SN Asks: Autonomy in Action

LENEXA, Kan. - Like many Hy-Vee employees, Nate Stewart first joined the retailer as a high school part-timer. Though not as a cashier, bag boy or stocker. "I mowed the lawns at the corporate headquarters," the 31-year-old store director told SN. From his riding mower, Stewart moved on to positions in warehousing, maintenance and other duties for Hy-Vee. After college and a short career in another

LENEXA, Kan. — Like many Hy-Vee employees, Nate Stewart first joined the retailer as a high school part-timer. Though not as a cashier, bag boy or stocker. "I mowed the lawns at the corporate headquarters," the 31-year-old store director told SN.

From his riding mower, Stewart moved on to positions in warehousing, maintenance and other duties for Hy-Vee. After college and a short career in another industry, Stewart rejoined Hy-Vee five years ago. He managed the perishable department at a Sioux Falls, S.D., store, and was named a store director here in Lenexa, located southwest of Kansas City, Kan., about a year ago.

As Hy-Vee receives SN's annual Retail Excellence Award, SN asked Stewart about how store manager autonomy, employee ownership and a chainwide focus on health plays out at the store level.

SN: Hy-Vee prides itself on the autonomy of its store managers. What does it mean to you to have the freedom to operate the store the way you see best?

Nate Stewart: What it really allows you to do is hire talented people and let them be talented. We never get stale because we always have new ideas coming up through the system. If you encourage people coming up to make things better with just a little guidance, you'll always be on the cutting edge, or at least as close to the cutting edge as a grocery store can be. It's a lot of responsibility to work here, but the rewards are huge, too.

SN: Have there been times where that freedom has led to mistakes?

Stewart: Sure, it happens. There are times when we've done something that might not have been the most profitable, or the most cost-effective way to do it, but that's how we learn. The good thing is, you don't get a chance to do what I do unless you're well-trained. Training helps you become a combination of aggressive and conservative: You look for controlled growth, not a flash in the pan, and you learn to treat the store like it's a business you built with your own two hands. That can keep you from making too many mistakes. When you do make mistakes, you know they were well-intentioned and for the customer's benefit.

SN: Under Hy-Vee's employee ownership structure, your pay is tied to how well your store does. How does that affect things?

Stewart: Once your store is profitable and doing well, it really is your money, and the money of everyone who works in the store and who shares in the profits of the company. In some other stores, you might see [an employee] walk by a piece of paper on the floor or walk by a customer and not say "hi." That doesn't happen here. Everyone is proud of their store, and proud of their department. Everyone takes it really personally.

SN: How do Hy-Vee's chainwide initiatives in health, and in additional product offerings, play out at your store?

Stewart: It makes you read a lot, open your eyes and look around. I get around to see a lot of different retailers, not just food retailers, and I pay a lot of attention to what's being advertised and what people are putting in their shopping baskets. I call it being plugged in.

One of the things we do here is try to get people who are plugged in to specific areas - it may be organic foods or cosmetics or whatever it may be - and they're plugged into what's exciting and what customers want in their area. The great thing about our system is that we're encouraged to see something and ask, "Hey, why can't we sell that at my store?"

We've expanded our organic and natural selections and hired a store dietitian. We're having all kinds of cooking classes in the store now, geared toward families without a lot of time to prepare food. We call it Meals in Minutes, and we try to cater it so that families can cook for a whole week in a few minutes. We've also tried to add floral and wedding counseling.

SN: There's a perception out there that considering the hours, the stress and the pay, that a retail career isn't a great job. What have you found rewarding about your job?

Stewart: People who have that opinion of retail definitely shouldn't be in retail. To me, it's fun. You're around people all day long, talking with customers and working with young people. I can't believe I get paid to do what I do. We ask a lot of our people and give them great responsibility, but we reward them, too. I think the system perpetuates a great atmosphere and satisfaction in their job. Our people will go out of their way to show a customer a new item, or to carry groceries to their car. That's what they're here to do. We take care of people.

SN: What's next for your store?

Stewart: We're dealing with some construction now, so hopefully that's over soon. We've spent a lot of time trying to transform this store from a grocery store to a food market that's also the whole-health store in the community. We're trying to get it to a level where when people used to say they were going to "the store," they meant the grocery store. Only we want them to say, "We're going to Hy-Vee."