Building Relationships

Supplier Hall of Famer Brent Cotten spends every day giving 110 percent.

For more than 30 years, Brent Cotten’s career has advanced with The Hershey Co., taking him from a sales representative to the vice president of customer and industry affairs. He credits one of the keys to his advancement as something he heard many years ago.

Someone told me, ‘Wake up every day thinking today is your Super Bowl,’ because you have to give your best every day,” said the newest Convenience Store News supplier Hall of Famer. It’s also important to be open to learning from others instead of thinking you have all the answers. Be willing to learn, but wake up every day and make sure you are giving 110 percent.”

In his current role, Cotten is on the road for more than 40 weeks each year, traveling the United States to represent Hershey at trade association events and meetings, as well as customer events to build and nurture relationships. His days consist of face-to-face interactions with retailers and the Hershey sales team, and he is often involved in customer meetings at various events.

"We will have 45-minute customer sessions at a lot of trade association events, and I’m there working to understand what their business needs are and interacting with them,” he explained. We recently went to a show for the Convenience Distribution Association and had between 48 and 52 customer meetings.”

For the past nine years, Cotten has worked to continuously help Hershey establish and build relationships with industry leaders and retailers. He took over the role from fellow CSNews Hall of Famer Tom Joyce, who created it when he was at the company.

I’ve always believed relationships with our customers were very important because people do business with people they know and trust, and I’ve always had the ability to build relationships with customers,” Cotten said, noting that running national accounts for the convenience channel over the years introduced him to the importance of relationships within the industry.

A C-store Veteran

Cottens career at Hershey started after graduating from Middle Tennessee State University with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in marketing. He was introduced to the candy company by a food broker in the grocery industry, whom he worked for during college doing merchandising, displays and promotional activities.

I started as a sales representative in the grocery industry at Hershey in February 1992 with a territory outside of Nashville, Tenn., doing display resets and merchandising,” he recalled.

He was promoted to district account supervisor in Knoxville, Tenn., and then to Knoxville district manager. He also held several leadership positions introducing him to the c-store market, including Atlanta convenience district manager, Southeast customer sales executive for convenience and Southeast area sales manager.

In June 2006, he became the director of national accounts for convenience, a role where he was responsible for the sales of U.S. strategic c-store customers.

I love the collaboration the c-store industry has with one another,” Cotten said. It’s one of the few industries where you will see retailers — even competitors — really pulling for each other and wanting one another to succeed. You will see people who are fierce competitors in the room together working on issues to help the industry as a whole.” 

To help advance the industry, he completed a term as chairman of the NACS Supplier Board in October, and now moves into the role of past chairman for the next four years.

This has been the first year we are back to our meetings post-COVID. The two chairmen before me had that part of the role disrupted, but this year we had our meetings, and it’s been great to get the supplier board back together and have that interaction and meetings with retailers,” he said.

Cotten is also very active in the confectionery industry, and represents Hershey on a number of boards, including the National Confectionery Sales Association, where he is the chairman of its State of the Industry Committee; the Convenience Distribution Association; FMI Foundation; and NACDS Retail Advisory Board.

Doing the Right Thing

Cotten is no stranger to awards and accolades. He was elected the 2007 Southern Association of Wholesale Distributors’ Candy Representative of the Year, and inducted into the National Confectionery Sales Association’s Hall of Fame in 2019 — which is the candy industry’s highest honor. It’s also the achievement he is most proud of in his career thus far.

Being elected into the Candy Hall of Fame was a big achievement in my career and represents the entire confection category,” Cotten explained. That is something I have always dreamed about accomplishing in my career. And I’m also proud of the Convenience Store News Hall of Fame award, too. Working in the c-store industry for so long, and seeing my peers be recognized, it’s right at the top of the list as well.” 

His two mentors, Hershey executives Joyce and Dave Onorato, were both inducted into the CSNews Supplier Hall of Fame. According to Cotten, one of the best pieces of advice he ever received during his career came from Onorato.

He told me, ‘Don’t let your highs be too high or your lows be too low,’ and I’ve always quoted him on that,” he said. I’ve also always lived by ‘do the right thing no matter who is watching,’ because you will never get in trouble by doing the right thing.”

Over the years, he’s seen a lot of changes. For instance, the candy industry has become much more complex, but there is much more data to help in today’s world, he noted.

There is so much data now that we didn’t have when I first started, and there are so many more companies, competitors and consolidations as well,” he said, adding that the teams he is part of today are reflective of the changes taking place. Working with those teams and the sales leaders in his organization is one of his favorite parts of his current role.

He also loves interacting with all the convenience retailers in the industry — and especially building relationships with people he would now consider lifelong friends.”

I look out and see the young talent coming up not only in our organization, but also in the convenience store industry, and the diversity of talent is exciting because I know the industry and our candy category is in great hands,” he said.