Wow-Worthy Employers


Getting the best out of associates means making them feel valued.

Developing personal connections is nothing new in the grocery business. But the most productive and successful food retailers are prioritizing personal connections from the inside out, with the elemental ingredient of empowerment that has propelled them to become industry leaders at all levels.

Appreciation for the strong connection between engaged, empowered employees and customer satisfaction scores has grown steadily among business leaders. Providing proof positive are the recently released results of 2014’s “Conference Board CEO Challenge” report, based on a survey of CEOs, presidents and chairmen from more than 1,000 global companies who were asked to identify and rank the most pressing challenges they face, and about their strategies for addressing each.

Human capital — how best to develop, engage, manage and retain talent — was named the leading challenge this year among the list of 10 critical issues, followed by customer relationships, innovation, operational excellence, and corporate brand and reputation. By shrugging off a relatively slow-growing global economy in favor of focusing on people, performance, customer connections and work-life culture, the renewed commitment by Conference Board survey CEOs to customers, innovation and the corporate brand — aided by the use of Big Data — focuses squarely on developing an engaged workforce and a diverse, accountable leadership team.

“Though particular strategies vary from region to region, business leaders worldwide are working to optimize their greatest resource — their employees and those who will lead them,” notes Rebecca Ray, Conference Board SVP and a co-author of the report. “This emphasis on people-related issues makes perfect sense in a still-uncertain economy. Building a culture that supports engagement, employee training, leadership development and high performance is something companies can control,” continues Ray, noting that the above can mean the “difference between growing market share and simply surviving in 2014. Moreover, if the focus of individual companies is sustained, human capital may well be the engine that revives economic growth.”

Fortunate Ones

Four supermarket organizations that have long fueled their growth engines by nurturing and harnessing human capital include the familiar batch of food retailers on Fortune’s 2014 100 Best Companies to Work For list: Wegmans Food Markets (No. 12), Nugget Markets (No. 36), Whole Foods Market (No. 44) and Publix Super Markets (No. 75). All earned high marks in areas of management credibility, job satisfaction, camaraderie, pay and benefits, training, recognition programs, and diversity efforts.

Woodland, Calif.-based Nugget Markets moved up one spot from last year in the prestigious national ranking as a result of a corporate ethos that fosters exceptional culture and, in turn, “difference-maker” associates who are empowered to succeed and innovate in their own unique ways, with expert training and educational opportunities, incentives for performance-related excellence, and daily achievement recognition for outstanding performance.

“Our associates and leadership team work hard every day to provide outstanding service and quality products,” affirms Eric Stille, CEO and president of Nugget Markets, which has nine namesake Northern California locations and three Food 4 Less stores. “Building creativity, humor and hard work into every day, our team has created a spirited culture where camaraderie and teamwork reign.”

Routinely giving credit for Nugget’s exceptional success — as an employer, merchant, curator, epicurean destination and community pillar — to its management teams and supporting cast, Stille has perfected a low-key, steady-Eddie, servant-driven leadership style that’s a direct reflection of the company’s admirable gains and formidable competitive stance within the cutthroat West Coast retail scene.

Beyond the obvious recognition that accompanies a prized spot on the Best Companies to Work For list — for the ninth consecutive year, no less — the privately owned grocer’s great good fortune underscores the opportunity to create a highly productive, widely admired, supremely successful, employer-of-choice brand streaming liberally from a family-oriented work environment that fosters the health and wellbeing of every associate’s professional and personal lives.

Brand Ambassadors

“Our associates are our brand,” beams Stille, “and their energy, creativity, diversity and passion are the foundation of our success. We’ve got a talented group of dedicated people, and they make us who we are.”

One of those dedicated folks is Stille’s right-hand man — Nugget’s high-energy COO and VP, Chris Carpenter — who’s been a pivotal driving force behind the company’s thriving base of associates, whom he says “separate us from our competition. We take every opportunity to reward and celebrate our people,” explains Carpenter, noting the company’s prevailing belief “that when our associates are having fun and feeling valued, there is an energy and enthusiasm that is created — and it transcends right through the guest experience.”

Among the charms of “What Makes Nugget Market Great,” Fortune applauded the prevailing esprit de corps of the grocer’s unpretentious culture, at the heart of which are store-level pep rallies where teams share critical information for the day while psyching each other up. As part of their participation in the National Grocers Association’s annual Best Bagger competition, Nugget was also praised for its full-scale 2013 production developed around movie themes at downtown Sacramento’s Crest Theatre, which also featured “Gangnam Style” dance-offs during the spirit competition. Ditto for the exciting settings selected as host locations for its year-end gatherings, management training and employee empowerment events — including the Palms in Las Vegas, the Hard Rock Café, Alcatraz, wrestling rings and whitewater rafting excursions — which as many employees as possible, on all organizational rungs, can attend (and who are also are paid to do so).

C-store chain Sheetz Inc. also appeared on Fortune’s annual list, nabbing the 87th slot, along with CPG companies General Mills (64) and Mars (76).

Wegmans, Whole Foods and Publix also share a special distinction as three of the 13 companies to be named to Fortune’s Elite 100 Best Companies All Stars list, alongside such luminaries as Apple, Google, Goldman Sachs, Cisco and Microsoft.

The Center of Everything

In a business where people are often trumpeted as being the greatest asset, there’s a handful of other distinct leaders that stand ahead of the pack, including Brookshire Grocery Co. (BGC), WinCo Foods, Costco Wholesale Corp., Hy-Vee and H-E-B.

Having operated from its inception on the philosophy of “People first, profits will follow,” Tyler, Texas-based Brookshire’s mission is reflected in an enduring tradition to provide its customers, and the communities it serves, with far more than just groceries. BCG’s employee stock ownership program shares all profits with the company’s associates, every one of which receives a Christmas gift check as a tangible display of appreciation.

Brookshire’s also seeks to recognize and celebrate its partners’ achievements in as many ways as it can, including via industry awards programs like PG’s Top Women in Grocery, and the United Fresh Produce Association’s retail produce managers and FMI’s outstanding store managers contests.

Another employee-owned grocery chain, West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee, also relies heavily on empowering its more than 69,000 employees to help guide the company, a mindset manifested in its longtime slogan “A Helpful Smile in Every Aisle,” which expresses the company’s operating philosophy that when employees are empowered, they have a stake in the success of the business. In turn, empowerment yields happy employees, a circumstance that invariably produces better results.

Yet another employee-owned company that prioritizes employee empowerment is Boise, Idaho-based WinCo Foods, which is also renowned for its engaged workforce of roughly 15,000 in 91 stores and four distribution centers in the states of Washington, Idaho, Nevada, California, Oregon, Arizona and Utah. The company says its no-frills business model enables it to offer its employees generous, livable wages; health benefits to all of its employees who work at least 24 hours per week; and a contribution equal to 20 percent of their annual salary for a special pension fund.

San Antonio-based H-E-B is also considered a top employer for its partner empowerment strategies, which enabled the company to earn a top slot in a national list of Top 50 Places to Work as determined by workplace website, which allows employees to share anonymous employer reviews. The sixth annual list ranked H-E-B at No. 27, with a rating of 3.9 on a five-point scale whose key factors measure pay, hours and advancement opportunities. The predominant reasons for H-E-B’s overall success, as cited by associates, included the company’s mission-driven culture featuring senior leaders who articulate a clear vision and communicate effectively about employee roles.

“As the largest private employer in Texas, H-E-B is honored and humbled to be ranked highly among this distinguished group of companies,” says Tina James, H-E-B’s SVP of human resources. “The ranking by Glassdoor is a genuine testament from our partners about H-E-B. The passion and commitment to service our partners demonstrate every day is unmatched.”

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