Dan Sanders, chief executive officer of family-owned United Supermarkets in Lubbock, Texas, has written “Built to Serve” to describe his company's unique corporate culture.
This pocket-sized, hardcover book with a paper grocery bag over-cover isn't a handbook on running a successful supermarket business. Instead, it is a philosophy about business and life. And there may be the rub since the author's view is that what is right in his personal life is doubtless also right for businesses.
Sanders writes from the heart in an almost evangelical style. He passionately believes in “people first” and serving God. While it would be difficult to challenge these worthwhile goals from a personal perspective, it is clearly easier and appropriate to challenge them from a business perspective.
“At United, our vision is to glorify God by serving and enriching the lives of others through humility, integrity, excellence, and responsibility,” he writes. Thus, this book is part business and part religion with a good deal of overlap. He is critical of today's short-sighted and quantitatively based financial priorities and the lack of true business leaders. He is more convincing on the latter point than on the former.
He goes on to say that the “false idols” of power and money can never satisfy the soul. Likewise, a company's financials are the “skin” of a company; its culture is its “heart and soul.” And to enhance his company's culture, a prayer is given before most business meetings.
The concept of servanthood, which Sanders simply defines as “serving others,” guides his personal goals as well as those of the company. “We at United Supermarkets believe that servanthood is about helping others realize their potential…”
Again, truly worthy as a personal goal, but how critical is servanthood to a corporation? Certainly mentoring and developing employees and being a responsible community member are of great value. But are they the prime functions of our corporations? He later suggests that the vision for a company should be to improve as many lives as possible.
Sanders' views on business leadership are less controversial and more commonly shared. He talks of the importance of a clear vision statement, of communication, of proper strategy formulation, of seeing opportunity amidst difficulty, and of careful listening. He lambastes the dishonest Enron-type leaders in the business world and the focus on financial goals.
“When businesses come to be dominated by numbers at the expense of people, they forget their real purpose and focus more on populating spreadsheets than on enriching lives,” he writes.
He singles out the misguided leaders who focus on “what is next, rather than on proactively attacking what is now.” I am inclined to agree with the point even though it is not well made or supported. In fact, whereas some might be motivated to read this book to learn how his philosophy has been applied at United, there are few examples from which to benefit.
And while we can agree with much of what Sanders says based on our own business experience, he stretches us too far when he makes such statements as “today's profit-driven business model is fatally flawed.” We can accept the need for more enlightened leaders (“merchants” vs. “shopkeepers”) with longer time horizons; we can also accept the need for business to have more of a social conscience; but we are not prepared to write off capitalism as fatally flawed.
And while there are few revelations about managing a billion-dollar-plus, 46-store supermarket chain like United, there are some. Sanders points out that the supermarket business must be one of “inclusiveness” not “exclusiveness” — our doors are open to all. He suggests spending less time on “obsessing” over competition, and he also suggests going outside the industry to learn best practices. One of these best practices was a “Guest Advisory Board,” which United employed as a forum for “exchanging information with our guests regarding what was important in the area of service.” (“Guests” is the term that United uses for its customers.)
Sanders does a fine job in discussing the importance of a company vision and correctly points out that a company's vision, for example, is not to “increase ROI by 4%” or to grow the number of stores. Those are merely scorecards. And while growth should never be made at the expense of a company's unique values, Sanders notes that growth does have a place in a healthy business — right after servanthood. True to his word, if one goes to United's website, and clicks on “Mission Statement,” three phrases are shown: Ultimate Service, Superior Performance and Positive Impact.
On the importance of those sentiments, we can all agree.
Harvey Gutman is president of Brookside Advisors, a consultancy to the retail industry on real estate, strategic planning and financial matters. He is a veteran of 36 years in the retail business, the majority of that time at Pathmark Stores, Carteret, N.J., as senior vice president, retail development.