Oatly ushers in new chief customer officer

A beverage veteran, Christopher Link is bringing his experience to oat milk giant Oatly in a newly created role. The executive took over the role of chief customer officer last month.

Before his appointment, Link had stints as a board member of East Coast Kombucha Company and was an adivising partner at Ford’s Garage. He was executive vice president and head of retail sales and operations at BlueTriton Brands since April 2021 and before that, spent over two decades at Nestle Waters, where he wore many hats including executive vice president of customer development & sales operations, vice president of retail sales, among others. 

“I was privileged to have a career in the food and beverage industry that made a significant impact on consumers’ health for over 25 years, now I am thrilled to be able to make a similar impact with the highest quality plant-based milk,” said Link in an exclusive statement sent to Food Dive.

Oatly’s chief customer officer is a newly created role for the U.S. team. Link will be responsible for the oversight and collaborative partnering with U.S. retail customers, along with driving growth in the plant-based dairy alternatives category. 

“My first focus will be on deeply connecting with all our functional teams internally at Oatly to build highly transparent and collaborative relationships, so we can do our best work together in delivering the company’s mission,” said Link on what his focus will be in his new role. 

“Externally, it’s essential that we have strategic alignment with our retail customers and a shared vision of delivering joint value in the best of plant-based dairy alternatives.”

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Meeting the moment

Over the course of the last year, Oatly has been taking measures to cut its costs. The oat milk maker slashed SKUs in Asia by 70% earlier this year, as well as halted plans for factories in the Americas and Europe, Middle East and Africa markets, all in a bid to get a handle on its declining bottom line.

During its last earnings report, the business decisions seemed to be paying off. Its Americas segment was up 2% year over year last quarter, and the company controls more than 25% of the chilled oat milk category in the market, according to its Q4 2023 earnings presentation

Now leading the company’s retail strategy going forward, Link said Oatly needs to be aligned with its consumers. 

“The 70-year decline in dairy consumption in the U.S. will not likely reverse anytime soon. As consumer purchasing power grows, particularly with Gen Z and Millennials, plant-based milk preferences driven by health and environmental impact will continue to transition more mainstream,” said Link.

We are amid a generational shift away from dairy that must be thoughtfully understood and managed to derive the most value. Oatly, as the original, and largest global producer of oat-based, non-dairy alternatives, is uniquely positioned to drive value through our core chilled oatmilks, but also unlock further opportunity with the large ambient segment, and drive true, incremental value from exciting innovations.” 

In 2021, dairy milk consumption in the U.S. hit an all time low of 16 gallons per person, down from 29 gallons in 1975. 

The dairy industry decline is especially prevalent among Gen Z consumers, who purchased 20% less milk than the national average in 2022.

Dairy companies have retaliated by urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prohibit companies from labeling products as “milk” if it doesn’t come from a lactating animal. The FDA deemed plant-based milk makers can still use the word, but must clarify its nutritional differences from cow’s milk. 

Since the rise of plant-based milks, Oatly has faced challenges with its supply chain. 

In 2021, oat crops in Canada and the U.S. experienced major droughts and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine furthered the shortage in 2022. That year, the company warned its consumers of price increases.

Then in February, the plant-based milk producer begun increasing prices to offset higher costs for raw materials worldwide, among other cost cutting measures.

“Oatly has done a tremendous amount of work to ensure reliability of our supply chain,” said Link. “With this work well behind us, it is critical now that we drive ubiquity and availability of our products that continue to see great demand,” he said, adding that securing more retail partnerships t o drive consumer trials is a high priority. 

“We will continue to be an advocate for all plant-based dairy alternatives and launch creative and impactful consumer communication that will drive excitement, traffic, and trial for the entire category.”

This article was originally published here.