Many more years ago than I would care to acknowledge, I was a neophyte SN reporter. As such I was often assigned to go out and conduct interviews with retailing executives. At the end of those business-oriented interviews, I would often pose a question that went something like this: "As a food retailer, is there any driving force or philosophy that lifts what you do above the realm of profit and loss?"
The intent was to discover if there was anything ennobling about providing a basic human need, namely food. The question seldom elicited much more than a blank stare that suggested a lack of comprehension, or maybe a quiet chuckle that suggested the question's naivete.
But after all these years, I now realize the question wasn't so silly after all. Consider these three observations by Danny Wegman, president, Wegmans Food Markets. They were made in connection with Wegmans' program that sponsors and trains at-risk student-employees (Page 1):
"Sometimes we talk about why anyone should come into [the food-retailing business]. One reason is that you can make a major difference with the substantial portion of people in America who are minorities. In many ways, minorities are the future of the food industry."
"It's in [the food-retailing industry's] own interest to help America with its biggest problem, and we're the perfect part of the economy to do it. General Motors and Microsoft can't lead this. The food industry can, because we're used to employing young people and that's what we do. It's pretty exciting for our industry."
"We need to help others for our own good. That's how I feel. That's why there's so much interest in our program from others in the supermarket industry. This is a program that makes sense and it's good business. And if other [food retailers] don't have a training program like this, they will have substantial costs."
I won't recite the details of the program, since they are described at length in this week's front-page news feature, but suffice it to know for this purpose that the Wegmans program is unique and it has produced spectacular results.
They include these: The program has boosted minority participation in employment at Wegmans stores; the program has reversed a startlingly large high-school dropout rate for its participants and has launched many into college; the program has produced a qualified pool of in-store workers for Wegmans, and the program has sharply lowered the churn rate of Wegmans' part-time workers.
And here's the other important part of this situation that should be of interest to every supermarket chain in the nation: In recent months, Wegmans obtained nearly $5 million in funding from New York state. This will permit dramatic expansion of the training program. The funds came from state funds that were once devoted to welfare payments, and which are now available to devote to training the disadvantaged. Virtually every state now has such funds. And Wegmans stands willing to help any supermarket operator design a program that should be successful in attracting these funds.
By the way, the "visionary" logo you see at the top of the facing page, and through the pages of the Wegmans news feature, is new to SN. Its purpose is to identify news articles we'll publish on a periodic basis that set forth what companies do to make a positive difference in their communities and their industry.