How I Got Here: Mary Gertz

Jun 7, 2024 9:30 AM ET
Mary Gertz headshot

In the #HowIGotHere series, you’ll read about the career paths of some of the world-renowned leaders at Yum! Brands. Learn more about Mary Gertz, Chief Food Safety & Quality Assurance Officer at Yum! Brands in this installment.


  • Somerset Senior High School
    Somerset, Wisconsin, United States
    (1990– 1994)
  • University of Wisconsin – River Falls
    River Falls, Wisconsin, United States
    Bachelor of Science, Food Science & Microbiology
    (1994 – 1998)

If we were to interview your teachers, what would they say about you?

Mary was very determined and hard-working but talked a little too much!

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a lawyer and envisioned myself as a star of Law & Order, presenting my winning argument in a courtroom. I wanted to simultaneously solve problems and win.


First Job: My cousin got me a job at a Mexican restaurant where I worked for seven years through high school and college. I started as a hostess and would walk too fast and lose customers on the way to their table. Then, I waitressed and eventually earned the coveted position of bartender on half-price margarita night. I was Margarita Mary! I don’t drink, but I can still make a mean margarita.

  • 3M Microbiology Products, St. Paul, Minnesota, United States
    1998 – 1999: Lab Technician
  • NSF International, St. Paul, Minnesota, United States
    1999 – 2002: Technical Manager, Food Safety Lab, FreshCheck
  • NSF International, Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States
    2006 – 2008: Technical Manager, Retail Food Safety Programs
  • Target Corporation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States
    2008 – 2009: Program Lead, Food Safety & Quality Assurance
    2009 – 2010: Manager, Retail Food Safety & Quality Assurance Standards
    2010 – 2014: Senior Group Manager, Food Operations
  • KFC U.S., Louisville, Kentucky, United States
    2014 – 2018: Director, Food Safety & Quality Assurance
  • Yum! Brands, Plano, Texas, United States
    2018 – 2020: Senior Director, Food Safety & Quality Assurance
    2020 – present: Chief Food Safety & Quality Assurance Officer

Do you believe in work/life balance?

I believe it’s more of a sliding scale throughout your career. There were times when I was building my career that things were out of balance, and the scale tipped towards work. The most difficult time is when you’re building your family and your career at the same time. I was a single mom for 10 years and had very little time to think about balance. However, I think it’s been important for my daughters to see the work it takes to build a career and support a family. As I’ve matured in my career, I’ve been able to be much more disciplined in protecting time for myself and my family.

One thing I tell people early on is decide your non-negotiables and hold to them. For example, I never miss a birthday, anniversary or first day of school…EVER. I block out my calendar a year in advance to ensure I’m there. For myself, fitness has been an important part of balance that I schedule into my day even when I’m traveling. Getting a daily workout helps me feel stronger, mentally clear and positive. It is often the unlock I need when struggling with a particularly challenging issue. As a leader, it is crucial that I set an example for my team that encourages balance and overall wellbeing.

What moments, or who, in your life influenced the way you work?

My Father: He was never afraid to take chances and bet on himself, his ability and his willingness to work hard. With six children, he quit his job and started his own business that is still operating over 45 years and six additional children later. He was an incredible communicator and understood the value of relationships and personal and business integrity. He was also a lifelong learner. He was always reading, studying and mastering new skills.

Learning from Failures: Because there were 12 children in my family, my parents allowed us to fail small as a means of learning. Whenever I made a mistake, like getting my first speeding ticket, I was never berated. My dad would famously say, “I bet you won’t do that again.” From as young as 8 years old, I was given autonomy in tasks like cooking. Once, armed with a chocolate chip cookie recipe and kitchen tools, my first attempt wasn't perfect. My mom helped me walk through what had gone wrong and how to fix it. After that first time, I didn’t fear the failure and realized it was making me better. This upbringing taught me to embrace failure as a crucial part of growth, building confidence through learning the hard way.

What do people think you do versus what you actually do?

When my daughters were young and I was traveling frequently, people thought I was a flight attendant as they were told, “My mom is gone working on an airplane.” As teenagers, they were convinced I taste-tested food all day and got to eat all the “good stuff.”

My career has always been in food safety, which involves working with great brands to develop and implement strategies around the handling, preparation and storage of food to prevent foodborne illness. In truth, most people have never even heard of food science and don’t often think about how their food is developed, manufactured or kept safe. There’s a lot of opportunity to market food science as an incredible discipline that leads to great careers. People will always eat, and that food will always need to be safe.

What is the best piece of advice that you've been given?

Make a decision and then make it work. Don’t look back; that’s not the direction you’re going.


I used to be driven by solving problems or personal accomplishments. Today, it’s in watching others achieve their breakthroughs, whether it’s my daughters or my team at work.

Most recently, seeing my oldest daughter’s personal growth from her semester abroad has my heart overflowing. I love that she has expanded her view of the world. She’s gained confidence, empathy and great problem-solving skills by being 5,000 miles away from her mom.


To be happy or successful at any point in your career, you must not only have passion for what you do but a sincere belief in the importance of the work you are doing. Working hard for something you believe contributes to people’s lives in a positive way makes it much easier when you need to sacrifice or ask your family to sacrifice. There is no room for mediocrity in work that matters to people’s well-being.