THOMASVILLE, GA — There’s an innate entrepreneurialism a person must possess before jumping into a newly defined role. A move like that also requires courage, ambition and, above all, trust. As the first-ever chief innovation officer for Thomasville, GA-based Flowers Foods, Penny Patterson-Smith has it all.

With extensive work in innovation and brand management, Patterson-Smith’s experiences are like the stones that paved the path toward this opportunity. Prior to pioneering innovation as a job title at Flowers, Patterson-Smith was the company’s senior VP of cake brands, following a long career in chocolate innovation at The Hershey Co. and brand work at major CPG companies including Nabisco and Colgate-Palmolive.

With an undergraduate degree in government and economics and an MBA in business and policy studies, Patterson-Smith might not have predicted her trajectory. Then again, her solutions-oriented mindset and aptitude for leaning into the unexpected naturally led her down this road.

“When I started my career journey, I thought it would be a straight line, from A to B,” she recalled. “I quickly realized that there’s so much more to learn. There’s a need for people with specific skills and strength areas, but we also need people who have a general perspective that can guide an organization forward or ‘pinch hit’ in different roles. The reality is that you have to say ‘yes’ to make things happen, and I’m not afraid of a good challenge.”

Along that journey, Patterson-Smith identified certain guiding principles that would weave themselves throughout her branding and innovation experience.


“There have been three underlying tenets that have guided me as I’ve built my career,” Patterson-Smith said. “Being consumer-grounded; being a naturally curious, lifelong learner; and believing in the benefit of continuous improvement.”

These principles did not just guide her career; they also made her keenly aware of the consumer voice.

As her brand management experience parlayed into innovation leadership, Patterson-Smith grew to understand how the two concepts must work together for both to benefit any organization.

“When I think about brand and innovation roles — and the requirements for those jobs — the skill sets needed are similar,” she said. “But they’re also different because you either need to flex different muscles or use the same ones in different ways.”

From her current vantage point, Patterson-Smith sees the importance of mutual appreciation and respect from both sides. When that happens, branding and innovation can identify and drive long-term goals while keeping the organization united in its direction. She knows this isn’t a chicken-or-egg situation. It doesn’t really matter which comes first; success in the marketplace happens only when a brand is intrinsically intertwined with innovation.

In a company with a portfolio as extensive as Flowers’, innovation becomes a function that is simultaneously connected to and independent from the brands, while contributing to the company’s overarching objectives. That’s a complicated matrix to navigate, but it’s what excites Patterson-Smith the most.

“At the end of the day, innovation must support what the consumer wants and what the business needs,” she said. “That’s what keeps it interesting.”

“The reality is that you have to say ‘yes’ to make things happen, and I’m not afraid of a good challenge.” — Penny Patterson-Smith | chief innovation officer | Flowers Foods


It’s not only the leader who needs to have courage, open-mindedness and trust for a newly defined role. The same must be true for the organization as well. For Patterson-Smith, Flowers has it in spades.

“Having the organizational support and the mandate to stand up this function — with a really strong team in place — has made this transition a smooth one,” Patterson-Smith said. “Innovation is something that I’m very passionate about, and I’m excited to expand this learning throughout Flowers so that more of us can build those muscles.”

It’s never easy building something from the ground up. One of the initial challenges was simply defining innovation. After all, it’s a nebulous — and quite subjective — term. For Flowers, Patterson-Smith said, defining it meant injecting it into nearly every facet of the company, including product development, packaging, technology, processes and even partner relationships.

How the company seeds innovation also impacts how it collects and analyzes information. It can be a moving target, but it’s paramount to Patterson-Smith.


“Even the tools we’re using are evolving,” she said. “They allow us to collect insight, develop ideas and facilitate product feedback more efficiently and with greater speed.”

For her, this is where the fun begins.

Innovation is more complex than tracking trends; Patterson-Smith is focused on anticipating meaningful trends to ensure innovation is a reliable growth lever for the company. This requires looking further out than what’s required for her colleagues on the brand side. Anticipating early allows her to identify trends and avoid fads while helping lead the market through thoughtful solutions. In some cases, that also enables her to identify opportunities in tangential markets across the entire portfolio.

This story has been adapted from the February | Q1 2024 issue of Commercial Baking. Read the full story in the digital edition here.