Is the leading edge really the bleeding edge? A lot of major companies would rather be “early adopters” instead of the undisputed champion. They wait until someone else has invested in a new technology before stepping up. They see this as a strategy that’s less expensive, less risky.

Sara Lee knows the secret, though: Be first. Be fast. Be fresh.

This philosophy was blatantly obvious at the official opening of The Kitchens of Sara Lee on Friday, April 17. The 120,000-square-foot research and development campus in Downers Grove, Ill., consolidates all of the company’s North American food and beverage R&D staff in one location, which includes more than 100 chefs, scientists, engineers and packaging designers.

In a short ceremony, CEO Brenda Barnes dedicated the facility to the company’s founder, Charles Lubin. In attendance were town dignitaries, members of the press (myself included) and Lubin’s daughter and company namesake, Sara Lee Schupf.

The company’s strategies in recent years have focused on building successful brands in the bakery, meat and beverage markets. According to Barnes: “Our dedication to innovation, and in turn increasing consumer and customer value, has been an integral part of Sara Lee’s transformation. Now, with The Kitchens of Sara Lee, we are fully equipped to turn consumer insights into products that differentiate us in the marketplace.”

The company’s main objectives are to develop product and packaging innovations and get them to market fast. Collaboration among all departments and rapid prototyping for plastic and paperboard packages in the packaging lab will help them achieve these goals.

Once attained, these accomplishments pay dividends because:

• Leaders get free publicity! Editors love to write articles about really new, really cool stuff. Take advantage of this. Don’t hide your light under a bushel because you don’t want your competitors to know what you’re doing. Once a product is on the shelf, believe me…almost anyone can reverse-engineer just about anything that isn’t protected with trademarks or copyrights. Once articles are published, you have proof that you were first with an innovation. Some editors have even been known to duke it out (ahem, metaphorically speaking, of course) for exclusive rights to a insider’s look at the company’s recent successes. Say, did you know that I’m a former Tae Kwon Do student?

• Leaders become the place for attracting top talent. This success then feeds on itself. Excellence begets excellence.

• Leaders become popular in the speaking circuit for industry events, opening up more networking opportunities and reinforcing your leadership image.

• Leaders are usually rewarded with a healthy operating budget. The more sales dollars you bring in, the more R&D money might be at your disposal.