Talent Search

By Barrie Dawson

Can supermarkets compete with other industries for top executives?

The workday begins before the doors swing open and it often drones on long after they close. Weekends off? They are for other people. Home for the holidays? Just a lyric in someone else’s song.

The best and the brightest of today’s young executives have a number of career options, so how is the retail grocery industry supposed to win them over?

“There are challenges, certainly, but we are able to compete with other industries for the best and brightest young executive talent,” says Brent Ellis, an executive recruiter for Supervalu, based in Eden Prairie, Minn.

“Many smart executive leaders realize that being able to come into a company or industry with challenges, and to be able to impact change and be visible to senior executives, is a great way to build your career,” he says.

Robert R. Higgins, executive director of the Academy of Food Marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, says retailers are trying to combat an image problem.

“The savvy, smart, sophisticated retailers have done a pretty good job in the last number of years at recruiting young men and women for the industry by painting a picture of not necessarily the first year on the job, which could be more arduous and challenging,” he says. “I believe they’ve done a pretty effective job of painting a picture of the next three to five years and the various roles [young executives] can play and how they can progress from maybe an assistant manager of a department to a full department head and eventually store manager and if they were to stay in operations, district or regional manager responsibilities.”

Bob Hermanns, director of food industry programs at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, readily admits that the grocery industry lags behind others in attracting top executive talent. Yet, he is confident it can compete successfully.

“Now it depends on who you’re comparing it to, or if you have a different set of educational criteria like at some of the high-tech companies,” he says. “Then, you’re going to find that the high-tech companies, in general, are higher-paying. But if you’re comparing it to other job opportunities for college graduates, the industry is competitive. And in many cases, for people without a college degree, it’s extremely competitive.”

He says the industry has to improve its communication regarding the wide range of career opportunities that exist in the food industry. “Most people’s impression of a career in the food industry is as a cashier or a clerk in a store or a store manager. What people don’t realize is that there’s accounting, there’s finance, there’s real estate, there’s marketing …”

Adapting to the next generation
Making young executives aware of the many career paths available may be a good first step, but industry experts say grocers must make a greater effort to recruit them.

“They also need to look at what they need to do in the way of job structure to appeal to Gen Y and Millennials who have a different focus on what’s important to them in terms of overall satisfaction,” Hermanns explains. “They have a different focus on what must be a component of their work life for them to be happy, whether that’s social causes or time allowed for them to work on non-job-related activities but things that are important to the community or important to social services at large. That’s a challenge for any employer, especially the food industry.”

Higgins says the more sophisticated retailers trying to meet the challenge in creative ways. “They’ve really changed how they go to market,” he says. “They are now offering schedules that are not necessarily all nights and weekends. They are understanding that young men and women are looking for opportunities to have more of a typical work week.”

They have also taken a look at incentives and bonuses, he says. “When the market’s strong—and it’s starting to pick up again—signing bonuses are part of what might bring a student on board as a permanent employee,” he says.

As educators, Higgins and Hermanns are in the business of preparing students for food-industry careers. Saint Joseph’s, which is celebrating the 50th year of its food marketing curriculum, currently has more than 500 students in its program.

“Ten percent of the GNP (Gross National Product) in this country is tied to food in some fashion or form,” Higgins explains. “During difficult financial periods of time, the food industry has held up perhaps better than some of the more sensitive industries that ebb and flow with economic times. Today, the food-marketing program at Saint Joseph’s University is the largest major in the business school.”

The program at Southern California, which has been in existence for 54 years, provides a curriculum that is dedicated to helping current food-industry employees advance in their careers. Hermanns says more than 1,700 people have passed through the program since it began.

“The retention rate of those who stay in the industry is outstandingly high,” he says. “It’s just one indication of how the industry is looking at the talent in their organizations and further educating them. We find that we have about 35 people each year who attend our program in addition to two four-day executive sessions that we run.”

Degree vs. experience
How important is a college education to a supermarket executive?

“I refer to our industry as one of the last Horatio Alger industries, in that we do promote a lot from within,” says Peter J. Larkin, president and chief executive officer of the National Grocers Association, which represents the smaller, independent grocer.

“I think when our companies are looking to recruit individuals, some of it is getting the right people for the right jobs, getting them in the organization and giving them those opportunities to grow, but other positions require a higher degree of specific knowledge, and then they’re looking more for the community-college, four-year degree graduates.”
What about the top-notch MBA student with all those career options? Can—and should—the retail-grocery industry spend the money to compete for that person?

“There may be positions where that is advantageous and some of our companies may be specifically looking for somebody with that kind of degree or that degree and experience,” Larkin says.“I can tell you that if it was [someone with] experience and knowledge of the grocery business, and they didn’t have the MBA, I think the experience and knowledge would win out in most cases.”

Promoting from within
As the retail grocery business becomes more comprehensive and complex, one can see why the need for college-educated executives might increase. Yet, many grocers continue to thrive with home-grown leaders. One is employee-owned Hy-Vee, which operates more than 230 stores in eight Midwestern states.

“We believe that it perpetuates our culture,” says Sheila Laing, vice president of human resources for the West Des Moines, Iowa-based chain. “We hire as young as 16, and quite frankly, we hire as old as you can go. If I were to look at our 26 vice presidents, all but two of them started either part-time, literally as a high school or college student, or was someone who worked for Hy-Vee in some other capacity and worked their way into an executive role.”

And many of those employees became executives thanks to Hy-Vee University, a three-tiered educational system that has been around for more than 10 years. “It’s a Hy-Vee-bred program,” explains Laing. “We teach it ourselves. You graduate from Hy-Vee University with a Hy-Vee degree. Hy-Vee University encompasses both on-the-job education and training.”

Wakefern Food Corp. also has a long-standing tradition of fostering its associates’ careers and promoting from within. More than 25% of them have been with the company for 25 years or more, according to a spokesperson for the Keasbey, N.J.-based retailer.

“When you couple the countless years of collective experience from our long-term associates with the vibrant new talent we acquire each year from our interns and Leaders-In-Training program, Wakefern is well-positioned for success,” says company president and COO Joe Sheridan, a 36-year Wakefern employee who began his career as a warehouse selector.

Peter J. Larkin, president and chief executive officer of the National Grocers Association, which represents independent grocers, says one factor often dictates whether a grocer grooms its own executives or recruits them.

“If you started out as one store, you may not have been doing a lot of recruiting on college campuses, but if you get from 10 to 25, you may have those positions that require a little bit more of an education and so you may start reaching outside your normal avenues of recruitment,” he says.

Brent Ellis, an executive recruiter for the Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu chain, says, “[We] use a combination of promoting from within and acquiring externally from a variety of sources to obtain high quality talent. These sources include schools with strong food, pharmacy or supply-chain programs as well as events that attract candidates with post-graduate degrees and events that promote strong diversity programs.”

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