PG Web Extra: Tapping Talent

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PG Web Extra: Tapping Talent

By Joan Driggs, EnsembleIQ - 03/10/2017

Retailers continue to struggle with attracting quality people to the grocery industry. These companion stories to Progressive Grocer’s March 2017 feature, “Talent Issues," focus on academic support of the grocery retail industry, as well as the secret weapon retailers need to make better use of: the career talent they already rely on.

Hire Education

The grocery industry is among the few that support employees as they rise through the ranks -- the number of executives who started as baggers or courtesy clerks is legion. But to succeed in today’s dynamic environment takes more than on-the-job training. Fortunately, academia is doing its part to prepare future generations with well-grounded talent.

Perhaps the most far-reaching educational support program is the Retail Management Certificate, launched by the Lakewood, Calif.-based Western Association of Food Chains (WAFC). The RMC consists of eight courses deemed critical to managerial success: human relations, business technology, business communications, management skills, marketing, human resource management, financial management and budgeting, and retail management. Since its inception in 2000, the program has expanded to more than 150 community colleges, with some 2,000 students earning certification.

“Three years ago, we had maybe five people going to the program. Now, it’s a couple hundred,” says Mark Foley, VP, human resources for West Sacramento, Calif.-based Raley’s, a retailer that supports and benefits from the program.

For its candidates, Pleasnton, Calif.-based Safeway sponsors 100 percent of the tuition, reimbursing store associates for the 10 percent investment they’ve made after they’ve completed the courses.

Business Partnerships

Universities have also responded to industry demand for more focused curricula that support immediate placement in grocery retail and CPG manufacturing industries. Many companies recruit directly from these campuses, creating a win-win for universities happy for the high placement rates and companies that are hiring top talent. 

Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo), for example, has been supporting the industry through its Food/CPG Marketing program for more than 50 years. Internships are a required part of the four-year business degree, but other opportunities include international travel and a summer tour of companies throughout the Midwest, as well the annual Food Marketing Conference that brings together industry executives, academics and students.

WMU’s program benefits from its ties to the industry, according to Frank Gambino, director, food/CPG marketing. “We receive invaluable industry support, both in the classroom and beyond," he says. "Our industry partners are experts and know what these students will face upon entering the industry.” WMU also has an industry advisory board of more than 40 food and CPG companies (including this author). The board works with faculty to develop the curriculum and support scholarships, internships and, ultimately, job placement.

WMU interns bring tremendous value, and a certain “X factor,” notes Becky Anson, director of human resources at Martin’s Super Markets, based in South Bend, Ind. “We can tell that their experience at WMU sets them apart. They ask questions; they bring insight from their exposure to industry tours and on-campus visits with executives; they’re very industry-focused.”

Beyond the undergrad degree, WMU is launching the Emerging Leadership Program this spring, as a result of urging from industry executives who expressed a need for a new level of educating these individuals. “The goal is to provide emerging leaders with new skills needed to take companies in the directions they’d like to go,” says Bob Samples, head of the program and marketing instructor at WMU’s Haworth School of Business.

The four-day course consists of four tracks: Emotional Intelligence helps participants improve self-understanding and working with others; Accountability takes a three-pronged approach to managing strategic risk, pro-forma project analysis and joint business plan results; the Results track employs leadership case studies in partnership with persuasive presentations; and the Leadership track, which includes social media skills and sustainable business strategies, empowers participants to shape the future through effective relationships, integrity and accountability.

As a chain with 22 stores, it’s harder for Martin’s Super Markets to map a general career path for associates. The company has a successful history of promoting from within and works to provide each candidate with appropriate next steps. WMU’s Emerging Leadership Program is an excellent next step for a Martin’s director of store operations, who will attend the inaugural course in April 2017. “He’s attended WMU’s annual Food Marketing Conference in years past, so he has some comfort and familiarity with the school,” explains Anson. “This is an investment in his future for both us and him. This will give him the exposure to select courses that will support him in his position.”

WMU is also a member of The Food Industry University Coalition (FIUC), which works to advance a collaborative agenda of industry-focused academics and research. According to the National Grocers Association website, “The mission of the members is to leverage the combined wealth of its members’ intellectual capital, strategic perspective and third-party status to provide thought leadership for the food industry in dealing with challenging issues.” Participating schools include:

  • University of Arkansas 
  • Auburn
  • University of North Alabama 
  • Arizona State University
  • Cornell University 
  • DePaul University
  • Western Michigan University (undergraduate and new Leadership Development Program) 
  • Portland State University 
  • St. Joseph’s University
  • State University of New York at New Paltz 
  • University of Texas at Tyler
  • University of Southern California (FIM) 

“We find it most advantageous that companies are willing to partner with an institution like ours,” says University of Texas at Tyler’s Robert Paul Jones, assistant professor of marketing. “[Industry does] a better job of getting talent right out of the box, and they work with faculty to shape the program. We can focus on the common needs the industry shares, and add those pieces to the curriculum so students are more work ready. We’re very focused on getting our students employed quickly and into really good jobs.”

Future Leaders

For nearly 60 years, The University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business has hosted one of the most rigorous programs in the industry, the Food Industry Management Program (FIM), designed for high-potential individuals who are recommended by their banners and viewed as future leaders. The program consists of an immersive 16-week spring semester program where participants study leadership, strategy, marketing, communications and financial accounting. They also develop such competencies as business acumen and critical thinking skills. Each executive accepted into the program receives a full-tuition ($25,000) scholarship through WAFC, a nonprofit organization of senior executives from food retail and wholesale companies in 14 western states. Since 1959, WAFC has supported FIM, which typically accepts 35 students per year. More than 1,700 students have graduated from the program.

“We teach our students to hold others accountable, and build out character traits. We can check boxes, but how do you inspire them to grow the business? Those are some of the skills we will teach,” says Cynthia McCloud, executive education director, food industry programs, who also teaches a leadership course in FIM. Candidates comprise all disciplines, including corporate offices, warehouses, field operations, sales, marketing, finance, human resources, department managers, store directors, district managers, directors and VPs. Student attendees create strategic marketing plans, create a finance and strategy project, participate in and present the team industry capstone project, undergo a self-assessment, create a career plan, and develop a personal growth plan. 

Perhaps summing up the intentions of these institutions dedicated to the food industry, WMU’s Gambino says, “We understand the unprecedented rate of change occurring in the retail and CPG industries, and are committed to producing new leadership prepared to move the industry forward.”

Tell Their Stories

Retailers may be overlooking one of their best strategies for selling their organization: career employees. “We are an amazing industry full of amazing people,” asserts Kendra Doyel, VP, public relations and government affairs, at Compton, Calif.-based Ralphs and Food4Less Grocery Co., part of the Kroger family. “We need to do a better job of communicating how you can build a career – it’s all about being a great place to work.”

Doyel is a perfect example. She started out as a practicing pharmacist with Kroger. “The company saw different talent in me and encouraged me to take on my role in PR and governmental affairs," she recounts. "I was pushed in new and different directions, and the Kroger Co. continues to do that for me and all their associates on a regular basis.”

Raley's VP, Human Resources Mark Foley's first job in grocery retail was as a courtesy clerk. “My journey, similar to other people, was a high school job to earn money,” he says. “I continued as I got my degree – the first in my family – and was given the opportunity to go on a special assignment with Lucky’s in the Bay area.”

Foley was the first human resources manager for Lucky’s in Northern California. The climb continued with his move into labor relations, a move to West Sacramento, Calif.-based Raley’s in labor relations, and a tour with a fitness chain, before returning to Raley’s in his current role.

Among eight company leaders at Raley’s, three started as baggers, according to Foley. “I never thought about telling my story, but I was encouraged by a friend, so now I tell it," he says. "People are surprised; I realize now it is a big deal.”

Like many industry executives, Becky Anson, director of human resources and a member of the executive team at South Bend, Ind.-based Martin’s Super Markets, didn’t expect to make a career of grocery retail. As a student at Western Michigan University (WMU) (but not in the Food Marketing program), she took an internship with Martin’s that led to a full-time position as an human resources generalist after graduation. “Truthfully, I wanted to be close to WMU to watch my brother wrestle,” she admits. But the bug bit. “I dug in and learned about the industry," she notes. "I’m intrigued by how we can profit by such slim margins.” She’s worked her way up through the ranks, having managed training, and navigating the company’s growth from 1,300 stores when she was hired in 1987, to more than 3,600 today.

Terra Powers, Norcal human resources and education manager at Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway (part of the Albertsons Family of Stores), started as a courtesy clerk/bagger. She entered the internal retail development program through Safeway after she graduated from UC-Santa Cruz. As First Assistant Manager, she took on various projects in-store and district-wide before joining the Human Resources department as a representative. 

“Safeway was so flexible with me as a student, it didn’t strike me to leave, because it was perfect for me,” she says. “I didn’t know HR, it was a whole new world – but I wanted to show people their path. Whatever you’re passionate about, we have a place for you [at Safeway.] … My passion is people and seeing people progress and getting them to their goals, even if they didn’t know what their goals were.”

Cynthia McCloud participated in the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business Food Industry Management (FIM) program in 1990, when she was with Vons, a division of Safeway. After 18 years with Vons, she moved into other positions in the food retail industry, joining USC’s FIM as executive director in 2014. Of FIM, she says, “It inspires leaders, and it creates a desire for these leaders to inspire others in their own companies. They’ve been developed and they’re enjoying new skills and new tools to inspire others in their companies.”

Retailers should shine a light on their hugely talented pool to demonstrate the rewards of a career in grocery retail.