Women’s History Month may be wrapping up this week, but women-owned businesses provide goods and services on a daily basis, often 24/7/365. For Mary Anne Kowalski and Kris Kowalski Christiansen, such diligence is a way of life for them as grocers and for several of their suppliers.
Mary Anne Kowalski is the owner of Woodbury, Minn.-based Kowalski's Markets, who founded the retail business with her late husband, Jim, in 1983. Her daughter, Kris Kowalski Christiansen, later joined her parents in the venture and now serves as CEO of the 11-store chain in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market. As they work to enhance their store often simultaneously striving to improve local communities through civic leadership, the mother-daughter team earned certification by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). But, as they emphasized in an exclusive interview with Progressive Grocer, the certification is a backdrop for their overall day-in, day out passion for serving their customers.
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Progressive Grocer: How does being a women-owned business impact your approach to retailing, including your outreach with women-owned brands?
Mary Anne Kowalski: It wasn’t a conscious effort – "We’ll help a lot of women get to the store" – it was more, "They have a great product." That kept getting bigger, until we had so many products and local brands that are owned by women. Now, a few of them are national, too.
Kris Kowalski Christiansen: I don’t know that we pat ourselves on the back as "women owned." This is a small family business that my mom and dad started, and they did it together. It’s a natural extension that continues to grow.
PG: Mary Anne, what were some early challenges when you were launching the business with your late husband, Jim?
MK: We were used to the grocery industry being a man’s world. I ran into that in the early years in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But it didn’t stop us from doing anything.
PG: How are you inspired by some of the women who produce and provide products for Kowalski’s Markets shelves?
KKC: We have so many women partners who are just phenomenal and many of them are local and our neighbors.
MK: They are steadfast and resilient – they want to get this product to market and want to try it in three or four stores. Because we are a smaller chain, it’s easier to help them do that.
PG: It's still a balancing act for many women as they juggle work and family life. How have you seen this play out and how does that affect forward momentum in a grocery career path?
MK: What’s interesting, and again, not through an intentional thing, half of our directors and executive-level team members are women. We didn’t seek it out and say, "Let’s put in a woman in this position.” They had the talent and took on bigger roles.
KKC: It’s changing over slowly in the industry. There are a lot of men at the top in the bigger grocery (chains), but there are more and more women in those roles. At the same time, within our own employees, we see more men – younger fathers who have kids – taking calls from their families or saying that they need to change their schedule because something came up.
PG: How is the grocery industry in general and at Kowalski’s in particular a career that fosters longevity?
MK: We are celebrating our 40th year this year and we have employees who have been with us 35-plus years, some starting as 16-year-olds. Many women who are in positions here, such as our marketing director and chief merchandising officer, started when they were young.
PG:On a personal level, how have your journeys reflected some of the changes in the industry for women?
MK: In the ‘80s and ‘90s, I wasn’t even recognized as a partner. I tried several ways – including nice and some not-so-nice ways – to be seen. I think you have to go in there and do the work. And when I got in the board of directors of the Minnesota Grocers Association, I thought that was important for the next generation to see.
Kris has garnered incredible respect in this industry through her leadership. She started here when she was 16, left the company to get her college and master’s degrees and worked for someone else for a while. We knew she had what it took and we wanted to carry this on, so thank God she came back.
PG: What were some other challenges that you overcame, not just to lead Kowalski’s Markets but to continually expand the business in the area?
MK: Jim passed away (in 2013), and we were put in this role. That was part of the process. I absolutely understood that I had to prove myself and gain the respect of the employees. I knew it was something I had to do, and wasn’t upset about it – I just went right to work.
KKC: There was a monumental shift on how we were all together in this business. She set the stage from the get-go that nothing will change in our company and we will continue to do what we have always done.
PG: How has civic leadership also marked your respective tenures at Kowalski’s Markets?
MK: I can’t speak to how it is in all areas, but at least in Minnesota, I know when I brought civic efforts into the company as a leadership model, it changed our perspective in every way possible. One of the things we learned was not to go in and fix every problem, but get stakeholders involved in the issue, too, and they would help come up with a solution. You can’t delegate learning.
PG: Finally, what’s next for Kowalski’s Markets?
KKC: There is always something. We are opening a new store in Edina (Minn.) next spring and we are in the process of bidding on another one. We’re always working on keeping other locations up to date, and are looking at a market grill concept right now, with sandwiches, burgers, hibachi bars, pasta bars and things like that. For our bakery, we recently invested $250,000 in a bread oven to make our own artisan bread. And we continue to have a lot of local partners. We like to continually add fun to our stores.
MK: I’m in semi-retirement, but I don’t see myself stepping away completely. I continue to see myself continuing to work with the executives and walking the stores as much as I can because that’s where I can see things and talk to employees and customers. That’s very important to me. Someone will be taking me around with a walker eventually, but I will still be there!