Recruiting the Best

Finding the best talent can seem like a never-ending quest. "You always have to be looking, whether it is at other local retailers, at church, wherever you are," says Jodie Felter, human resources director for Niemann Foods Inc. in Quincy, Ill.

Felter started with Niemann Foods 19 years ago when it was a 20-unit operation. Today the company operates 100 supermarkets, convenience and hardware locations in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri under banners such as County Market and Cub Foods. Thanks to its growth, the company has no shortage of applicants, Felter says. Still, finding the right person for management is a challenge because "leadership skills are so important."

Despite executive ranks that have thinned due to consolidation and operational streamlining in recent years, those who recruit and hire say that competition for talent in the supermarket business has never been more fierce. Companies are more selective than ever, demanding candidates who are not just competent but have the skills to take an operation to the next level.

"Everyone wants someone from the top 20 companies," though often that is "fiscally difficult," says Jean Forney, managing director of Samuel J Associates, a Boca Raton, Fla., search firm specializing in the supermarket industry.

A sizable pool of downsized former executives and experienced workers exists, with many who have by choice stepped into related fields, Forney says. But most supermarket chains continue to comb the ranks of competitors for talent.

"The perception that the industry changes so quickly that the knowledge and skills are soon outdated" is so strong, she says, that "it is more difficult to place someone who stepped away or is out of work than someone who is currently employed."

Stepping Back In

Downsized former workers are "the most overlooked source of talent" for grocers today, Forney contends. "The chances are they are more resourceful and know how to do more for less. Some of the most talented people have stepped away from supermarkets to work for a vendor or in another retail operation. It exposes them to new ideas and ways of doing things, some more progressive and innovative."

But some companies are more comfortable knowing a candidate is "moving for an opportunity," not out of job desperation, says Richard Mazzola, managing partner of Futures Search in Lynnfield, Mass., and a specialist in recruiting for the supermarket industry. The recruiter also sees more of what he calls "hybridization"–a willingness by grocery executives to look at candidates with some background outside the industry–than in the past. And he points out that companies are looking for the "best candidate" regardless of race, ethnicity or gender.

While food companies are already more inclusive than many other industries, with women heading such iconic companies as PepsiCo, Archer Daniels Midland and Campbell Soup Co., some firms are making gender parity a priority because they see more talent to be tapped in women. Unilever and Coca-Cola Co. received the 2013 Catalyst Award for exceptional initiatives that expand opportunities for women and business. Both multinational companies are tackling advancing more high-potential women into leadership.

At Unilever, "talent is a centerpiece of being competitive" in the global marketplace ahead, says Leena Nair, senior vice president for human resources, who is responsible for Unilever's diversity efforts. "When more than half of the university graduates" are female, she asks, "how can you afford to ignore women?"

Gender-Balanced Leadership

Unilever is betting that more gender-balanced leadership teams will bring insight and a competitive edge to products ranging from Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream to Tresemme hair care, since 80 percent of its customers are women. Its initiatives include job sharing in Germany and Career by Choice in India, which allows educated women who have stepped away from the workplace to re-enter it as business consultants with the option of becoming full-time workers. The company also offers mentoring to women.

The number of women in the Unilever pipeline for executive vice president and vice president positions rose to 21 percent in 2012 from 16 percent in 2009, while the percentage of women at director level increased to 32 percent from 27 percent, and those at the manager level rose to 43 percent from 40 percent.

"We are trying to embed that how we do hiring is that if there are two talented men, look at two talented women as well and make the best choice."

–Leena Nair,


The corporation continues to educate those responsible for hiring to be conscious of the importance of inclusion. "This is a talent and business decision," Nair says. "We are trying to embed that how we do hiring is that if there are two talented men, look at two talented women as well and make the best choice."

Overlooking gender, race, ethnicity and age in the hiring process might require some managers to make an "internal shift," says Angela Hills, executive vice president of Pinstripe, a recruitment process outsourcing provider based in Brookfield, Wis.

"The temptation is to pick the one that is most like us," she notes. Before hiring the first good candidate, an executive needs to step back, assess whether a diverse array of candidates were considered and ask, "Is this really the best candidate for the job?"

Employers are interested in people who can capture the growing Latino market as well as the millennial generation of young adults. Mazzola is among those who wonder whether food retailers and manufacturers are missing out on some of the best and the brightest future leaders now in their 20s and 30s.

"Ask young people at universities looking forward to the first job if they have considered a job in supermarket, and they say 'no.' They see retail with long hours, putting in work at the store level where you have to pick up paper off the floor, and they have no interest," he says.

"Generally, if you haven't changed your recruiting in the last two years, you are missing out."

– Angela Hills,


Reaching out to those workers requires added recruiting through blogs, LinkedIn, Facebook and online networking sites, says Hills. "Generally, if you haven't changed your recruiting in the last two years, you are missing out."

Catering to Candidates

To recruit younger workers, companies should offer what candidates find motivating, says Adam Robinson, chief executive officer of Hireology, a Chicago company that has developed web-based technology to help companies organize and streamline hiring. "They like working on a project that gets finished and is engaging, and they want to work in an environment they enjoy." He describes that environment as one where "there is a sense of trust that you can make a mistake that you can learn from" and won't be fired, he says.

"Young people like to be challenged," notes Felter of Niemann Foods. "They like flexibility and learning new things."

"Young people like to be challenged.... They like flexibility and learning new things."

–Jodie Felter,

Niemann Foods Inc.

She keeps that in mind when recruiting at job fairs and colleges in the company's market area and when talking about Niemann Foods' career possibilities with the many college students who work for the company. "A lot of our best talent is within," she says, "and it is our desire to promote from within."

One of Niemann Foods' most-effective recruiting tools is the fact "that we are associate-owned. It's our company. We are growing. That's a huge deal."

Three years ago, the firm started the NFI Leadership Academy, a two-year training program of weekly meetings designed to prepare 25 employees for promotion to store director or department supervisor. One group has completed the program and another is going through it now, Felter says.

Reasor's, a regional supermarket chain in northeastern Oklahoma, also has an extensive management training program for selected employees and new hires with experience, says Dave Brumley, executive vice president and chief human resources officer.

The company strives to promote work-life balance, says Brumley, a single father who raised a son in the 1980s and 1990s. Although stores are open 24 hours a day, the company tries to train directors to "work smart" rather than plod through the brutal 70- to 80-hour weeks that once were the retail norm. And, he says, employees are encouraged to ask, "Why are we doing this?" if they are told to sell or do something that doesn't match up with the firm's values and reputation. Those elements contribute to the chain's reputation as a desirable place to work, and management turnover is in the single digits.

Ultimately, developing a strong reputation as a great place to work will make it easier to find top talent, Forney says. "The first question from my candidates is, 'Tell me about the culture of the company.' They want to know how a company adapts, changes, how progressive it is." They want to work for a company without a lot of bureaucracy. They want to be at a place where "promotion is not in a silo but there is room for movement and growth." They want to be in an organization where the leaders recognize and understand that the talent required for successfully running the meat department can be applied to other departments as well.

"Salary is not the number one question," she says. "It's probably in the top three questions, but it is really the intangibles" that count.

Sharon Stangenes has reported on retailing and consumer products for more than 25 years for daily newspapers and industry trade publications.