Progressive Grocer: You’ve got a big job, Mary Ellen, 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 grocery and what made you decide to go to work for Kroger?
Mary Ellen Adcock: Kroger is a special place filled with diverse and talented people. Every day, I’m inspired by our associates’ care and commitment to our customers, communities and each other. It’s so rewarding to work across the company’s many functions and see our amazing teams bring initiatives to life, especially when we are making the day a little easier for our associates and customers. I’m proud to work for a company where people fall in love with Our Purpose: to Feed the Human Spirit.
PG: Can you elaborate on the time when you realized you were going to make a career in the world of food retail?
MEA: When customers come to us, they are doing more than just shopping for groceries. They are picking out fresh produce to help their kids make healthy choices. They are searching for the perfect ingredients to recreate a treasured family recipe. They are finding that special item to make a beautiful meal for a loved one. I love when our customers share these moments with us — and our amazing associates are at the center of each of these stories.
My joy for this career started in human resources, where I quickly learned the importance of grounding every decision in improving the associate experience. During my time with this team, I witnessed firsthand how transformational conversations about growth and ongoing learning can be. So many of our team members start at Kroger looking for a job, and they stay because they discover a career.
I’m a huge advocate for education, and I participated in Kroger’s continuing-education program, Feed Your Future, early in my career. While working, I earned my MBA and found my passion for operations, and fell in love with the stores, the people and the opportunities. Now I’m fortunate to be a part of both worlds — creating new paths for our people while delivering results.
PG: Talk about some of your early influences, who they were and what lessons you learned from them.
MEA: My parents had a huge impact on the person I am today. My dad was an entrepreneur, and my mother worked with first-generation college students. They were such hard workers and instilled in me the importance of dedication, work ethic, curiosity and teamwork. My father felt it was important that my sister and I learned about business and that we were not intimidated. As females, he wanted us to know we could do anything we wanted to do, if we worked hard and put our hearts and minds into it. Most importantly, they taught me to value all voices and perspectives — extraordinary things only happen when we all work together.
PG: Food retailing was a male-dominated industry when your career began, and perhaps still is. Were there female role models that you looked up to early on?
MEA: There have been many role models who inspired me. One example is when I was part of the merchandising team in Columbus, I was thinking about starting a family, but worried how I’d be able to both work and “mom” successfully. I shared these feelings with a group of female leaders, and their wise counsel was such a gift. Their vulnerability, mentorship and encouragement gave me the confidence to know I could have a family and deliver great work. They still inspire me to be a successful leader and a present momma to an amazing young man.
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?
MEA: It all starts with an inviting and welcoming entrance, signaling to customers that their shopping experience is going to be fresh and friendly. Inside the store, fully stocked shelves inspire customers to buy what they need, what they want and probably a few items that they didn’t know they wanted.
Increasingly, we’re providing our customers ways to interact with us outside a store’s four walls, and the same freshness principles apply to the digital experience, both for pickup and delivery. A convenient experience that gives our customers a wide product selection at the best value demonstrates that we’re here for our customers, no matter how they choose to shop.
PG: Talk about what’s being done to move the needle on gender diversity, not only among senior leadership at Kroger, but also at other levels, to ensure the company has a strong pipeline of female talent. How is Kroger beating the labor crunch?
MEA: Top Women in Grocery is an amazing opportunity to uplift women leaders. I’m honored to be recognized alongside other engaging female grocery leaders across the company.
Our teams have to mirror the communities we serve. One of our longest-standing associate resource groups is Women’s EDGE, which plays a critical role in growing and developing women across the enterprise. I’ve been especially proud of the mentorship program Women’s EDGE created.
Through career and succession planning, we are intentional in the ways we identify and prepare women for leadership opportunities. We are focused on continuous improvement in our ways of working, benefits and policies, to ensure women are able to stay, grow and thrive at Kroger.
PG: How would you describe your leadership style, and how was it developed?
MEA: My leadership style is rooted in curiosity. Every day, I am excited to learn from those around me, and I welcome their feedback. No one thrives or grows without others — it takes many backgrounds and perspectives to create something truly game-changing.
The Kroger leadership model, which is grounded in balancing a passion for people and a passion for results, also influenced my leadership style. These two principles work together to keep leaders balanced. It’s easy to push too far for results and fall out of step with what our teams need, and vice versa. By keeping people and results in equilibrium, we achieve our goals and support each other.
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 Kroger?
MEA: My guiding principle is the customer and our values. That starts with listening. When we combine customer and associate feedback with sales data, we can anticipate obstacles and can continuously iterate to find the best solutions.
I always strive to lead through positive influence. It’s no secret that the past few years have been difficult — we can easily get bogged down in the day-to-day, missing opportunities to uplift each other. Bringing positive intent is so important for all of us and instantly puts the conversation on a productive track.
PG: How has your average workday changed due to the pandemic?
MEA: The ways all our associates worked together to support our customers throughout the pandemic is nothing short of inspirational.
Much like everyone else, my world turned upside-down when the pandemic hit in March 2020. At the beginning, it was all hands on deck at all hours to source products, determine the right measures to keep our associates and customers healthy, and manage an environment that changed almost daily.
As the situation evolves — again, like many other companies — we are reflecting on the changes we experienced in the last two years and are focused on continuing to create a place where associates are excited to come to work.
PG: What do you consider to be the most essential keys to food retail success in 2022 and beyond?
MEA: Flexibility and being change-adaptive are essential. Customers will continue to evolve, and the better retailers can anticipate how customers want to shop and what they want to eat, the better they can create a convenient, interesting and enjoyable experience. That includes being change-adaptive across all shopping channels: in-store, pickup and delivery.
PG: What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Kroger?
MEA: My career highlights are all centered around people. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to work in different parts of the business and in many places across the country, meeting people from all walks of life. From HR and manufacturing to merchandising and operations, we’ve brought several initiatives to life in partnership with amazing associates.
PG: If you had a teenage daughter going to work as an hourly associate in a Kroger store today, what advice would you give her as she headed out the door to begin her first day?
MEA: I’d tell her to stay curious and ask questions. Like my parents did for me, I’d share the importance of dedication, teamwork and valuing all perspectives. Finally, and maybe most importantly, I’d encourage her to speak her mind and highlight her contributions. We are our best advocates!
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 started in grocery. As you look ahead, where do you see the greatest opportunities for the industry (plant-based, NFTs, e-commerce, etc.)?
MEA: At Kroger, we are committed to Feeding the Human Spirit. When I visit our stores, associates often share that positively impacting the lives of our customers, communities and each other is what they love about their jobs. It is also what I love about our business, and it is what makes Our Purpose, to Feed the Human Spirit, so vital.
As part of that commitment, and in response to the business and customers evolving, I’m confident we will create many roles that don’t exist today, and I think that’s so exciting, especially for those team members who will create the future of grocery retail.