An Independent Voice: Never stop learning

Walking the aisles and listening to customers, suppliers and co-workers provides a real education.

By Jane Olszeski Tortola

One of the most powerful lessons ever learned during my days as a supermarket owner was to never stop being a student of the industry.

So what if I had earned my four-year degree from Ohio State and was the boss’ energetic daughter who was ready to prove myself to the world? In retrospect, that just got my foot into the door.

Little did I realize at the time I officially joined the family business that some of my most important lessons were never elaborated upon in those expensive text books or in the great lecture halls of my Big Ten university.
The real learning came a day at a time by walking the aisles of our five stores, listening twice as much as I talked and building relationships with customers, suppliers, and, most importantly, our 700-plus full- and part-time associates.

Allow me to share just a few good of those lessons and practices that, as I can attest, helped me to enjoy success, earn respect and gain appreciation for the business.

What’s in a name? Your last name means very little. Your actions mean everything. Don’t expect your associates to perform any tasks that you aren’t willing to perform yourself.  If the front lobby is trashed, grab a broom and invite one of your associates to join you in cleaning the place up. The same goes for the public restrooms, the employee break room or the trash receptacles on the sidewalks.  You get the picture, I’m sure.

People are watching you. Dress appropriately for your job and park you car in the employee parking area and walk as far as your associates do to enter the store. Greet your associates when you enter the building with a smile, handshake or a “good morning everyone!”

Be fiscally responsible. Join your associates and customers at the deli or restaurant area of the store and pay for your lunch. Better yet, on occasion, offer to pay for the lunch of the person standing next to you in line and express your appreciation for their contributions to the organization.

As an owner, you don’t have the right to abuse an expense account. When your kids’ or spouses’ cars need a fill-up or oil change, the store has no responsibility to pay for it.  And by the way, when you grocery shop for your family—which had better be at your own store—enter the checkout line just like everyone else. Use coupons, buy sale items and let everyone know that you believe that your store is the best place to work, shop and find value.

Yes, there may be times when you want to borrow a few bucks from the family business, and that’s OK. But be careful to follow the procedures outlined by senior management on these occasions and pay back the money when you are scheduled to do so. If you practice placing “IOUs” in the cash office safe or vault, you are indirectly telling others that they may do the same.

Unless you are the sole owner of the store, donations provided by the company must be approved by all family members or a designated manager. Consider establishing a set budget for company donations and within that budget allow a specific and equal amount of money (for example, $1,000 per year) for each family member to donate to causes of his or her choice. All other donations should be agreed upon by the entire family.

Lastly, and most importantly, if you are lucky enough to own shares of stock in your family business, know that ownership is to be at all times guarded and protected. Think about it. Would you want your brother or sister or perhaps your cousin or uncle who shares ownership with you to pledge the value of his or her stock toward a personal venture outside of the family business or to sell it to another individual? This is one rule that can never be broken and an ultimate test of loyalty to the family business.

Coming next month in Grocery Headquarters’ Independent Voice: Part II of Lessons for Success In The Family Owned Supermarket.

Jane Olszeski Tortola is a freelance writer who devoted over three decades of her career to working in a family owned supermarket company founded by her late father.  She is a graduate of The Ohio State University and is active in a number of food industry organizations. She can be reached at

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