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How Wakefern Succeeds in Building Bench Strength

How Wakefern Succeeds in Building Bench Strength

For years we've heard that retailers need to practice succession planning, and the term frequently refers to passing along a family-owned company to the next generation.

However, there's another type of succession planning that's no less urgent, but not discussed as frequently, at least in public forums. This version describes how companies can avoid being caught off guard by planning smooth transitions for job positions throughout their organizations.

A case in point is Wakefern Food Corp., the New Jersey-based cooperative wholesaler, which outlined its extensive program at the FMI Future Connect 2011 event in Dallas this month. Wakefern's approach is akin to running a war effort, making sure all contingency plans are in place and perfectly executed, and leaving almost nothing to chance. The company's presentation was perfectly in tune with the concept of Future Connect, whose key themes include the next generations of leadership.

Dean Janeway, Wakefern's president and chief operating officer, began his remarks by citing his own succession plan: He will be succeeded in January of next year by Joe Sheridan, executive vice president, who was seated a few feet away from him.

However, Wakefern's efforts go far beyond the executive suite into every part of the organization. They are focused on employees in some 26 support divisions who serve the extensive ShopRite store network. Many of these associates are veterans, but Wakefern is concerned about how future retirements will impact operations.

Here are steps the company is taking, according to Janeway and Alexa Grant, manager for training and development and retail support:

  • • Wakefern creates employee development plans across these divisions to ensure succession programs are in place.

  • • Employees are put into various categories to identify their readiness for promotions.

    “We have a book that shows 26 divisions, each with an organizational chart, and color-coded to show where each person stands, and every person with potential has to have a development plan,” Janeway said.

  • • The wholesaler uses this data to assess succession strengths and weaknesses across the organization.

  • • Many employees are rotated through various positions to improve their preparation for advancement.

  • • The company partners with educational institutions in its home state of New Jersey to pull in the best talent.

  • Wakefern revamped its internship program to better ensure a future pool of full-time candidates, and helps build future managers through a year-long “Leaders in Training” program offered to select individuals.

How good are Wakefern's strategies? Consider the comment of another presenter, Linda Sharkey, an expert on talent development, who is a founding member of the Marshall Goldsmith Group, and wasn't aware of Wakefern's efforts until very recently.

“Wakefern is a great example of leadership engagement and leadership-supported culture, giving this 65-year-old company a great competitive advantage.”

You can't say it more convincingly than that.