Super 50 Retail Visionaries

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Super 50 Retail Visionaries

By Meg Major, EnsembleIQ - 05/01/2011

The strides achieved by the supermarket industry in recent years in moving from a product-centric to a customer-centric approach have brought forth a notable transformation of food retailers from basic purveyors of food and household necessities, to sophisticated providers of quality products, intuitive services and affordable solutions.

Central to this ongoing mission are four of the best-respected executives in the industry, whose leadership, influence, vision and achievements we are proud to honor in our first-ever salute to Retail Visionaries. Selected less according to latest financial performance and more by the long-term performance of the companies they lead, the following individuals are lightning rods of change, gatekeepers of wellness, paragons of price-driven efficiencies, and captains of the industry. Their acumen and accomplishments are widely respected, and their ideas and opinions have been known to spark discussion and debate, making them Retail Visionaries in every sense of the word.

STEVEN BURDhas been CEO of Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway — the third-ranked company on PG's 2011 Super 50 list — since 1993, and president since 1992. A member of Safeway's board since 1993 and its chairman since May 1998, Burd has attracted national attention for his views on creating solutions to and balancing spiraling health care costs facing both individuals and businesses, with incentives for those who make healthy lifestyle choices.

As the driving force of Safeway's 2003 transformation of a disparate collection of store banners into a cohesive brand, Burd expounded on the subject during an interview for PG's 2007 Retailer of the Year profile story on Safeway by noting that “a brand, in its simplest terms, is a consumer promise, one that the consumers know about, and … consistently delivered. While we knew that the content of the store was a piece of that, another piece … was having a new look and feel [for] the stores themselves.”

Aiming to put the consumer squarely at the center of all of its strategic development and decision-making throughout much of the past decade while breathing new life into its stores as “solutions for living” or, as its well established tagline aptly reinforces, “Ingredients for Life,” Burd's vision to “brand the grocery-shopping experience,” with its Lifestyle format stores directly in the crosshairs, has dovetailed with his passion to impart innovative solutions to address the nation's health care needs.

While the road traversed to maintain its solid industry standing hasn't been without trials and tests through the years, Safeway remains in good hands with the tireless, bright, innovative and highly capable Steven Burd at its helm.

Being the biggest player in the pure-play grocery game has its advantages, one of which is its seasoned chairman and CEO, DAVID DILLON, who is routinely regarded, both within and outside of the retailer's Cincinnati headquarters, as one of the single best leaders in the business. As one of his employees once told PG: “Dave is everything you would want in a company leader: honest, forward-looking, inspiring and extraordinarily competent. He engenders trust and belief in others, and leads by example.”

And lead he has. During 2010 alone, Kroger's overall market share increased by nearly 1 percent, and since 2007, by about 1.5 percent, illustrative of the fact that the top-ranked grocer in the land isn't only growing bigger among traditional grocers, but is also gaining ground in the larger, über-competitive marketplace, which includes many nontraditional competitors. The company, under Dillon's tutelage, has also been an industry leader for much longer than that in terms of cultivating a corporate culture that optimizes the talents of an associate base of more than 338,000.

Indeed, Kroger's top-flight talent across the board is renowned as a major differentiating advantage for the retailer's customer-centric focus and admirable shopper loyalty, both of which have been fostered on Dillon's watch. A scion of his family's Kansas-based Dillon's banner that's been a part of Kroger's national network since 1983, he worked his way up through the ranks of the publicly traded parent company, assuming his CEO and chairman roles in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

In an interview for PG's salute to Kroger as its 2008 Retailer of the Year, Dillon pinpointed Kroger's overall strategy of focusing on the customer and “changing as we've needed to change” as its biggest accomplishments in recent years. “It's all about figuring out what the customer wants, and providing it,” he said then. “And if they want changes, then so, too, must our way of delivering on our strategy.”

Upon his being chosen as the recipient of the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business/Food Industry Management Program in 2008, faculty leaders summed it up well when noting: “David Dillon has exemplified the managerial traits we inculcate in the food industry management program. He has brought innovation, smarts and, most of all, leadership to Kroger and to the entire industry.”

No argument here.

With great power comes great responsibility. And so it goes for MIKE DUKE, president and CEO of the world's largest retailer, who's held his post since 2009, prior to which he served as vice chairman with responsibility for Walmart International from 2005 — a pinnacle period for the Bentonville, Ark.-based mega-retailer's pervasive dominance and competitive clout.

But much has changed in the Walmart-saturated retail world since Duke took the helm two years ago from Lee Scott — who held the president/CEO post for nine years following the company's legendary predecessors, Sam Walton and David Glass — not the least of which is a wave of declining sales during the past 24 months during the apex of The Great Recession, a state of affairs that many observers would have never thought possible just a few quarters earlier.

Armed with renewed vigor to make Walmart's renowned mantra of “saving people money so they can live better” relevant to every customer, every day, alongside a broadened mission to accelerate its global efforts on environmental sustainability and responsible sourcing, Duke currently presides over one of the most aggressive campaigns ever undertaken by Walmart in recent years to match local rivals' prices. After halting short-term food promotions last fall in favor of retrenching to its EDLP roots, the company under Duke's leadership is crafting a formidable smaller Express store format to recapture market share lost to dollar stores and price-impact grocers.

Further, Duke opportunely rounded out his management team with the addition of well-regarded former Supervalu executive Duncan Mac Naughton, who is now Walmart CMO, in tandem with a senior management overhaul that's taken place over the past 12 months.

As Walmart takes thundering steps to re-establish its one-stop shopping and low-price cred on as many relevant core customer categories as possible, Duke at press-time revealed a decision — steeped in symbolism — to bring back “heritage” merchandise that literally targets male consumers: firearms and fishing tackle.

It thus seems safe to say there'll be plenty of gun-slinging on the retail landscape in the months ahead.

While the rarified air that's seemingly pumped into its stores from mythical back-room chambers — which might explain the proverbial scenario in which many shoppers are spellbound upon entry and penniless upon exit — is occasionally lost on less enlightened consumers, there's simply no denying the role that Whole Foods Market Inc.'s co-founder and CEO, JOHN MACKEY, has had in the scheme of modern-day supermarket retailing.

Having pioneered Whole Foods three decades ago and serving as the driving force behind its phenomenal rise to become the first name in natural “class for the mass” food shopping, Mackey has taken his lumps for curious blog posts and contentious positions, such as when his views on the national health care debate last year antagonized some folks, including some of the company's most loyal customers. But as far as PG can tell, Mackey's discourse hasn't hampered Whole Foods' stalwart brand that continues to carry one of strongest profiles in the industry, with more in store. Indeed, the company is in the midst of revamping its pricing strategy and concentrating more on value offerings while opening new stores at a steady but measured clip.

Mackey has been CEO since 1980, president from June 2001 to October 2004, and chairman from 1978 to December 2009. His most recent professional focus is on reinvigorating Whole Foods' emphasis on healthy eating and lifestyle choices. According to Mackey, “Many of our country's most serious health conditions, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease, can be lessened or eliminated by following some simple principles of healthy eating that include primarily plant-based, unprocessed whole foods and avoidance of all fats but those found naturally in plants, such as nuts and avocados.”

Mackey eschews personal accolades in favor of giving it up to Whole Foods' people. “I've made a valuable contribution to Whole Foods, but so have thousands of other people,” he was quoted as saying in an interview with the Austin, Texas, American-Statesman, his company's hometown newspaper. “We do really have a team approach to the organization, an empowerment approach.”