Karen Colberg

CEO, King Arthur Baking Company

As a leader, I want people to feel like they can take risks and make mistakes as well.

By Adam Sylvain

As she reflects on her leadership journey, King Arthur Baking Company CEO Karen Colberg T’91 can identify several key inflection points.

One of them occurred early in her career at the American retailer GAP. After graduating from Tuck, Colberg networked tirelessly for a financial planning and analysis role at the company where she was the first MBA hired. The position entailed a lot of top-down planning and budgeting, which Colberg excelled at. But after a couple of years, she was craving a new challenge.

“It was a terrific grounding, but at a certain point, I just felt like I wasn’t being pushed creatively. I knew I wanted to be more involved in strategy and really growing the business,” says Colberg. “And at that time, there didn’t seem to be an obvious role to pivot into.”

“I remember going to my boss and saying, ‘I want to be in merchandising, and I think I need to resign so that I can go and do this,’” recalls Colberg.

While it was a considerable risk to leave a well-paying job, particularly during a period of rapid growth for the company, Colberg’s decision to take a step back and embrace a longer view of her career was rewarded. She was able to stay at GAP, accepting a lateral move to become an assistant merchandise manager for boy’s denim, and went on to lead the men’s international business.

As she continued in her leadership career, Colberg says the experience prepared her well for situations where she can help others break through and land opportunities to grow and expand their impact.

“It really informed the type of leader I want to be,” she says. “I’m so grateful that I worked for someone then who was able to meet me in that moment and respond the way they did. I hope to always be in a position where I can be a mentor and guide for others in a similar situation.”

The second big leap in Colberg’s career came in the early 2000s. After years of working for GAP in San Francisco, she and her husband Erik Colberg T’91 left their jobs and drove across the country to move back to the Upper Valley. It was a family-oriented decision, but again, one that came with risk.

After the move, Colberg quickly identified King Arthur Baking Company (then King Arthur Flour) as the place where she hoped to continue her career. She met with a fellow Tuck alum working at the company, but there were no positions available at the time.

Five years and three children later, she received a phone call.

“It was the head of HR telling me there was a director of merchandising position open. They asked if I would like to interview,” says Colberg, who once more saw her faith rewarded. “Of course, I said yes.”

It was an exciting time to join the company. Just a few years earlier, they had opened the flagship store, bakery, café, and school in Norwich, VT. The bakery and school quickly became integral to the King Arthur brand.

“We’re not a traditional marketing company and never have been,” explains Colberg. “We built the bakery and the school to demonstrate that we are bakers and to build credibility and authenticity in the baking space.”

Upon joining the company, Colberg rose steadily. After a year and a half in the director of merchandising role, she became vice president and general manager of the direct-to-consumer business. In 2013, Colberg was named chief marketing officer and a year later was one of three senior leaders tapped to become co-CEOs of the company. She was appointed sole CEO last May.

Her many accomplishments include overseeing the 2020 rebrand from King Arthur Flour to King Arthur Baking Company, a move designed to better reflect the company’s legacy and the full scope of its products and mission. Colberg also helped the business deftly navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, which strained supply chains and demanded creative ways to engage customers who were unable shop or attend classes in person.

“We saw pretty extreme growth across our business and more activity than ever with our baker’s hotline—we had people calling in from all over the country across different time zones,” says Colberg. “Thankfully, a lot of those bakers who started making sourdough at home during the lockdown are still baking. It’s become a sticky hobby for people.”

Post-pandemic, Colberg says a key priority has been continuing to nurture a culture in which everyone is motivated to show up and do their best work.

“A big part of that CEO transition is realizing you don’t have to do every piece of the job,” she says. “It’s important to understand the scope of the work and the risks involved, but then you have to step back and lead people and help them be their best selves.”

On the Importance of Humility
“Humility is so important. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to ask a lot of questions and I’m willing to listen. I’m also willing to make mistakes and learn from them. As a leader, I want people to feel like they can take risks and make mistakes as well.”

On Building Teams
“Never be afraid to hire people who are smarter or more skilled than you. You want to bring in the most talented people you possibly can. Your team and the entire organization will benefit from the balance of skills and perspectives they bring.”

This story appeared in print in the winter 2024 issue of Tuck Today magazine. 

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