DALLAS — Wakefern Food Corp.  is succeeding with efforts to build deep bench strength across its organization, according to Dean Janeway, president and chief operating officer.
The cooperative wholesaler's program to identify and solidify employee succession plans has become a cornerstone of its efforts to grow the business.
“Any successful company that wants to perpetuate itself into the future needs a formalized succession process,” Janeway said during a session of FMI Future Connect 2011 here.
The 65-year-old, Keasbey, N.J.-based Wakefern supports some 285 ShopRite stores, which in turn have their own staffs. Wakefern itself employs about 3,000 people, some 1,400 of which are support staff not in the warehouse. These support employees are the focus of much of the succession planning in the face of likely retirements in coming years, Janeway said.
Wakefern conducts deep assessments across its 26 divisions to create employee development plans and ensure that succession programs are in place. Employees are categorized into different buckets, such as highly promotable or too new to determine.
The process enables Wakefern to assess which parts of the organization need more attention. Janeway pointed to success in the face of a few high-level retirements during the past four years.
“In all of these cases, their replacements were in place three months before they left,” he said. “We never skipped a beat.”
One of the keys to developing talent is to give employees broad exposure across the organization, he emphasized.
“We force job rotations from division to division because the more exposure our people have, the broader the base we have,” he said.
Cross-fertilization has benefited Wakefern in numerous ways.
“Our vice president of HR was once our corporate attorney, and turned out to be our most effective vice president of HR ever,” he said.
Alexa Grant, Wakefern's manager for training and development and retail support, outlined the different ways the company finds and cultivates talent.
At one point the company attended job fairs, but too often potential employees weren't familiar enough with Wakefern to show interest.
“So we partnered with schools and universities in New Jersey to drive talent,” she said, because Wakefern is better known in that state.
“Make sure talent knows who you are,” she advised the audience.
Meanwhile, Wakefern retooled its internship program to make it a pool for full-time candidates, she said.
“Job descriptions were developed and we created internships with real meat,” she explained. “We assessed interns to see who were the brightest stars.”
Another presenter, Linda Sharkey, who is with Global Leadership Associates, warned that managers frequently need help in keeping to strict criteria for assessing employees. Some managers are hesitant to judge people too harshly, she said.
“You must be diligent about this, because if you allow people to play games with the system, it won't work for you,” Sharkey said.