart actually sold adult beverages and it was an adventure of swimming upstream internally because of Walmart's values and background. But at the end of the day, it's what the consumers were looking for. So we wanted to make sure that we had it where it was available. After my adult beverage stint, I was invited to take part on a team that was going to open a prototype for the Hispanic customer. When I joined Walmart I was one of the only Latina buyers at Walmart. And I had to remind people of that because my mother's originally from South Arkansas. So I grew up speaking English and Spanish and I don't have the expected you know, Hispanic accent when you tell people you're Hispanic so had to clarify that a bit. When Walmart started this Supermercado, the Walmart venture, I was super excited to be part of that. Seeing it go from the ground up. The whole box. It was like a little Neighborhood Market. And that took me out to Arizona. So I spent a year in Arizona. And after that year, I was approached to move to Costa Rica and open Walmart's global food sourcing office. I had never been to Costa Rica, I figured you know, this could be easy. I speak Spanish, you know, I understand a bit of the Latino culture. How hard can it be, right? Oh, was I mistaken. It was an amazing experience. A lot of cultural learning. You know, even though it was Spanish, there's still a lot of, you know, slang, and you insert your foot in your mouth every now and then. And you learn very quickly. You know, even in North America, the difference in English between the South and the North can vary a lot or American English, British English, South African English, there's very different words and phrases that can mean very different things in different countries. So I learned that quickly. There was also a bit of a challenge and learning about, you know, women in the workforce. And Hispanic countries are very much male dominated countries and not as advanced in women in corporate and business position. So that was a bit of a battle that I fought starting out there and you know, turned it around and left with a very, very good flavor in my mouth of success and what I had accomplished while I was there. I then returned to the US. And that's when I began a bit of sourcing and supply chain and private brands on the consumable side of the business at Walmart. That was the majority of my career at Walmart, Matt.

Matt Waller  7:40  
So I would like to back up just a moment. You said you started in this Walmart Supercenter here in Fayetteville. You did that for six months. What were you doing?

Emi Cardarelli  7:53  
Everything you could possibly do in a super center. It was a little bit of everything. We did rotations, I spent time with the assistant manager in the frozen department that was my least favorite. I felt like it was a punishment when they made me stock the ice cream coolers because I had to go in with the big coat and pull the ice cream out and stock the ice cream coolers. I used to go hide out with the wonderful ladies in the fabrics and crafts section. They'd help me and I'd in turn help them decorate the store, whatever was needed. I spent time in the back office, I spent time with HR, you know learning about hiring associates into the store. I spent a couple of weeks doing night shifts, you know, Walmart isn't open 24 hours anymore, but back then they still had the 24 hour Walmart's and the night shifts. And what you saw during the night was completely different than what you saw during the day. That was a lot of fun. But I've got to say that one of my favorite parts was actually spending time with the asset protection team and just watching the cameras. And you know, pinpointing potential shoplifters or things like that just to see how people shot behind the scenes, whether it's what they're putting in the baskets, as habits and market baskets, or if they're trying to pilfer things from the store. So it was an amazing experience did a little bit of everything there.

Matt Waller  9:08  
And so many things. Understanding the very basics, especially where you meet the customer really helps understand the business from a broader perspective. Of course, you rose through the ranks at Walmart, but you're also in Unilever now. But I would think that detailed understanding helps you in many different ways.

Emi Cardarelli  9:29  
As we say very much in our area of Northwest Arkansas, retail is detail, right? And learning who your shopper and who your consumer is. I also like to say once you work in retail shopping is never the same. You walk the aisles and you have a very different point of view. Sometimes I'll walk the aisle with friends and family and start pinpointing things, they're like "What are you talking about? Like why are you even looking at this." And I'm like, "Oh, well, you know, the adjacencies," and they think I'm speaking a different language. But it's very important to understand who your shopper is. I think on occasion in our area, we sometimes get blindsided because we do live in a bit of a bubble in Northwest Arkansas and don't realize that the consumer or the Walmart shopper, the shopper in general in Northwest Arkansas is very different than the one across the country and across the globe. So it's also very important to get out into other markets and watch and see what people are doing and how they're shopping, what the family makeup is, there's so much that you can learn just by watching how people shop. Kind of like so much you can learn about people in the airport, just watching them. It's one of my favorite things to do, especially with all the delays we've had recently with travel. But you can learn a lot from that.

Matt Waller  10:33  
So when you went to Costa Rica to open the global sourcing from Costa Rica, obviously, there were lots of cultural things you had to learn. But I would imagine, too, regulatory, legal, even business, I mean, you were setting up something new, which was very different than you had done up to that point.

Emi Cardarelli  11:01  
It was quite the challenge. There were two of us that went down. And we were pretty much told, you know, here's the Walmart Central America offices, the global food sourcing division is a separate entity. And this is what you're going to set up and they gave us a little space. And they said this is your space. So go hire a team and make it look like an office. And we're like, all right, where do we start? The objective was to really understand and work on expanding the network of farmers in Central America, that supplied produce to Walmart in the US and around the world. So I'd never done anything in agriculture. And I spent a lot of time boots on the ground in the fields working with pineapple suppliers, banana suppliers, melon suppliers, mango suppliers and just working through contracts and negotiations on shipping container loads after container loads of all this produce to the US and there were a lot of factors that I had never taken into account never knew was even a thing you know, from the desk I was sitting in when I was here in Northwest Arkansas. And you're here in Northwest Arkansas on the home of Walmart and suppliers are, you know, chomping at the bit to try to sell their product to you. And the cards were completely flipped on me in Costa Rica. I had to go sell Walmart to the small farmers who had no idea who Walmart was, and pretty much say, "Hey, we'd love to buy product from you. These are all of our stipulations you have to go through all these factory audits, it is going to be an initial investment for some small farmers. But trust me, it's going to be worth it." And they didn't know me from Adam. So it was really selling this concept to them, which has now become a huge business. We have an established office in Central America, Global Food Sourcing at Walmart opened. We like I'm still there, I've moved. At that time we had an established office, but they have offices all around the world that does that and focuses on whatever the agricultural product or the forte economically of that geography is in order to find the most efficiencies. Remember one of the big wins when I left there was as a team, I believe, and I may get my stats incorrect. But when we got there, it used to take 15 to 17 days to get a banana from farm or from field to the store. I think they've narrowed that time down today to three to five days from farmer to store, which is amazing.

Matt Waller  13:22  
Yeah, I'm sure there's a lot less waste as a result of that. 

Emi Cardarelli  13:26  
Yes. The one thing you did not want to deal with and you couldn't control was Mother Nature not being happy around back to school time because not having those containers of bananas when kids are ready to go back to school was not a good thing.

Matt Waller  13:39  
That's great. Well, just thinking within the first few years of working at Walmart, you had experience in the store, experience globally, experience as a Senior Merchandise Manager for Hispanic Formats. Would you mind speaking to that a little bit? 

Emi Cardarelli  13:58  
Yeah, that was a bit of the initiative that we did with the Supermercado store. And it was a great opportunity to leverage my Mexican background in the fact that I spoke Spanish because we worked closely with our counterparts in Mexico to understand what the layout and the right assortment was and what the top items were in Mexico and figured out how we could replicate that to have that same assortment in the US for that Hispanic consumer. So it was super valuable to have you know, not only to be able to communicate that Spanish is the I'm not gonna say my second language I grew up speaking both. But it was very helpful to have that extra extra language handy to be able to execute the job.

Matt Waller  14:40  
And then you went into Consumables for health and wellness. That was the big change from farmers in the field.

Emi Cardarelli  14:48  
It was a very big change. I kind of say I went behind the scenes with consumables and health and wellness at Walmart. It was all your health your beauty, your pets, your paper goods, your chemicals, your optical And I worked with a lot of our private brand suppliers to understand where Walmart at that time could unlock savings with upstream sourcing. It was really going to the source and figuring out how much we could cut out in the supply chain to make it not only more cost efficient, but time efficient as well, I had the opportunity to do several trips to Asia, straight to the factories where a lot of the different brands are manufactured and learn that whole process. In health and wellness, I went to the source of the over the counter pharmaceuticals, I learned how to pronounce a lot of the products that we all have in a medicine cabinet that we can't pronounce their active ingredients. And I'm okay not having to try to learn another language right now such, such as that. And then it moved into there was a bit of a restructure, and it moved into private brands where I was responsible for paper goods and chemicals, at Walmart.

Matt Waller  15:52  
All of those categories are very different from one another. And you spent 13 years really learning lots of different and new types of things. Was it enjoyable? Or did it feel like a whirlwind?

Emi Cardarelli  16:06  
I'd say it was always a challenge. And I'm up for any challenge. It's kind of what drives me as to say, alright, what's the next challenge? And how can I exceed at that challenge and unlock and open more opportunities? The challenge is what I thrive on the most.

Matt Waller  16:22  
So then you went from working for the company that buys more than anyone else in the world to one of the largest and most well recognized consumer products companies in the world, Unilever. And during your time at Unilever, you've been, correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe you've been focused on Walmart. Is that right?

Emi Cardarelli  16:44  
In the first year I was on Walmart. So I've had responsibility the past few years for Costco, Sam's Club, and BJs, all wholesale retailers.

Matt Waller  16:52  
So that's a big change too. Going from the traditional retail format to club and wholesale. Talk a little about that change.

Emi Cardarelli  17:01  
I'll speak to the transition and the why of the transition a little bit more if that's all right, Matt, because I know a lot of times in the area we're in, folks leave Walmart to go to the supplier side and vice versa. Folks on the supplier side go into Walmart. I left Walmart, I'd say with a very good taste in my mouth. But the reason I left Walmart was because I went through a life change. I got married, and I had a child and my son was one year old. And I needed to slow down a bit. And I acknowledged that I needed to slow down a bit. It was a tough decision. It was actually a decision I sat on for almost two years until I decided alright, I'm going to do this because Walmart was what I knew. The people that I had met at the University of Arkansas, the Walton College then my master's degree and at Walmart, through the 13 years I were there, they were my family in Northwest Arkansas. I moved here by myself. So it was kind of hard to say, all right, am I going to leave the only thing that I know here? But I knew that it was time to do something a little bit different. And I needed a little bit more flexibility, that at that time was not as popular at Walmart, as it was within the supplier community. Just a bit more of the I cringe a bit at saying work-life balance, because it really is work-life integration. And if any of us learned anything through the pandemic, was how to integrate both of those things, because we pretty much brought our families into our everyday work over Teams and over Zoom. But I started searching for different roles I had, you know, my top five companies that I'd want to work for, because they all held and hold values that I share as a family and as a person that's, you know, the first thing I was looking for, and I came across a role at Unilever that was Walmart International and Sustainability Director. And I figured, well, you know, the Walmart international part, I think I have that down having spent three years abroad and been at the company for 13 years, I felt I checked that box. And the sustainability part, I was, you know, familiar internally at Walmart with what their sustainability goals were. And at that time, you know, another name will, will will pop up that popped up at the beginning of my career was Laura Phillips, and she was leading up sustainability at Walmart at the time, I had a great conversation with her. And I knew that it was an area that I could leverage and really identify where both companies, Walmart and Unilever, could partner on at the sustainability front. So I took a leap of faith and I reached out to someone I knew at Unilever and I said, "Hey, I need your team leads name and number." It's not what you know, but who you know sometimes, and they're like, "Well, why do you want it?" And I was like, "Well, because I'm interested in a role and I want to talk to them." They were like, "Oh, yeah, well, you and eight other people." I was like, "Well, I don't care about the eight other people. I want to know who it is. Let we talk to 'em." So I got in touch with Jim Breach who used to lead the Walmart team here. And I had a fantastic conversation with Jim Breach. And that led to I think it was close to an eight week interview process with several different interviews in between at Unilever and knowing the small community, we're in here trying to keep that on the down low. It was an everyday challenge. But needless to say, I ended up receiving the job offer and, and came to Unilever. And one of the big things not that I was really attracted to about Unilever, and through my interview process, a lot of people don't talk about this. But you have the cliche subjects to not bring up or to not talk about during interviews. And I was very forthcoming with Jim and I told him, I said, "Jim," I said, "The only thing is, I want to make sure you're aware." I said, "I have a one year old." I said, "I understand this is an international role. And traveling isn't a problem." I said, "But if I'm away three or more nights, my husband and my son come with me." I said, "I'll take care of their travel expenses, but they come with me, because that's how I bring my best self to work. They are my why. That's how I bring my best thing to work." And he didn't blink. And when that was the reaction that I saw, I knew it was the place I wanted to work. It was a place that really cared about their people. And it was a place I wanted to work. And that's what launched my career here at Unilever. 

Matt Waller  21:11  
What a great story. 

Emi Cardarelli  21:13  
It really is a people first company. Well, I mean, we have to deliver the results, of course, but part of one of the questions you asked me Matt, and that we're probably going to chat about a little bit is, what kind of a leader I am. And I'd say I'm a, I'm a people leader. And if your people are in the best place that they can be, then the results will come with that.

Matt Waller  21:31  
That is so true isn't it? Business is all about people, we do so much analytics, we do so much strategizing, and communicating, but really, everything boils down to people.

Emi Cardarelli  21:46  
It really does. It really does. How you treat your people how your people feel. If they're in a good spot, and they feel supported, and they feel like you've got their back, they'll bend over backwards for you.

Matt Waller  21:57  
Wow, that's great to hear. In addition to your philosophy on that, you now have a decent amount of experience in key account sales. If a student is interested in someday being in key account sales, what kind of capabilities and strengths should they be building now?

Emi Cardarelli  22:19  
That's a fantastic question, Matt. I'd say if you're not good at numbers, it's probably not the area for you. So you need to make sure that you're good with numbers and that you're comfortable with them. And then once you decide that's what you want to get into, I mean, first of course know which company you want to work for. And identify, and some people are like, "Well, where do I start?" Well understand what the products are, understand what the brands are, understand what the company's values are. Because every company is different. Just like as humans, we're all different. And you want to find that best match. Understand who the leaders are, and what their purpose and what their values are. Because that's going to say a lot about the environment you work in. But you know, as far as success and key account sales, I think it boils down to three things, know your product, your numbers, know your customer, who you're calling on who the retailer is, but most importantly know your consumer, we spoke a little bit about the shopper earlier and watching shopper habits. I think that's extremely important so that you can know how to tackle the day to day business. It's also very important just as qualities is to be flexible, be adaptable, and really be willing to take risk. And know, and my team hears me say this endlessly, is that the only thing constant is change. At Unilever right now, we just finalized a very lengthy global restructure which took into effect two weeks ago, July 1st, we've, you know, been talking about a change and adapting to change and rolling with the punches. And it's okay to be upset about certain changes, but figure out how you're going to tackle them and how you're going to move forward with it. And that's all part of the flexibility and the adaptability. Lastly, a really important thing I'd say is build your network. Build your network and work at it professionally, personally and in your community. Matt, you know, I've been a member of your advisory council for over 15 years. It's something I'm very passionate about. Find your passions. Oh, I wouldn't think twice about that one. Find your passions for it. I serve on the board of the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, it's something I'm very passionate about. And when you find those passions in that purpose, it just makes everything else kind of flow a little bit easier. And also another very important point is mentoring, whether it's through your professors, whether through people you meet when your professors bring guest speakers in or people you listen to on these type of podcasts. In the world that we live in today, you can find anyone on LinkedIn. Right? It's not that hard to I'd say to stock folks  online, you can find what they are, find the things that you have in common, make sure that there can be an exchange that it's not just something unilateral that you're looking to benefit from, but something that the other person you're reaching out to could benefit from as well. But I'd say those are the, maybe the top five things, I'd say it would make you successful not only in key account sales, but in several roles within the CPG or retail world.

Matt Waller  22:31  
In business in general. First of all, congratulations on your amazing accomplishments in your career. And I do thank you for serving the college by serving on my board for 15 years. That's very generous of you. And thank you for taking time to visit with me today. Really appreciate it.

Emi Cardarelli  25:43  
It's been a pleasure. I enjoy giving back to to the university and to the community and you know, any opportunity I get to spend time with you or with your faculty and the staff and the students at the university. I'm more than happy to.

Matt Waller  25:56  
On behalf of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. I want to thank everyone for spending time with us for another engaging conversation. You can subscribe by going to your favorite podcast service and searching Be Epic. B-E-E-P-I-C.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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