PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Rojon Hasker took an entry-level job at a Safeway store in Alaska 28 years ago so she could afford to make payments on a car she was hoping to buy.
In October, Hasker, 43, was named president of Safeway's division here -- the chain's first female division president.
"Like most people in this business, I went to work for Safeway in a part-time position to make ends meet," she told SN. "I certainly didn't see it as a long-term career.
"The perception of the food industry is that it's kind of boring. But the fact is, it's a very exciting business to be in, one with lots of changes going on -- and the financial rewards are great too.
"So I try to get the word out that this is a great industry to be part of, one that allows you to move up through the ranks. I want to let people know that when they start as a stocker, opportunities exist to become vice president or president of a division."
Asked how she feels about being a female role model, Hasker replied, "The only thing I wanted when I got into retail operations and when I got this job was to let other females see another woman in the work force. Because I'm more visible in the day-to-day world to women checkers and cake decorators, they are able to see that it can happen to them, so we get more interest from women looking into Safeway as a career.
"People need to see folks who look like them in high-level positions, to show there are opportunities out there for them."
Hasker started at the bottom when she went to work for Safeway in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1972, at age 15. "I had looked for jobs at other places, because the grocery business is not considered the most attractive, but only grocery stores were hiring people who were 15," she recalled.
"I applied at a Carrs and a Safeway, and when I went back to check on my application at Safeway, someone had just quit and they asked me if I wanted the job."
Hasker said she went home to change clothes and returned immediately to start work as a courtesy clerk. "It was at the height of the Alaska pipeline construction, and there were a lot of jobs opening up as people were coming and going everywhere. They were in Alaska to make their fortunes working on the pipeline, and they'd sign up for high-paying jobs and then wait for their name to come up in the job lottery, and when their number was called, they left their jobs, which created a lot of opportunities for people who lived there -- younger people and females, people who weren't there to make a quick buck -- to get good jobs."
Hasker said she spent two months as a part-time courtesy clerk, then moved quickly through the store's lower ranks -- washing dishes in the store's snackbar for a couple of weeks, "which paid good money for a 15-year-old," and then as a snackbar waitress before she was promoted to a checker six months later.
After moving from part-time to full-time, Hasker was promoted to the night stocking crew and then to the day shift as a head clerk, responsible for closing the store at night.
In 1976, 19-year-old Hasker entered Safeway's store management training program. "I had originally planned to study to be a psychologist," she told SN, "but I realized working in the industry was fun and something I enjoyed doing, and I was progressing and making good money."
After a year of training, Hasker became an inventory control clerk for two years, then an assistant manager for a year. "That's when I began seeing myself moving up in the organization and realizing I had a feel for the job because I enjoyed the customer contact and the interaction with employees, and I started to get serious about my work."
When she was named a store manager in 1980 at age 24, she was the youngest store manager in the division, Hasker recalled. "Once I became a store manager, I decided to make this industry my career," she told SN.
Despite being so young and a female, Hasker said she didn't encounter any particular problems overseeing older male and female employees "because in day-to-day operations, people forget about your age and your gender and simply respond to what you're trying to do."
"There was some mutual trepidation going in, but it quickly went away, and I've never felt any prejudice or discrimination because I'm a woman."
After managing three stores in Alaska, Hasker moved to Safeway's northern California division in 1986 as a district manager. "The transition wasn't a problem from the standpoint of the work," she told SN, "but moving from Anchorage to the Bay Area was a big cultural shock, particularly in dealing with the traffic. In Alaska, I'd never driven on anything larger than a two-lane highway. And Alaska is a wilderness, and it's much slower-moving."
Although she said she did not find the work environment much different, "making the transition from store manager to district manager was difficult because I had to develop a broader scope and get used to having less hands-on control. You have to learn to trust the people managing the stores to get things done because you can't do it yourself."
In 1997, Hasker moved from northern California to Phoenix to become vice president, retail operations, "which is the standard career path after district manager," she noted.
Last January, she was named vice president, marketing operations, here after the person holding that job was promoted to the larger Seattle division.
Hasker said she began thinking about a division president position. "It's important to get experience in operations and marketing to be considered for future opportunities as a division president," she said, "but those positions don't open up every day, and I was hoping to be considered for a division president's position within two years."
However, when Tom Mossey, the division president here, became ill, Hasker was named interim president of the division in June and, when Mossey died this fall, she was named his permanent successor.
As Hasker works her way into her new job, she said she's reluctant to discuss her career goals moving forward. "At this stage I'm focused primarily on being a good division president in Phoenix, and at some point, I may want to manage a bigger Safeway division, but that's several years down the road."
Hasker said she believes she's had a lot of good breaks during her career. "I was lucky to start in Alaska, where there were more opportunities than in other areas, and along the way I was lucky to work with some very supportive people who helped me move up," she said.
Among her most recent mentors, she said, were her predecessor, Mossey; Bruce Everett, the division president in northern California, "who gave me opportunities in retail operations"; and Larree Renda, executive vice president, retail operations, for Safeway corporate, "who's been a personal role model for me for the last five years."
In fact, she said Renda has been the only female role model she's had "because there aren't a lot of women to talk to. But she's been visible and available to me, to the company and to the industry."
Hasker said being a mentor is the part of her job she enjoys most. "I encourage anyone with the interest and commitment to doing the job to choose Safeway as a career because there is so much opportunity," she said.
"I personally encourage new hires in their initial stages with the company. And I meet with all personnel who show interest in the management training program and encourage them if they're not immediately accepted to try again because it's a great job -- and people do need encouragement."
When asked her advice to people considering the food industry as a career, Hasker said, "There are two things that are important to this business: First, you've got to really like change, which is the nature of a competitive environment, and second, you've got to be open to relocation.
"Relocation is a very sensitive issue. We've found people are less willing to move across the country for promotions. But if they are open to relocating, then the opportunities for promotion are more frequent, and you get a more well-rounded executive because they experience more things.
"Each promotion I've received required a move, and with each move, a lot of positive things happened in terms of meeting people and learning different cultures and environments and new ways of doing things, so my advice is to be more open to change in general."
Asked if being a woman gives her an edge in her job as a grocery executive, Hasker replied, "The majority of shoppers are women between 24 and 54, and I fall into that category, so I think my perspective of the shopping experience comes from a more personal point-of-view.
"As a result, I probably think more than some male executives about convenience, about making promotions simpler and easier to take advantage of and about store layouts -- what the customer sees when she walks in and what could make it easier to shop."