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Saluting Visionaries Who Put the Super in Supermarket

Saluting Visionaries Who Put the Super in Supermarket

How many retail executives do you know who would let a manager spend money on an idea that was clearly not going to work, only because it was better for that associate to learn for himself or herself.

That was the philosophy of “Mr. George,” the late George W. Jenkins, the charismatic founder and leader of Publix Super Markets known for his caring about people and his vision.

He was part of a class of visionary leaders who transformed grocery retailing into the modern supermarket era. This week SN salutes Jenkins as a 2008 inductee in the SN Hall of Fame.

Two other executives are also named to the Hall this year: Safeway's Steven Burd, chairman, president and CEO, and Procter & Gamble's A.G. Lafley, chairman and CEO. They are giant figures in their own right who made their marks in a later era and are still leading their companies.

SN's Hall of Fame members are chosen by our editors in consultation with the industry based on career accomplishments.

It's interesting to explore why Jenkins was special and how he shared characteristics with some other former supermarket industry giants. Jenkins' love of merchandising helped him evolve the basic grocery stores of an earlier period into the grand, one-stop-shopping outlets of later years.

From the time Jenkins created Publix in 1930, he displayed a deep caring about associates, which included encouraging employees to become part owners by buying stock, a concept further advanced in later years with Publix's employee stock ownership plan. Jenkins also built Publix's culture around serving the customer, and the company still leads customer rankings in national surveys.

A discussion of Jenkins evokes the memory of other great former industry leaders, including the late Robert Wegman, who became part of SN's Hall of Fame last year. Like Jenkins, Wegman was known for a deep caring about associates and customers, and a vision for where the business needed to go. In 1950 he took over a family-owned company and helped made Wegmans a world-class retailer with top-quality prepared and specialty foods and an ever-growing list of in-store service departments.

The company's national reputation as one of the best employers found its roots in Robert Wegman's belief in his people. His legacy also extended to fostering community service, which today is reflected in the retailer's acclaimed work scholarship program.

The subject of Wegman and Jenkins bring to mind other iconic figures. They include Michael J. Cullen, who was widely credited with creating the modern supermarket concept with his first King Kullen store, and Sidney Rabb, who was the driving force behind the modernization and growth of Stop & Shop.

It's clear that SN's year-old Hall of Fame will not run out of luminaries to honor any time soon. More importantly, in turbulent times such as these it's comforting to remember past leaders who grappled with difficult decisions and managed to choose paths that put their companies and the industry on positive paths.

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