INDUSTRY FINDS QUALIFIED LEADERSHIP IN ITS OWN RANKS

Food retailing seems to have a predilection for nurturing home-grown talent.With a few notable exceptions -- such as Larry Johnston, chairman and chief executive officer of Albertsons, who joined the Boise, Idaho-based chain from General Electric -- most of the industry's top executives have honed their skills within the industry.Some observers have posited that supermarket operators might be better

Food retailing seems to have a predilection for nurturing home-grown talent.

With a few notable exceptions -- such as Larry Johnston, chairman and chief executive officer of Albertsons, who joined the Boise, Idaho-based chain from General Electric -- most of the industry's top executives have honed their skills within the industry.

Some observers have posited that supermarket operators might be better served by bringing in more people like Johnston from outside the realm of food retailing. But the jury is still out on Johnston's performance, and, judging by the ongoing success of many of the nation's regional supermarket companies that have developed their top executives from within, the industry seems perfectly capable of nurturing its own leadership.

Even those companies that would seem to be best positioned to attract executives from outside the aisles of supermarket power instead choose to go shopping in their own talent warehouses.

Just look at Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets, whose mailboxes have likely been overflowing with the resumes of job-seekers after the chain was recently named the best company to work for in America by Fortune magazine. Last week, Wegmans literally selected from within its own gene pool, however, by elevating longtime President Danny Wegman to the post of CEO and tapping his daughter, Colleen Wegman, to succeed him as president (see Page 8).

People who are familiar with the two Wegmans executives were not surprised, and Wegmans' record of success is testament to the prowess of the industry's internally developed leaders. Chains like Delhaize America's Hannaford Bros. and Ahold USA's Stop & Shop have been virtual breeding grounds for executive talent for their parent companies.

In fact, the pool of experienced, qualified supermarket executives who are available for hire is overflowing, according to Jose Tamez, managing partner of executive search firm Austin Michaels, San Antonio.

"Every year this industry is getting smaller and smaller," he told SN recently. "As it gets tighter and tighter, the job market also gets tighter and the competition for some of those roles becomes more fierce."

With analysts predicting more consolidation ahead, additional executives with food-retailing experience are likely to end up scanning the help-wanted pages. As a result, many of the vacancies that do emerge can be expected to be filled by people with industry experience rather than by those from outside the industry. (In an upcoming issue, SN will profile some of the industry's leading up-and-coming executives.)

For struggling companies like Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla., the depth of the talent pool could be refreshing. Peter Lynch, the former Albertsons president who was made redundant by Johnston's move from General Electric, took the helm of Winn-Dixie late last year. The chain probably would have had a difficult time luring someone away from a more successful company because Winn-Dixie's fate is so uncertain, according to Tamez.

"It's hard to get people to leave a job that's paying them pretty well to go to a company that may have some question marks," he said. "Nobody knows what the next blow-up is going to be."