Food for thought Featured

8:00pm EDT September 27, 2007
Simplicity is beautiful to Judy Spires.

The president of Acme Markets Inc. says simplicity is the oil that greases the cogs of any business organization, making growth and good communication much easier to achieve. She believes in keeping her messages simple, her philosophies simple and her overall leadership style simple.

Of course, trying to keep things simple can be a rather complex process when you’re the president of a company composed of 129 supermarkets in Greater Philadelphia, New Jersey and Maryland, staffed by about 16,000 people.

That’s why Spires has made it a priority to work at it and see to it that her managers work at it.

“You have to be very organized and disciplined,” she says. “We have a president’s meeting every Monday. The meeting has to be meaningful, it has to be precise and concise, and people have to come to the meeting prepared to share the key things they’re working on so we all understand each others’ priorities, and we’re joined at the hip with regard to what’s going on.”

Spires says to keep things simple, you have to know how to communicate and never lose sight of the basic principles that guide your business. If you lose sight of the basics, your employees will lose sight.

“You have to keep your goals stated very simply and keep repeating them,” she says. “You have to make them a part of everything you do. That’s how you keep people focused.”

The front lines

At Acme Markets — a subsidiary of the $37 billion Minnesota-based grocery store giant SUPERVALU Inc. since 2006 — Spires keeps everyone focused on three basic goals that serve as driving principles for the business: “We want to be the best place to work, the best place to shop and the best place to invest.”

Every collaborative project and every individual goal needs to address one of the three main organizational goals. Spires says if it doesn’t, it’s not worth discussing.

Spires places an emphasis on enabling the employees who interact directly with customers and shareholders to take the initiative and come up with ways to make the company a better place to do business. Those employees are the eyes and ears on the ground for any business and are the people who will be able to react quickly to the changing needs of the customer base.

For example, Acme faces a unique challenge in that the company must sell essentially the same products from city to city and neighborhood to neighborhood but must also cater to the specific needs of the local community.

Spires says in areas of suburban Philadelphia that have a large Jewish population, Acme stores need to have a full-service kosher deli in order to best serve customers. Stores in commercial districts might need a large salad bar for the business lunch crowd.

Giving managers on the store level the power to steer their individual stores didn’t happen overnight. Spires says it took an extensive organizational restructuring on the operations side.

“We set up our new structure in the organization, we restructured our operations team to afford those very close relationships with the marketing and merchandising people so we could make sure that we are supplying the store managers with what they say are their needs for their particular neighborhoods,” she says.

The ideas that form on the store level aren’t necessarily limited to one particular store.

Spires says if you allow ideas to well up within the organization, you’ll find that an idea that was formed in one area can potentially benefit other areas of the company.

That’s why, whenever possible, Spires brings representatives from individual stores together in face-to-face meetings. It’s an opportunity for managers across the Acme chain to find out what is going on in other locations, and perhaps form ideas for improving their own stores.

“It’s amazing how many people are doing some best practices that we don’t even know about,” Spires says. “When people hear stuff from their peers at work and they get a live testimonial, it ignites them to go back and try that, it ignites their thought process to say, ‘What can I do to better please customers, to get a better spirit in my store?’ It creates such wonderful momentum.”

The meetings have built so much momentum, Spires and her team decided to formalize it into a council. In Acme’s Associates Council, one representative is elected from each store. Quarterly, all the store representatives meet with Spires and her senior vice president of operations.

“The Associates Council gets to come in and tell us what is on the minds of the people in their store,” Spires says. “What are we doing, what aren’t we doing, what can we do better? It gives our associates a way to know that they’re being heard, and it also gives us an opportunity to get to our main source of contact with the customer and let our associates know what is going on.

“The growth we’ve seen there and the communication that takes place are doing wonderful things for our organization.”

Communication matters

New ideas can well up from the bottom, but Spires says the culture that allows those ideas to take root starts at the top.

As the company leader, she says you need to be able to set examples that everyone can follow. When it comes to communication, it all starts with keeping it simple and casting the widest possible net with your messages.

“Communication is about three things: listen, listen and listen,” she says. “It has to start at the top of the organization. When you truly listen to people, the results are incredible. You hear how they respond. It’s amazing what you hear on many levels.”

Spires sets the example at Acme by practicing what she preaches. She goes out of her way to make interaction with her team a priority.

There is no magic formula to making time for employee engagement when there are dozens of other tasks that need to be taken care of. You have to make a schedule, and then stick to it.

“I schedule blocked-out time with each individual I meet with on a weekly basis,” Spires says. “The door gets closed, and no one interrupts us. On-the-fly conversations don’t allow you to do that. My team knows that my door is always open and that we’re always talking and communicating. They know that when it gets down to the business issues, they can schedule specific time and have my absolute, undivided attention. The door gets closed, I listen intently, and it’s their time.”

Management repeatedly emphasizing open, honest communication is how employees overcome any reservations they might have about approaching upper management with a question, concern or idea. The only way employees will become convinced that you want to hear what they have to say is if they see it for themselves over and over.

That’s a big reason why Spires likes to take her open communication philosophy on the road. In addition to having an open-door policy in her office, she frequently visits Acme stores.

“You have to make yourself accessible and walk the talk,” she says. “For me, I love being out in the stores, talking to my people and making myself accessible.

“We have a town-hall meeting once a month where we tell people what is going on in the business. We share our numbers with everybody. There are no secrets. You get people to believe you by walking the talk, by being in situations where people say things, and it doesn’t come back to haunt them.”

When you communicate a mindset of best practices and problem solving, Spires says you encourage teamwork by creating an environment where people aren’t afraid to bring their shortcomings to the table and discuss them.

“In one of our first associate council meetings, we had a store manager ask if we would take a look at the store because it needed some neighborhood merchandising help,” she says. “By the afternoon, our merchandising team was in that store and worked with the store team to do what they needed to do.”

She says the store’s revenue production has grown rapidly since then.

“My message to management is that I don’t need to come to the store and tell you what you’re not doing right. I need you to show me the things you are doing right and the things you need help with.”

Realizing potential

While good communication is a must for any company that wants motivated employees and a successful culture, you can’t stop there. You also have to reward employees for realizing their potential and helping the company grow.

One of the first lessons Spires learned in business was that people want to feel like they matter.

“People need to feel attached to the company they work for,” she says. “They need to know that there is an importance to what they do.

“It’s something I experienced firsthand when I was just starting out. My store director, when I started working in this business, he had this ability to make me feel that this company wouldn’t run if I wasn’t here to do my job — and I was a part-timer. I knew how much money I made in an hour, but that wasn’t the thing that made me fall in love with the business. It was how he made me feel about my job and my worth to the company. That’s something I firmly believe in.”

Spires tries to make people feel like they matter by doing things like handing out service recognition cards, which are handed out to high performers on the spot. She recognizes achievements on her weekly organizational broadcast. Stores that reach organizational benchmarks receive a storewide employee lunch.

But she says the tokens of gratitude and pats on the back don’t tell the whole story. Truly rewarding a high achiever means giving that person a chance to grow within the company.

Spires has helped launch a career fair program aimed at allowing the talents of her employees to blossom before they have a chance to work elsewhere.

In July, Acme invited more than 100 employees to one such fair.

“Having people do things they’re interested in, it just makes a world of difference,” she says. “Finding a cashier who is a high school art student and would really like to be a cake decorator, that makes all the difference, as opposed to finding someone from the outside and hiring them as a cake decorator.

“It all starts at that basic level, asking people, ‘What interest do you have in this company?’ or finding out what department they’d like to work in. People need to know what opportunities you have for them as they move up the ladder. That’s where we really start to get tremendous success stories from our people. It all goes back to one of our main goals of making this the best place to work.”

HOW TO REACH: Acme Markets Inc.,