EXCLUSIVE: Getting to the Heart of FMI Store Manager Award Winners

This year’s honorees spoke with Progressive Grocer about their associates, communities and exciting challenges
Emily Crowe
Multimedia Editor
Sean Conlon, Giant Food
Sean Conlon and his Giant Food team in Fredericksburg, Va., ensure they are ingrained in the fabric of their own local city.

One thing is for certain about the winners of this year’s FMI Store Manager Awards: The grocery industry runs deep in their veins. John Fox, who manages a store for Henderson Retail in Ireland, began his career as a sales floor advisor when he was still in high school, and Sean Conlon, who leads the Giant Food in Fredericksburg, Va., says he was born into retail.

“My father worked in the retail business for over 40 years,” Conlon says. “When I was in high school, most of the students were learning about algebra, calculus and economics, while my father had me dissecting profit and loss statements.”

Delton Schafer, store manager for the Albertsons Cos.’ in Seattle, started working as a courtesy clerk as an after-school job, and today is a 25-year industry veteran that has been assigned as an assistant manager or store manager at every Safeway inside the Seattle city limits. And while Joel White, store manager for King Soopers-City Market, initially vowed not to work in retail again when he moved to Colorado in 1999, he says destiny had other plans.

The five honorees, which were named during a live YouTube ceremony in May, share several other venerable traits, chief among them an unwavering focus on communication, inclusion, community and collaboration. The award winners spoke with Progressive Grocer about working hand-in-hand with their employees, attracting top talent, upcoming challenges and more.

Building Associate Relationships

When it comes to creating strong bonds with their employees, these store managers work hard to keep lines of communication open and also work directly with them as opposed to above them. Conlon believes daily department huddles and weekly department manager meetings help drive his strong and supportive team.

“During these huddles and meetings, I ensure inclusion and collaboration by creating an open forum for my staff," he explains. “We share ideas, merchandising plans, goals and any concerns that we may have about the business. This creates a team that takes ownership of their departments, and executes at the highest level.”

Schafer agrees that slowing down to have conversations with his associates can make teams more engaged and productive, and White prioritizes connecting with his employees on a personal level every day.

When I start my day, I put aside business-related discussions and focus on getting to know them better,” White says. “They are the heart and soul of our business, and I recognize that they are much more than their job titles. They are fathers, mothers, outdoor enthusiasts, gamers, and integral members of our community.”

Henderson Retail’s Fox says he wouldn’t ask his team to do anything he wouldn’t do, or attempt to do, and believes this has earned him respect, loyalty and commitment from his team. He also brings them in on future tasks or projects since they are the ones on the front lines.

Wander Rezende, who leads the Roche Bros. Supermarkets store in Mashpee, Mass., also believes in working alongside his associates and mentoring the next generation of leaders. He has coached several assistant store managers during the store opening process and supported their individual paths to management.

Joel White King Soopers
King Soopers' Joel White recently mentored four managers who have gone into different leadership roles within the store and district.

Leveraging Community Ties

Being an active part of the community is important for every supermarket, and these store managers truly understand how to get involved and win over hearts and minds. “My store’s success does not come without the community it resides in and giving back to the same community that keeps our business thriving is a must,” explains Conlon.

He and his team take pride in being the top Giant Food store in driving corporate charity programs, and also take steps to ensure they are ingrained in the fabric of their own local city or county. The team helps local vendors and entrepreneurs by hosting monthly events, and is also an active participant with the local food bank where they help create hunger boxes and pass out food to those in need throughout the year. 

White agrees that it's important for his store to not only operate as a business in their community but also give back generously. “I'm fortunate to have a team that shares the same belief,” he says.

His Safeway store participates in the downtown Gunnison, Colo., trick or treat celebration, where volunteers hand out candy and organize games for the community. Store associates also support Cattlemen's Days, a historic rodeo that has been a part of their town for 123 years.

Rezende partners with nearby farmers to provide fresh, local produce and native flowers, and also spearheads donation efforts for area food banks and veterans organizations. His store also provides hot meals to military personnel who travel to the Cape Cod area for training.

For Fox, engagement is the key to the local community. “I like to try and hold two or three family days in or around the store with bouncy castles, or just a general face painting event for kids,” he says. “It brings a lot of attraction to the store, gives them a hub, and also begins to situate the heart of the community.”

The Challenges Ahead

The honorees have different sets of goals for the year ahead, reflecting the many challenges and opportunities at the store level. Conlon says he is looking forward to attacking shrink, since one of the biggest issues his store is dealing with is the increasing amount of theft that has permeated food retail in the last couple years.

“This means we have to be more detailed in our own processes. We must control what we can control,” Conlon explains. “We have to focus on reducing self-inflicted shrink, such as damages and out of dates by utilizing our resources/technology to make smart, informed decisions in our production and ordering.  We also need to limit the risk of theft by decreasing our exposure to it.”

Fox says the next challenge he will tackle is the expansion of his store, which means bringing in a new range of products, as well as recruiting new associates while also upskilling and developing his current staff. “This is exciting for all, as it brings new and vibrant concessions to the area but it will be a flagship for the company, a challenge in itself, but something I will tackle with both hands and plan for success,” Fox explains.

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