Juvenal Chavez Sr. grew Mi Pueblo Foods to $300 million using values Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2010

When Juvenal Chavez Sr. and his wife went grocery shopping in the United States after emigrating from Mexico, they soon realized how different the process was here than it was in their home country.

There, it had been more personal and people seemed to care about you, but here, they felt lost in the masses.

“Businesses feed you as a statistic,” he says. “They feed you as one more number. They see you as the economic value that you represent to them.”

He also recognized that many stores tried to understand the Hispanic population and spent good money trying to do so.

“They hire consultants, and they hire people with the knowledge in the area in order to understand the most about these customers,” Chavez says. “I realized that, and I understood that that would be my competitive advantage against them in that area by knowing my customer, by knowing the wishes and desires and tastes for food, the different ingredients. I know the traditions and the language and culture. I can relate not only in the basic needs while in the store but also I relate to them in its totality as a whole experience.”

So Chavez, who had been a high school teacher in Mexico, decided to go into the retail industry. He started with just one small butcher shop about 20 years ago, and from there, he’s grown it into Mi Pueblo Foods, a $300 million grocery retail chain with 17 locations and plans to add three more by next year. The founder and CEO says that focusing on “el cariño y el respecto” — care and respect — when it comes to both employees and customers has been the key to his success and growth.

He says, “I’m in the people business — not the grocery business.”

Focus on your customers

Chavez asks his employees to make eye contact each time they interact with a customer, so they don’t miss his or her face.

“I encourage my people to do that honestly, sincerely and naturally,” he says. “It’s been working since day one, and it’s working today.”

It’s a small request, but it’s huge in that it gets employees out of their own world and forces them to focus on the customer, which is one of the keys to Mi Pueblo’s growth over the years.

Chavez says that the first step to focusing on your customers begins with recognizing the extent of your knowledge. While he understood his customers’ needs better than the competition, he still needed to get to know them as individuals to make sure he really understood them on a deeper level.

“I began with the premise that I don’t know the information that I need to know in order to go out there and do business,” he says.

You have to realize you don’t know everything about your customers, and the only way to learn is to ask.

“How are you going to do that — by listening and observing and asking them a lot of questions and telling them, ‘I’m here to fulfill a need for you. I’m here to serve you. How can I serve you better? Everyone began with the same piece of meat. How can I put this piece of meat in your hand, onto your table in such a way that represents more value to you?’”

He also makes sure that when he goes to his office or leaves the stores that he walks through the main sales floor so he can see what’s going on and talk to customers.

“The best place to be is where the action is taking place — on the sales floor,” he says. “The worst place to be is sitting in the chair, behind the desk.”

He’s gotten great feedback by doing this. One woman pulled him aside and explained that the employees at the meat counter were throwing the meat to each other and flopping it on the counter for her, and it was disrespectful. She went on to tell him that this is the meat she will be preparing for her table at home, and she would like it handled with more respect. Chavez agreed.

“I tell my employees, ‘Imagine that this meat is a gift, and the only thing that is missing is the [tag] that says this gift is coming from me to yourself,’” he says.

It may just be one complaint from one woman, but you never know how many customers have felt the same way and not spoken up. And it’s a simple change.

“You have to use your judgment; you have to use your common sense,” Chavez says. … “You don’t have to invent anything. Everything’s already created. You don’t have to invent the wheel. There are so many processes and behaviors out there in use today by others and used in the past by others. You have to grab them and put them in practice.”

And you have to communicate to your customers about the things that you change on their behalf.

“Bring them and make them part of the change,” he says “You have to create trust and respect and you have to tell them that everything you’re doing here is with the intention to provide that environment to them. In that process, they will tell you what they want, what they don’t like or could be offensive to them.”

And even when customers don’t have complaints and instead offer compliments, he still remembers to focus on them.

“Usually, the biggest compliment you hear is when customers tell you, ‘Thank you — thank you for what you’re doing for me,’” he says. “And I will tell them, ‘On the contrary, you’re the one who’s making this business successful and the reason for our existence is you, and you’re the one that keeps Mi Pueblo growing — it’s not me.

“Seeing it that way and approaching it that way, and then being accessible to your customers, that’s where the customer continues to see you as the same human being you want to be seen as. No difference.”

Focus on your employees

When a new store is opening, Chavez spends an entire week of his time working with the new employees. He talks to them about the vision of Mi Pueblo and about personal development, leadership, how they, too, can become leaders and how he wants to help them in life.

“The first reaction that these people express is how come this guy — the founder of Mi Pueblo — who doesn’t have the need to do this, is making this personal investment in us,” he says. “I can see people crying, and I can see people asking me very, very personal questions. I can see people totally committed by the second day.”

He gets that commitment from people because he takes the time to come down to their level.

“If you allow your own position to trap you, you can lose the sense of yourself,” he says. “You can lose the essence of what brought you to where you are today. … You have to realize that you are not perfect and that you are vulnerable and that you need others for you to succeed. Tell them that.”

He also takes this approach because he sees himself as more than just a CEO — he’s trying to build character into each employee and improve their lives.

“The basic values and the basic vision and philosophy of the company is not changing,” he says. “It’s what’s making us successful in the past, and it’s what’s making us successful today, and the same values will make us successful in the future, so we have to make sure we are teaching most of the people.”

The key is to take the servant leadership approach.

“We’re here to serve others,” he says. “We’re not here to direct. We’re not here with a position of power or a title. We’re here with a position of responsibility of leadership to help others achieve great things in life.”

Because of this respect and care for employees, word spreads fast, and jobs are in high demand when the next store opens.

“We go through anywhere from 3,500 to 5,000 applicants to hire a couple hundred employees,” he says. “Really, in that process, you are hand-picking your people.”

It’s nice to have that many people wanting to work for you, and it allows him to pick people who will buy in to Mi Pueblo’s values and be receptive to his message and leadership approach.

Employees walk through three or four screenings so he and his team can identify if there’s a values match, and Chavez himself asks many questions of potential employees.

“‘Tell me about you. I want to know you. My intention here is to know about you,’” he says. “That’s one of the questions I ask.”

But then he goes deeper. He asks the person, “If I were to talk to your mother, husband, wife or other close relation, how would they describe you? What three or four attributes would they say embody who you are?” Then he asks the converse — “What one or two things about you would that same person want to see changed in you?”

He also strives to understand what makes them tick.

“What gives you the passion, the hope, the joy?” he says. “You lose your mood, you lose your temperament, you lose your posture — what do you do in order to recover yourself?”

He also asks how they got to where they are now in life and what makes them a successful person today.

“What values?” he says. “What practices? What disciplines? What education? Also, I ask them, ‘Why should I hire you? If you were me, interviewing you, why should I hire you? Tell me about it.’

“Those are most certainly simplistic questions, but they are very tough questions, and I always allow room for them to ask me any questions. I usually tell them, ‘I’ve been asking a lot of questions, and my intention was to get to know you — do you have any question for me?’ I always leave room for that.”

And if they ever doubt their worth, Chavez is quick to reassure them as part of his corporate family.

“I tell them, ‘Do you have any doubts about why you’re here? Forget them. We hand-picked you. You’re here because you’re a successful person. You are here because you are part of something big in here. You may not have the skills in your hands today, and you may not have all the solutions to the situations you are dealing with today, but in a few weeks, you will have confidence and the skills in your hand, and you are the one producing the results we look to you to produce, but the values are more important to us.’”

As employees start in their actual day-to-day jobs, he continues encouraging them to stretch beyond what they see on the surface. For example, if a customer asks them something and if Chavez asks why they responded the way they did or why they weren’t able to help them, they often tell him it’s because they’re new.

“I tell them, ‘Think for a moment. No one asks if you’re new, and nobody knows you’re new. Smile. Be yourself. Be present. Be in here ready to open. Don’t let the customer know you’re new in that way. Try to impress the customer in a different positive way so you can give that positive impression,’” he says.

Those encouraging words can go a long way.

“It’s about giving counsel, trust and providing an environment to get ordinary people to be themselves,” Chavez says. “Once you give them the space and once you provide the environment and believe in them, they grow miles trying to fulfill and even, perhaps, exceed your own expectations.”

How to reach: Mi Pueblo Foods, (888) 997-7717 or www.mipueblofoods.com