CARSON, Calif. - For Darioush Khaledi, chairman and chief executive officer of K.V. Mart Co. here, one thing about Miguel Alarcon will always stick in his mind.
It was 1992, and Los Angeles was embroiled in the heat of the Rodney King riots. Alarcon, then a store manager who lived across the street from the store where he worked, called Khaledi at home multiple times as he watched looters ransack his store, asking permission to try to secure the supermarket.
"I had said all the employees should abandon the stores, for their safety, but he was in tears, saying, 'But that's my store.'
"I said, 'No Miguel, you should stay home. Do not cross the street.' Those few phone calls will always stick in my memory - how dedicated he was to protect his own store."
That store was also the location where Alarcon had his first job at K.V. Mart, at age 16 in 1982. Although he only had to walk across the street from his house to get to that job, he's traveled a long way since then.
Now the senior vice president of operations for the low-price operator, Alarcon has worked in every department and has held jobs in most of the stores in which he's worked.
"I've been able to handle anything that's been put in front of me," he told SN. "With all of the different challenges I've had, and all the exposure I've had to all the different departments, and all of the things I've been through, I've been able to stay ahead of things."
Having worked his way up through the ranks also has helped him earn the respect of the people who report to him - Alarcon now has five vice presidents under his purview and is responsible for operations at the company's 19 Top Valu Market and Value Plus Food Warehouse banners. The company, which also operates four other stores under different banners, mainly focuses on Hispanic customers in the greater Los Angeles area and has a sharp pricing image in the market.
After starting at K.V. Mart while still in high school, Alarcon worked his way up through the various departments of the chain before becoming first an assistant manager and then a store director in 1989. For the next 10 years, he managed several different stores in the chain before being brought into corporate headquarters as a buyer in 2000. He now reports to Paul Vazin, president of the chain.
Although he never attended college, Alarcon has taken several management classes through Dale Carnegie Training in addition to various industry training programs in such areas as food safety and point-of-sale systems.
"We do a lot of training at this company, and I sit in on all the things that I expect my people to know," he said.
That's part of what makes Alarcon successful as a manager, he said - his ability to relate to the people who work for him.
Earlier in his career, Alarcon had an opportunity to hook up with a larger chain, but he said he liked working for a smaller independent better. He had been working at both K.V. Mart and Lucky Stores when he was offered the opportunity to train for store management at Lucky.
"I was basically used to being at an independent, and it just didn't click with me," he said. "My whole life has been K.V. Mart."
Alarcon also met his second wife within the company. "She can relate to what I go through - she knows if I can't get home until 8 o'clock, it's because of business," he said.
"He does a great job with everything, like handling meetings with store directors," Khaledi said. "He does not have a formal education, but he came up through the ranks, and he is a self-taught person."
CHESHIRE, Conn. - Steve Heggelke has seen some ups and downs in his 30 years in the industry, but lately things are mostly looking up.
The senior vice president of merchandising and procurement at Bozzuto's, based here, began his supermarket career 30 years ago at age 14 at Victory Markets, a chain in upstate New York that went through a series of ownership changes before filing bankruptcy in 1996 with 84 stores, mostly under the Great American banner.
While working at the chain, Heggelke progressed through the ranks as a buyer, and he eventually headed up the company's grocery, frozen and dairy operations. That experience helped him get into the Bozzuto's organization, where he first worked in the company's former retail division before moving into the wholesaling side of the business.
For Heggelke, working with a family-owned company has allowed him to explore multiple facets of the business and gain more experience than he might have at a larger company. He credits Michael Bozzuto, chief executive officer at the voluntary wholesaler, with running the company with an entrepreneurial style that includes a demand for flexibility from his executive staff.
"I get exposure to things I wouldn't get exposure to if I was in a different organization," he told SN. "I get exposure to being involved in finance and being involved in warehouse operations. With Bozzuto's I've been able to expand my knowledge and gain experience that I wouldn't have gotten anyplace else."
When he came over from the retail side of the business to the wholesale side, Heggelke was part of a process that integrated the merchandising functions between the two divisions of the company in order to provide better service for customers. He progressed from director of merchandising for all of Bozzuto's to vice president of merchandising a year later. Then, two years ago he became senior vice president overseeing merchandising, advertising and procurement for all departments.
"We saw an opportunity to take all our merchandising and put it together, and basically take a better package out to all of our customers," he said.
His performance, he said, can be measured in the company's growth. He also has received recognition from his peers - last year he was recognized at the Person of the Year by the NorthEast Wholesale Food Distributors Association, an experience he said was humbling when he considered some of the local legends who have received the honor.
Heggelke said he's optimistic about the prospects for independent supermarkets right now, especially in the Bozzuto's system.
"Wal-Mart hasn't hit us as hard in the Northeast," he said. "The majority of our independents are still pretty healthy. They never really got devastated by the competition. We're seeing within our customer base year after year of good, solid growth. People talk about the death in the industry, but we're seeing a rebirth."
"I've been doing it since I was about 14 years old," he said. "I have always enjoyed it, and I still do today."
As the consumer advocate at Stop & Shop and Giant Food here, Astrachan provides the voice of the consumer in the decision-making process at the two chains, both of which are owned by Amsterdam-based Ahold.
She took a circuitous route to get to this point - and in some ways she has come full-circle. As a child growing up in Washington, D.C., Astrachan's family was a customer of Giant Food, and she started working there as a cashier at age 19.
"I had no intention of staying in retail," she told SN. "I took the job to pay the bills in college and law school."
After graduating from law school and working as a prosecutor for the Rhode Island district attorney, handling several cases involving violent crimes, Astrachan eventually found her way back to Ahold when she came to Stop & Shop as a diversity training specialist in 1999. At that time, all of the Ahold-owned chains were rolling out a new diversity training initiative, and Astrachan previously had conducted training in diversity and in dealing with hate crimes for the Rhode Island State Police.
She moved up within the human resources department at Stop & Shop, becoming an organization- and associate-development consultant and then manager of organizational effectiveness. In that role, she helped formulate the company's diversity business strategy, from attracting a diverse consumer base and making sure the chain had the right products to meet their needs, to the recruitment and retention of a diverse pool of employment candidates.
"I definitely enjoyed human resources, because it enabled me to build relationships within the organization," she said. "From operations to merchandising, I was able to meet all kinds of people in the organization and learn the functions of each department. That was a great building block for me, in terms of learning the organization in my current role."
Astrachan is the third person to fulfill her function at Giant Food, after Esther Peterson originated the role and Odonna Mathews took her place. Mathews, whom Astrachan remembers from her childhood as the consumer adviser at Giant Food, left the company in September. Astrachan spent a year working with her before taking over the position.
"From Odonna, my mentor, I really learned the importance of getting to know the customers, visiting stores, speaking to customers directly, reading their e-mails and written correspondence," she said. "She told me to get to know the customers, so that I am fighting on behalf of each individual customer."
There are a lot of customers to get to know - Stop & Shop and Giant of Landover, Md., together receive more than 5,000 contacts per month in the form of letters, e-mails and phone calls, Astrachan said.
In addition to communicating the needs of the consumer back to the various functional teams within Stop & Shop and Giant, Astrachan also has a more visible role communicating with customers through her weekly column, through which she dispenses advice about nutrition, saving money on groceries and meal planning.
Some of her proudest accomplishments involve these communications with shoppers, from explaining the Food and Drug Administration's MyPyramid nutritional guidelines to revamping store tours for schoolchildren.
"I think the strength I bring to this role is my advocacy," she said. "The way I see it, there are a lot of similarities in the roles that I've had. When I was a prosecutor, I was advocating for victims; when I was in human resources, I was advocating for our associates and representing their interest; when I was the head of diversity, I was advocating for diverse interests and customers; and in this role, I am advocating for the customer," she said. "If you asked me which of those advocacy roles I liked best, I would say this one."
SALISBURY, N.C. - James Egan has had a broad range of experience at Food Lion, from operations to category management, and that's prepared him well for his current role as vice president of Food Lion's Bloom concept.
As the team leader for the rollout of the new format, which focuses on convenience and a more eclectic product selection than a typical Food Lion, Egan oversees Bloom's dedicated operations, category management, retail services and marketing functions, and is responsible for coordinating support from Food Lion in other areas.
"Having experience in retail operations and retail training and category management really has given me a broad skill set to work from to prepare for my new responsibilities at Bloom," he said. "It really does require a broader set of skills than I might have gotten had I stayed in one functional area."
Egan joined Bloom about eight months ago just as the company began analyzing customer feedback from the initial rollout of five stores in the Charlotte, N.C., market. His career at Food Lion actually began in his native Richmond, Va., where he worked as a bagger before working his way up through the store-operations side of the business.
At least initially, part of his role at Bloom will be a homecoming of sorts. Egan previously had been a vice president in Food Lion's Atlantic Division, where he helped roll out the chain in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Delaware markets. Now, as the head of Bloom, he'll be part of the re-evaluation of the Washington market as Food Lion seeks to determine which of its stores there will be converted to the Bloom banner.
Food Lion has also announced that six of the stores it plans to open in the Spartanburg, S.C., market in the next few years will carry the Bloom banner.
Egan cited his part in the initial rollout of the Washington-area stores as one of his proudest accomplishments at Food Lion, in addition to rolling out a new category management system at the time he was overseeing the deli-bakery and home-meal solutions area at Food Lion.
"Historically at Food Lion, leaders generally specialized in a specific function, and cross functionality was not really a priority, but when Rick Anicetti [Food Lion's chief executive officer] joined our team, Rick really encouraged and expected Food Lion's leadership team to have a broader understanding of the business," he said. "So that's what allowed me to leave operations after 18 years and go to work in deli-bakery management, and I really feel that my new role at Bloom is another opportunity to kind of build that diverse set of skills to lead in an ever-evolving industry."
As mentors, Egan cited his parents for instilling the values of integrity, development, hard work and discipline that have helped him at Food Lion. He also cited Kathy Green, Food Lion's current chief operating officer, for providing a corporate leadership example.
"She is absolutely passionate about developing talent," he said. "She really, in her words, is passionate about 'unleashing the best in others.' It's core to who she is as a leader, and she's inspired me to think differently about who I am as a leader to others."
Egan said that while traditional skills like clear communication and the ability to coax the best out of his workers are important management skills, it is important to instill an element of fun in the daily grind.
"I think that's an important part of our brand," he said. "Our brand is very straightforward, thoughtful and optimistic, and we really want to have fun and create an environment where there's some excitement and energy and enthusiasm, and it's an important part of our team dynamics.
"It's also important to me personally to have the kind of environment where I can come to work every day and enjoy all our successes," he said.
ST. LOUIS - A degree in psychology might not be the typical background for someone entering the supermarket business - but it was just about all James Mueller had on his resume when he started his management career at Schnuck Markets here.
Mueller had actually worked at the 102-store chain during college as a dishwasher at a restaurant that was acquired by Schnucks, and after college decided to stay with the company and become a store manager.
"I liked the work and I liked the company, so I decided to stick it out for a couple of years to see how it goes," he said.
Since then he has been at the heart of the company's major technological initiatives, from the implementation of scanning to the rollout of electronic-payment systems.
Early on in his career at Schnucks, Mueller went to work in the chain's main office to work with a local market-research firm on a project to code the chain's entire inventory to help better track sales. That was before the advent of scanning, but it had laid the groundwork he needed.
When Schnucks eventually did begin scanning in 1977, he was asked to head up the project for the chain.
"That was the job I really wanted," he said. "I got our first store up and running, and since then I've converted the whole chain roughly three times over - we're in our third generation of point of sale."
That ground-floor knowledge of the company's POS systems has given Mueller the IT footing he needed to take on all of the chain's IT needs, from the help desk to field service to new-store IT implementations. He now has about 40 people on his staff who handle all those functions.
"I tell people that I've been in this business for 35 years, but I've never had the same job more than four or five years, because it keeps changing," he said. "It's a very dynamic industry."
Mueller - who eventually received his MBA while working at the chain - has also helped Schnucks implement systems of electronic payments, and Schnucks was among the first chains to accept debit cards in 1989.
"Point of sale has always been an interesting part of the business for me, and along the way we've brought electronic payments and point of sale together," he said. "Now that industry is flourishing again with biometrics."
"I have people who have been working for me since 1987," he said. "You just don't see many people leaving."
He said he's had several mentors and role models through his career, including two former Schnucks vice presidents - Ike Barry and Dick Davis - both of whom he credits for teaching him the ropes.
He also said he considers himself fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with the Schnuck family, including Don Schnuck, the father of the current generation of Schnucks leaders.
"Not many people get that opportunity," he said. "You see how he and his brother grew this company to where it was, and now I've watched this next generation just pick it up and run with it."
SEATTLE - Staci Webber is becoming an expert at managing change, both in her own career and at Associated Grocers here.
Not only did she engineer a career shift from United Airlines to food distribution, she has also transitioned from union labor to management at the cooperative wholesaler.
Webber, the assistant manager at AG's dry grocery warehouse here, oversees a team of 250 workers in an environment where men significantly outnumber women. Having spent nine years herself as a union worker on the warehouse floor, Webber said she was well-prepared to move into a larger supervisory position when the company asked her to do so.
"I knew I didn't want to pick groceries for a living," she said, adding that one of the reasons she wanted to get into management at AG was that she saw the opportunity to help preserve a positive working environment for the crew.
While working as a clerk at United Airlines, Webber took advantage of the management-training programs that company offered, which she said further laid the groundwork for her career at AG. She also completed a two-year course in food-industry management while employed at AG, which tallies about $850 million in annual sales.
"I always knew I wanted to be part of a team effort," she said, "and I was always drawn to highly motivational jobs."
Webber has had the opportunity to play a significant role in several major transitions at the co-op, including the consolidation of a repackaging facility from Kent, Wash., into the Seattle warehouse and, more recently, the integration of a new customer - Haggen Inc. - into the warehouse.
"They have their own private label, and we have Western Family," she explained, noting that the warehouse had to be reslotted to accommodate the 2,000-plus stockkeeping units of Haggen's store brand.
In the end, Webber and her team were able to restructure the order-picking routes so that the travel time in picking orders for non-Haggen accounts was slashed by about 10 cases per hour.
Webber cites two of her supervisors as helping her develop as a manager while at AG: Roy Emmett, the warehouse manager, and Bill Kearney, vice president.
Although she was glad to get off the warehouse floor and into the management role, Webber said she still feels it is an important part of her job to be in among the workers she oversees. For example, she cited the times this winter when forecasters predicted major snowfalls for the Pacific Northwest, which sent AG into overdrive as its members suddenly had to stock up to accommodate anxious shoppers. She was able to see first hand how hard the crew worked to get the job done, she said.
"I feel like I'm neglecting something if I spend the whole day in the office or in meetings," she said. "Keeping your finger on the pulse of the situation makes you quick to react to whatever changes need to happen, or quick to compliment whatever accomplishments the crew may have had."