Safeway’s announcement last week that Steve Burd will be retiring in May as chairman and CEO is a big deal for the company and the industry.
How big? For anyone who isn’t an industry veteran of more than 20 years, the fact is, Steve is almost synonymous with Safeway. He has been there seemingly forever.
The announcement timing caught many off guard, including financial analysts. One analyst referred to Burd as having a “transformational impact as CEO over a highly extended and somewhat tumultuous period.”
Two decades is a long time, and it was plenty of time to get to know Steve and understand why he was such a forceful leader, from his early focus on cost-cutting to a later embrace of new growth initiatives.
Safeway's Steve Burd has been a perennial member of SN's Power 50. He stands at No. 3 in the most recent list.
His accomplishments range from developing the “Lifestyle” retail format to forming the Blackhawk gift card network, as Safeway pointed out in disclosing his retirement plans.
My recollection is that Steve wasn’t afraid to take tough stands when he believed in something. In 2003 and 2004 he drew the ire of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union for helping to lead the big chains in Southern California in contract negotiations during a strike-lockout period. He was trying to help traditional operators level the playing field on costs against nonunion retailers like Wal-Mart Stores. I recall how at one point a large group of union members marched to Steve’s residential community in protest, but despite that, the retailers eventually won a contract that enabled them to lower wage costs.
Steve also believed in new health care directions for the company, the industry and the country, a passion he would communicate on numerous platforms. In one speech to top food industry executives in 2007, he outlined Safeway’s “market-based health care solutions” and appealed to industry leaders to introduce similar directions at their companies.
Analysts: 'Difficult Gap to Fill' With Burd's Departure
Steve became known for launching many growth initiatives at his company, and he seemed to have a knack for describing them to analysts and others in a way that communicated the opportunities and strategic benefits. For example, in remarking on Safeway’s “Just For U” digital marketing platform in 2011, which brought value and convenience to consumers, Steve noted the platform brings Safeway a “stealth” advantage because personalized offers are “invisible to other retailers.”
Certainly Steve has been an industry survivor, which goes without saying for anyone with such a long tenure in extremely volatile times. However, that survival was accomplished through deep engagement in the company’s activities, as Steve himself has discussed, sometimes in a humorous way.
In a story he relayed, he was on a weekend trip with his son, who asked him a question. Steve offered no response, which led his son to say, “Dad’s off in Safewayland again.”
And Steve conceded he couldn’t agree more. “That’s where I usually am,” he said.