Growth, Challenges, and Success: Insights from a COO

As COO at HelloFresh DACH, Virginia Strong provides a deep dive into the intricacies of her role. With a diverse background spanning finance, media, and high-growth corporations, Virginia's vast experience positions her uniquely for success within the dynamic landscape of HelloFresh. In this interview, she shares key insights drawn from her past and current roles, offering a comprehensive view of the challenges, triumphs, and strategic nuances that define her day-to-day at HelloFresh. Virginia also sheds light on the milestones she’s proud of, the importance of adapting to industry trends, and the efforts to strengthen HelloFresh’s competitive edge to drive success in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

Can you share a bit about your professional journey and how it led you to your current role? 

My background is quite diverse across different operations and product-focused roles. I started my career in finance and ended up working for a media company. It was interesting because the product was print media so we were trying to take a hundred-year-old business model and figure out how to get our newspapers to as many people as possible. After that, I did my MBA and went to work in different Operations roles for a large, high-growth corporation. So I went from a company in decline, to one in ‘hyper-growth’, and worked on the launch of about 20 different markets in Europe. I then decided to join a start-up where I again saw hypergrowth and got a lot of experience in acquisitions and navigating the complexity of combining different businesses into one.

Ultimately, what’s fortunate about my background is that I worked from start-ups to large corporations, from declining industries to high-growth companies. To me, joining HelloFresh is exciting because I get the opportunity to bring all of these different experiences and knowledge into a really creative, post-COVID environment and hit the ground running. From a customer and product perspective, and also from the operational and cost perspective.

What are your key learnings from these experiences and how do they shape your role at HelloFresh?

Experience has taught me how to take a number and look at it from the big-picture perspective. Thinking outside the box and taking a different approach to address a recurring issue is essential in my current role. One example is a key topic for us recently: error rates. We take the complaints received by our customer service team extremely seriously and our focus has been on making sure we address their legitimate concerns. However, we noticed that many of the complaints we were getting were not reflecting the actual state of what was happening. Our job was now to cut through the noise and identify the true pain points of our customers, to flag and address the root causes of any issues.

At the end of the day, it’s all about being customer-centric. That refers to our end-customers who receive the boxes but also all of ‘my people’: from direct reports to the team on the ground in our distribution centers and even to the HelloFresh leaders higher up. My goal is to support and ensure they are listened to and empowered to do their jobs as best as possible. That said, throughout my career, I’ve learned that the best ideas aren’t coming from senior leadership but rather from the team who are getting our boxes out to customers. What I need to do as a leader is foster an open environment because everyone, no matter their role or seniority, has valuable insights to share – even if it doesn’t concern their area of expertise.

Regarding HelloFresh DACH specifically, what do you think gives it a competitive edge, and how do you plan to strengthen it?

My first question would be: ‘Have you ever ordered one of our boxes?’ [jokingly]. In all seriousness, I believe that anyone who has would understand why we became the market leader we are today. The key is the people who make it all possible. We have an incredible team in DACH that has gone through some tumultuous times during COVID, where we were scaling very quickly and going through some major changes such as launching our own last-mile fleet in certain regions, launching ’The Barn’ – our most automated distribution center yet –, and introducing internal tools that significantly improve the customer experience. With new technology come new processes. You can sit in the office and design a solution, but when you’re on the ground, you encounter unexpected problems and think of the most creative ways to solve them because we all have to get the meal boxes out and make sure no customer is left disappointed.

‘The Barn’ distribution center in Barleben

A great example of these operational advancements is the HelloFresh Marketplace in DACH. Customers can choose from a wide array of add-on products to be included with their boxes, such as fruits, desserts, or even extra bao buns, all thanks to that extra layer of complexity that we were able to add from an operational side. The ability to provide that to our customers, given our supply network in DACH, is a very exciting position to be in.

Is there a specific milestone that you reached that you are really proud of?

There have been a lot of milestones, but one of the things I’m most proud of is launching and expanding our electric vehicles fleet across DACH, such as the electric vehicle delivery partnership Liefergrün in Vienna and our own delivery fleet of electric cargo bikes in Hamburg. With that, we make sure that we are improving the customer experience while minimizing carbon emissions on the last mile and across the whole value chain – from farm to fork.

HelloFresh Box delivered by Liefergrün delivery EV

What’s the best way to adapt to industry trends and market shifts and ensure that we continue to grow?

There are two sides to making that happen. One is following industry standards and how we go about it, and the other is setting the standard. I believe that HelloFresh’s subscription model is at the forefront of creating trends, piloting new offerings, collecting feedback, and reiterating to try to give customers what they want before they even know it. The other side, specific to operations, is about how we can scale and leverage best industry practices to reduce both our carbon footprint and costs to pass that back to the customer and, ultimately, scale fast. One of our main focuses is to invest in automation and engineering, look at best practices worldwide, and how to implement them in different markets.

Do you have any piece of advice for aspiring leaders?

My one piece of leadership advice, as you grow in your career, is to be okay with failing. As a leader, you can’t be perfect at everything and you’re going to learn more from your failures than you will from successes. Of course, you don’t want to fail all the time; however, you’re going to come out much stronger having gone through a few failures. It may sound cheesy, but if you shoot for the stars and you don’t get there, in the worst case you get to see outer space.

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