BUTLER, Pa. -- The way for women to move into the corporate suite may be through the ranks of retail operations, Carole Bitter, president and chief executive officer of Friedman's Supermarkets here, said.
"Retail operations is hard work, with long hours, but it's a viable option for promotions to senior level positions," she told SN. "In the last few years there have been quite a few presidents and CEOs with strong financial backgrounds whose companies are not excelling at retail and who have not necessarily added value to shareholders, employees or customers, nor have they enhanced their company's ability to compete with supercenters and other alternative formats.
"As a result, I predict top executives from the retail operations side of the business will come back into fashion, and people coming up through those ranks will have a huge advantage in the future -- and women can be part of that group if they put in the time and effort now."
With hundreds of female store managers and district managers in the industry today, Bitter said she believes women have made considerable progress, "but they've also suffered from a lack of significant roles at senior-level positions, and I wouldn't have predicted things would be so slow to change."
"It's because of the glass ceiling that exists, a lack of mentors and a large number of women who are not interested in putting in years of hard work and long hours at store level but who prefer positions in public relations, finance and legal with more traditional hours," she said.
Bitter said she believes women moving up through the ranks should be open to lateral career development -- moving from store manager to the corporate office for marketing experience, for example, then back out to the field as a district manager, then back to headquarters to work on logistics.
"There are a lot of opportunities for lateral cross training for hand-picked candidates that are deemed to have high potential," Bitter explained, "but potential candidates who are especially insightful and at a level of maturity to recognize the need for cross training may need to grab the initiative themselves or it won't happen."
She said she believes senior executives need to mentor younger talent, including women, "because there are a lot of shoals out there, and if a senior executive recognizes talent, he can help women a lot."
Bitter said she has served as a mentor for the past 35 years -- through speaking at various universities, working with the Food Marketing Institute's task force on diversity, "or simply receiving calls from women, as well as from fathers with daughters, who wanted my encouragement for them to come into the business."
Bitter said her six years at Stop & Shop were extremely beneficial in her professional and personal development, "but sexual harassment and gender discrimination was just a fact of life, and I felt there was no real job security for upward mobility there for someone unwilling to play corporate politics."
The leadership qualities women need, Bitter said, include a good academic background and a good base in operations. "Good leaders, male or female, must have good entrepreneurial instincts and good people skills. They also need to read management books -- they need to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and then work to overcome the weaknesses.
One area women need to explore more is store ownership, she said. "Women should consider acquiring some of the store divestures and become their own bosses," Bitter explained.
Carole Friedman Bitter
president, CEO, Friedman's Supermarkets, Butler, Pa.
Carole Friedman Bitter oversees seven stores under the Friedman's and Bi-Lo Foods banners in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Bitter, 58, worked in the family business prior to attending Case Western Reserve University, joined Stop & Shop Supermarkets as a management trainee in 1968, then was named the first woman supermarket manager at the chain.
She spent five years at Stop & Shop, serving as reserve store manager, assistant to the vice presidents of advertising marketing services, supermarket manager, assistant to the grocery sales manager of the Boston supermarket division and resident supervisor store manager.
She left Stop & Shop in 1974 to earn a master's degree in business administration from Northeastern University. Two years later, when her father, Harold Friedman, told her he wanted to retire and would sell the business if she did not assume the presidency, she accepted the job.
Bitter serves as a director of the Food Marketing Institute, the National Grocers Association and the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association. She is also a member of the President's Council of Cornell Women, an advisory group whose goal is to enhance the role of women in the life of the university.