The 2020 Top Women in Grocery: Retail Trailblazer
Susan Morris began her career with Albertsons Cos. the way many top executives do: in stores, taking care of customers on the front line. While still in high school, Morris joined Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons more than 30 years ago, and since then, she has held just about every role imaginable in food retailing. She was named VP of marketing and merchandising in 2012, and then became EVP of eastern operations, and later western operations.
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Having assumed her current role as EVP/COO in January 2018, Morris oversees a network of more than 2,250 stores in 33 states under 21 banners, as well as 20 manufacturing facilities and 23 distribution centers with 270,000-plus employees.
Progressive Grocer: You’ve got a big job, Susan, and we’ll get into details on all of it, but before we do, taking a minute to think back, what was appealing to you about retail as a high school student, and what made you decide to go to work for Albertsons?
Susan Morris: My sister is the reason I started working at Albertsons. She was there first. I had graduated from high school a semester early and wanted to save money before college.
I was already working as a hostess at a local steakhouse when my sister asked me if I wanted to work at her store for the summer. I took the job in the customer service booth and realized I liked the pace of the business, loved interacting with people, and I was super-fast on the ten-key — such an important skill I picked up, adding up all of the coupons and checks that were taken each day. When college started, I transferred to an Albertsons there, and just sort of never left!
PG: What do you remember about those first few days, the work and interacting with customers?
SM: It’s funny — my first few days were great. I loved helping customers; we also had a fun crew at the store. Suzie Webster was my first work friend there; she taught me the ropes, and she is still with our company today! One not-so-fun part of my job then was to call customers who had bounced checks. I would have to try to get them to commit to coming in to make payments. Talk about intimidating: a 16-year-old girl working out payment schedules with adults. It taught me to be very tactful and considerate, and I developed a sense of knowing when to be firm in communicating with others.
PG: Can you elaborate on the time when you realized you were going to make a career in the world of food retailing?
SM: I worked in the stores through college, and once I graduated, I moved back to Denver with plans of going to law school. First, I needed to save money, so I applied for a job at the local division office as a data entry person [a pricer]. I worked for some great people then who helped me learn the basics of the business, which was far more exciting than I realized. Quite frankly, I was hooked after my first six months there.
PG: Talk about some of your early influences, who they were and what lessons you learned from them.
SM: Larry Hansen was the grocery sales manager I worked for when I got my job at the office. Larry is one of the most brilliant and dynamic people I have ever met. He is one of those outside-the-box thinkers, always coming up with new and better ways to sell more groceries, build better plans, and improve upon both the art and the science of the business. My time with Larry was so formative in the way I learned about grocery, and also in how I learned how to navigate the business world. Larry taught me fast, and he was never hesitant to give me more to do — and trust me with more than I knew how to do so that I could grow my skills under his guidance. He trusted me and empowered me. Before I knew it, I was a 23-year-old woman who was negotiating with vendors, writing ads, building display plans, and even taking on new items. As I got older, I was able to look back with deep appreciation for how Larry took me under his wing, never doubted me for a second, and gave me so much trust and support. He just retired last year. I am so thankful to have had him as a lifelong mentor and friend. Never once did I feel as if I was treated differently as a woman in a very male-dominated world, thanks to Larry’s leadership.
PG: As you mentioned, food retailing has been a male-dominated industry. Were there female role models that you looked up to early on?
SM: When I took the job at the division office, I was able to meet some terrific women that I looked up to in the broker and CPG industries — Sue McGowan, currently at Impact Group, is one. I was always so impressed with how she carried herself, even in tough situations.
PG: You’ve spent a lot of time in stores and know how they operate. How can you tell if a store is well run when you first enter the building?
SM: When you walk in the entryway and see the corners are clean — even the high ones that no one looks at — the floor is shining, and the carts are stacked in an orderly fashion, you are likely to have a good experience. It gets even better when you walk in a few more steps and see a “wow” display — maybe a pop of seasonally fresh produce, a gorgeous floral setup for a holiday, or maybe just a well-built, attractive display of best-selling items at a great value. Retail is all about detail, and while we may not always register each individual piece, when a store is clean, well merchandised, has a strong fresh presence, and is lit up by happy employees with big smiles, you can literally feel the energy in a store. There is such power in the pride, passion and ownership of a really great store director!
PG: Albertsons is like a lot of companies when it comes to diversifying the ranks of senior leadership. Progress has been made, but the company isn’t where it would like to be. Talk about what’s being done to move the needle on gender diversity, not only among senior leadership, but also at other levels, to ensure that the company has a strong pipeline of female talent.
SM: Across all segments of our business, our associates seek to deliver for our customers, our community and our company through their sales and service focus. We seek to celebrate the diversity and inclusiveness of our workforce and focus on improving our communities through sustainability and charitable activities that are an essential part of our business. As we leverage our national scale for efficiencies, we will continue to empower store-level decision-makers to take care of our customers and encourage frontline responsibility. We will also continue to nurture an ownership mindset in our stores and ensure that the interests of those who directly manage our customer relationships on a daily basis are aligned with those of our stockholders.
PG: How would you describe your leadership style, and how was it developed?
SM: One of my favorite jobs was division president because it was such a nimble structure. Working together on common goals, achieving great results together and seeing such quick turnaround, with action items quickly translating to results — there is not anything like it. I believe in bringing in the right people to do the job and empowering them and holding them accountable for their results. I feel the freedom to think and innovate drives growth — and ownership with accountability drives success. You must let everyone on your team try new things and fail forward.
As my roles have changed, I have learned that what my team needs from me is very similar than before — but slightly different. They are all high-performing, talented executives. What they need from me now is to help align them on common vision and strategy, when it makes sense to act as one across the country. They still need to be held accountable for results, and to adhere to common policies and procedures that strengthen our core. But at the same time, they need freedom and empowerment to bring their unique set of skills to the table, and to build their own plans and innovation. We literally have 2,250 laboratories across the country, and having empowered leaders at every level in our company will lead to better, stronger, faster ideas than one small group of people in one place.
PG: How do you strive to inspire others, to instill a spirit of helpfulness and service to the customer that drives retail success regardless of how shoppers engage with Albertsons?
SM: My favorite Joe Albertson quote is, “You have to give customers the items they want, at prices they are willing to pay, and lots of tender loving care.” In today’s world, that means, more than ever, you can literally buy groceries almost anywhere, anytime. To win with the customer, you must build deep and lasting relationships, and show them you care. To do this, you must start with your employees. Teams that are engaged and feel like they are part of something bigger, that know that their roles matter, are incredible advocates to the customer. We have wonderful people, and engaging with all of them at every level — a courtesy clerk in a store, a truck driver in the back room, the mail room clerk at our offices — is critical to creating and sustaining that sense of team.
PG: How has your average workday changed due to the pandemic?
SM: Right now, there is no “average workday.” I think everyone in our industry wakes up thinking about two things: the safety of their employees and their customers, and how to ensure that we are able to continue to supply food and essential items for the communities we serve. I could not be more proud of our store, field, distribution and manufacturing teams, who have literally worked tirelessly for weeks on end. Wearing masks, implementing new health and safety processes quickly, cleaning every surface time and time again — our amazing people have done this diligently since the very beginning of this crisis, and still manage to bring a smile to work.
PG: What do you consider to be the most essential keys to food retail success in 2020 and beyond?
SM: Offering an easy, exciting and friendly shopping experience to our customers, no matter where they shop.
PG: What one new retail technology or trend do you believe will have the biggest impact in 2020, and why?
SM: E-commerce. We have continued to enhance our capabilities to meet customer demand for convenience and flexibility. In fiscal 2017, we began to offer our Drive Up & Go curbside pickup service, which is currently available in approximately 650 locations, while expanding our long-established home delivery network. We also collaborate with third parties, including Instacart, for rush delivery, as well as with Grubhub and Uber Eats for delivery of our prepared and ready-to-eat offerings. We now offer home delivery services across more than 2,000 of our stores and 12 of the country’s top 15 metropolitan statistical areas by population. The coronavirus pandemic has significantly increased demand for food at home, particularly through our e-commerce offerings.
As a result, we have accelerated our Drive Up & Go buildout and have made several enhancements to our e-commerce platform that we believe will meaningfully improve the overall customer experience and enable us to drive growth and market share. These capabilities are further enhanced through targeted technology investments and partnerships like the ones we have announced with Glympse for location sharing of store pickup and home delivery orders, and Takeoff Technologies for automated micro fulfillment to support our e-commerce efforts. We also seek to simplify the many food-related choices our customers face daily by offering efficient, comprehensive solutions such as meal planning, shopping list creation and prepared foods.
PG: What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Albertsons?
SM: No. 1 challenge: COVID! Highlights: promoting people, sharing in their successes and joining these amazing women as we celebrate them for their excellence in grocery!
PG: If you had a teenage daughter going to work as an hourly associate in an Albertsons store today, what advice would you give her as she headed out the door to begin her first day?
SM: Be a good listener. Work hard, always be 10 minutes early, have fun, make friends, and remember that someone is trusting you with their money, their company and their reputation. Make them proud — maybe you will run that thing one day.
PG: You’ve seen a tremendous amount of change during your retail career, and there are many types of jobs today that didn’t exist when you began working in high school. As you look ahead, where do you see the greatest opportunities?
SM: There are so many areas to grow with us, in stores, in our offices, in IT, HR, supply chain, e-commerce … the list is endless.