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Women in charge

Back in September 1972, when twentysomething Carole Friedman Bitter graced the cover of Progressive Grocer, she was the first female store manager at Boston's Stop & Shop and probably one of the first in the industry. Thirty years later, times have definitely changed. Women have moved into the executive suites of some of the nation's largest supermarket chains, including Safeway and A&P. Yet, at least from an outsider's view, the industry remains largely a boys' club.

A quick look at last year's Fortune 500 listing reiterates that perception. Only seven of the companies have a woman c.e.o., and the consumer products and food retail industry ranked in the bottom third of the 62 industries represented in the Fortune 500, with only 9.4 percent of the officer roles filled by women.

Why shouldn't supermarket companies take the lead in promoting women executives? Who is better suited to market to a shopper demographic that's predominantly female than women themselves? One industry organization that is addressing that question is the Network of Executive Women for the Consumer Products and Food Retail Industry. NEW just celebrated its first anniversary at the Food Marketing Institute's annual convention, and its membership—which includes both men and women—now numbers in the hundreds, according to executive director Joan Toth. "Our goal is to promote diversity in general, not just for women, but for people of other races and cultures," says Toth. "It just makes good business sense."

As supermarkets strive to redefine themselves during a period of intense competition, input from female executives will be vital. Here are some of the leading ladies who will set the tone in the boardrooms of chain headquarters as well as in the aisles of independent supermarkets.

Liz and Gretchen tame Texas

It's no accident that Liz Minyard and her younger sister, Gretchen Minyard Williams, got into the supermarket business. They grew up hearing their father, the late M.T. "Buddy" Minyard, discuss the latest shipments of produce or how many cases of a new product were sold every night at the dinner table. During summer vacation the girls were expected to work in the stores. After all, a strong work ethic would eventually pay off more than a day by the pool.

Coppell, Texas-based Minyard Food Stores, Inc. was founded in 1932 by Buddy Minyard and his three brothers and sister. Both Liz and Gretchen say it was important to them to keep the tradition alive by joining the company full-time, so they came on board in the late 1970s after earning business management degrees at Texas Christian University. Liz says they were met with little resistance as females in the business, because it was expected that they would become involved.

Today they share the responsibilities of c.e.o. and chairman, while their uncle Bob Minyard serves as chairman of the executive committee and Gretchen's husband, J.L. "Sonny" Williams, is president and c.o.o. The company, which this year came in at No. 44 on PG's Super 50 list with close to $1 billion in sales, operates 73 stores in three formats throughout the Dallas metro area—the conventional Minyard Food Stores, Sack'n Save Warehouse Food Stores, and 21 Carnival Food Stores that target Hispanics and other ethnic consumers.

Not surprisingly, the sisters say competition remains one of their biggest challenges in Dallas, a cutthroat retail arena where Winn-Dixie threw in the towel last month facing the likes of Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Safeway. They continue to look for creative ways to compete, and say they have no plans to sell the business. "My dad used to say, 'You'll never be extremely rich unless you sell the company, but you'll be very comfortable and you'll have a good living. And that's true. We can do what we want, go where we want, but we have that security of knowing we have a place to come back to, where we are needed," says Gretchen.

Whether the business will stay in the family in the third generation is yet to be seen, but there are several candidates for succession. Bob has two sons, ages 22 and 19. Or the business might once more fall into the capable leadership of a female, if Gretchen's daughter Claire has anything to say about it. On a recent trip to the office, Gretchen and 4-year-old Claire were walking down a side road with a view of the distribution center and delivery trucks in the distance. "Claire, that's where they send out all the groceries to the stores," Gretchen said. "Do you see that truck? It says Minyard."

"Does it say Claire Minyard on there?" Claire asked.

"I thought to myself," recalled Gretchen, "'Not yet.'"

Madam President

It's "no more business as usual" at Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., Inc. these days, thanks in part to president and c.o.o. Elizabeth Culligan, who joined the company in January 2001 as e.v.p. and c.o.o. She quickly used her marketing background to rally the team together behind c.e.o. Christian Haub.

"What I want our people to do now is to do everything they do in a new or better way," says Culligan. She has implemented a set of strategic priorities throughout the company to align employees with its ultimate objective: to become the supermarket of choice for consumers, workers, and investors.

Challenges come naturally to Culligan, who admits she "gets a kick" out of seeing businesses turn around. She was the first woman—the first American, in fact—to run the Northern European division of pharmaceutical company Sterling Winthrop. She went from there to head up marketing for Nabisco's U.S. Biscuit Division, and then served as president at Nabisco International, where she managed a large portfolio of multinational food businesses, operating in 29 countries.

Now Culligan says she is thrilled to be taking on the abundant challenges of the supermarket business. "The industry has certainly gotten its wake-up call, and we have to serve the customer base better and do things better. We can't take anything for granted any more," she says.

Being a woman in the business doesn't make much of a difference to Culligan, who says she prefers to focus on strategy rather than gender. But she admits that being female helps her understand the way women shop and think, and what they buy for their families. "Even though I don't have children of my own, I spend a lot of time with my brothers and sisters and their families, and I do the shopping when I'm with them," she says. "It's really an eye-opener. It helps me understand things like how you treat customers, merchandising, marketing, and how fresh the products are."

Friedman's finest

Carole Bitter is a name many in the business know. The 56-year-old president and c.e.o. of Butler, Pa.-based Friedman's Supermarkets has served on the boards at the Food Marketing Institute and the National Grocers Association, and frequently speaks at industry events. She was recently reelected to FMI's board of directors. Some veterans might even remember that Bitter was featured on the cover of Progressive Grocer back in 1972 for being one of the first female store managers.

At that time, Bitter was in Boston with Stop & Shop. She had just finished a year of graduate work in food marketing at Cornell University and was relieved when Stop & Shop gave her a chance to put her education to work. Other companies weren't so open to the idea of a female store manager. In fact, Bitter had even begun using her initial on her resume instead of her first name.

In addition to earning a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Cornell and an MBA from Northeastern in Boston, Bitter literally grew up immersed in the family grocery business. Her grandfather, Jacob Friedman, founded the company a century ago, and her father became involved as well. "I remember my dad calling in grocery orders on Saturday nights, so my sister and I had to stay off the phone," Bitter recalls. It wasn't uncommon for the girls to pick up a copy of PG lying around the house. Yet Bitter says she never expected to take over the business herself. "Nice little girls didn't aspire to run the family business," she says.

One fateful day in 1976, however, Bitter was faced with a tough decision. Her father called to say he was considering selling the business, and he wanted to know if she would be interested in taking over the presidency. After careful consideration, Bitter and her husband decided it was the right thing to do and made the move to Pennsylvania.

Today Bitter oversees the company's seven locations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The company recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, and Bitter says she's excited to be working on a book about its history. Not one to sit behind a desk all day, she makes regular visits to the stores and sometimes even bags groceries. She also finds time to participate in community events, serve as a mentor to students at Cornell, and spend quality time with her 14-year-old son, Erick, and husband, Rick.

In fact, Erick is showing an interest in the business, and even tells people he wants to have his mom's job one day. "He came back to the office with me the other day, and I let him analyze a new product and gave him several articles to read," Bitter says. "We'll see if he's still interested in 10 years."

Independent woman

Marie Aarthun's introduction to the supermarket business was much like that of most in the industry: She started as a part-time cashier while in high school. But the 57-year-old c.e.o. and owner of Vadnals Heights, Minn.-based Knowlan's Super Markets, Inc. seems to have been blessed with an extra helping of determination and work ethic that helped her rise to the top. In fact, Aarthun bought the company in 1989 and recently made her last payment.

"Bill Knowlan [the store's original owner] told me, 'Go as far as you can, Marie, and if you go too far I'll tell you to stop.' Well, he never told me to stop, so I kept going," recalls Aarthun. It wasn't until she tried office work at the more impersonal corporate environment of 3M, however, that she knew the supermarket industry was truly her calling. "I was assigned a number like 108634, and that's kind of the way I felt," she says. "It was fun to go back part-time to Knowlan's at night."

Aarthun negotiated with Bill Knowlan for a full-time job at the company, and saved room in the evenings for business school and courses from Cornell University and the National Grocers Association.

Aarthun is quick to acknowledge the team effort behind the company's success. "Everybody takes ownership in our company," she says. "We don't have all the layers of management, so there are many hats for many people." The company is literally like a family, with several second-generation employees whose parents worked with Aarthun. She even brought her sister Lauri on board as c.f.o.

Aarthun says she has no "sour grapes" about being an independent in the ultra-competitive Twin Cities area, where giants such as Supervalu and Target are playing on home turf. She notes the fact that the company's stores are smaller—ranging from 25,000 to 55,000 square feet—can be advantageous when time-starved consumers want to get in and out in a hurry.

Knowlan's currently operates four Festival Foods price-impact stores that cater to more upscale shoppers, as well as two conventional Knowlan's Super Markets. Last month the company celebrated the groundbreaking of a larger price-impact store that will be 50,000 square feet. It will include a sit-down, full-service Dunn Brothers coffee shop adjacent to the deli.

"Within the next five years, I would like to see our price-impact format be in the area of 12 stores," says Aarthun.

Safeway's super soccer mom

Larree Renda was the only woman in the supermarket business to make Fortune magazine's "Power 50" list this year, which ranks the 50 most powerful women in business. As e.v.p. of retail operations at Safeway, now America's No. 2 supermarket company, she has quite a bit of power—in addition to heading up retail operations, Renda oversees a lot of the administrative functions that go along with it, including human resources, public affairs, government affairs, labor relations, communications, and reengineering.

Yet the 43-year-old mother of three maintains that keeping priorities straight has been crucial to her success. "Regardless of a meeting or a task before me, if there's something important going on with my kids, I'm there," she says. "You have to set your personal priorities. It's not a weakness—it just shows you have the good sense to balance your home life with your work life, so you can be a lot happier and more efficient."

Safeway has been a flexible employer from the get-go, according to Renda. That's part of what originally drew her to the company, when as a teenager in Des Moines, Iowa, she was looking for a part-time job to balance with athletic activities at high school. "I think the flexibility has been a credit to Safeway. I've always thought that the kids in high school who have a lot of extracurricular activities are the ones you want working for you. After all, they are often more motivated," she notes.

It wasn't long before Renda became the youngest store manager ever in the former Omaha division. Then after Safeway left Iowa, where her store was located, Renda accepted a transfer to Houston, where she ended up managing four stores and eventually became a district manager. When she was nine months pregnant with her first child, the company asked her to relocate again to head up its Northern California Division. So four weeks after the delivery, she and her husband headed out West, and Renda says it all worked out beautifully.

In 1993 she was promoted to s.v.p. and executive officer, and in 1999 became e.v.p.

"I'd love to see more women seize this opportunity, because I think it's there," she says. "This industry is so intuitive for women. I keep reminding my co-workers that I'm the target customer. I do the grocery shopping for my family, and go home and cook the meals."

Associate editor Jenny Summerour can be reached at [email protected].
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