Like most food industry employees, Mike Stigers typically works 12-hour days—a routine that went into overdrive during the Covid-19 pandemic. A 46-year veteran of the food industry, Mike became CEO of Cub Foods/UNFI two years ago. Headquartered just outside of Minneapolis, Cub Foods was literally at Ground Zero during the George Floyd protests. One of their stores was so severely damaged during this period of unrest that it had to be closed, leaving residents with nowhere to go for food.
During this time, Mike was also enrolled in the first cohort of USC Marshall’s Master of Science, Food Industry Leadership (MS.FIL) program. He wasted no time in tapping into the Trojan Family. Mike and his first cohort teammates applied their learning in real-time to address the wicked problem of “food deserts” in downtown Minneapolis. A temporary Cub store was opened within weeks, providing neighbors with much-needed food and supplies and setting the standard for other supermarket chains to follow suit.
“It’s just absolutely amazing. I’d go to class on Thursday night and use the material I learned on Friday morning,” says Mike. “It gave me that competitive edge when I was speaking to my colleagues or the Chairman of my company.” A proponent of life-long learning, Mike originally considered taking a general MBA program but quickly changed his mind when he found the specialized MS.FIL program. “I looked at the curriculum, and it was very well balanced between academic rigor and practical application.”
Mike says one of the things he most appreciated about the program was that “it gave us students the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and to understand our decision process. But, more importantly, it gave me the opportunity to understand other people’s decision processes.”
As part of the Baby Boomer generation, Mike appreciated the opportunity to study side-by-side with Gen-X and Millennials from different backgrounds and experiences. “You know, we have a very diverse workforce in the food industry,” says Mike. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion aren’t just catch phrases. Those are really, serious issues. We need to be a very open society, and the way to do that is to be educated about what diversity truly is and how different people think and react.”
The MS Food Industry Leadership program graduated its first cohort in December 2020. “It was such a feeling of accomplishment,” says Mike. “You say to yourself, ‘How did I do that?’ But you did it, and my advice to anybody who is considering going back to school is: Go! Start today! Stop debating, stop discussing. Before you know it, you’re a graduate and you have a master’s degree.”
Mike still keeps in touch regularly with his cohort whom he refers to as his “extended family.” Their team has been asked to present their research on food deserts to other food chains. In addition, Mike has been named the new Executive on Campus for the Food Industry Programs and will be achieving a life-long goal of teaching others at USC this spring.
As one of the food industry’s strongest education advocates, Mike sends two to four executives to each of the programs at USC every year and taps into the vast faculty network to bring monthly leadership courses to his store and office leaders in Minneapolis. He is also an important supporter of the community college programs available in the industry through the Western Association of Food Chains (WAFC).
Mike spends most of his spare time with his wife, Renee, in Minnesota and with his adult children in Northern California. He is also active in the California Rangers, an equestrian group that he has belonged to for over 50 years.
Cub Foods recently reopened a permanent supermarket where the temporary store once stood—a “bittersweet” moment for Mike who remembers the hard work and determination of his CUB team and neighboring not-for-profit community groups who banded together to get supplies to people in an impossible time frame. “I’m very proud of the food industry in the United States,” says Mike. “All of us who are in it, we work hard and are there for long hours. There are always things to do. You are never finished. And we are second to none.”