Robert B. Wegman
Wegmans Food Markets
Wegman, who died in 2006, led his family's chain to the forefront of supermarket retailing by striving to differentiate the experience for shoppers with added features like in-store cafes, photo labs and video sections. He is remembered for his focus on creating an environment in which well-treated employees in turn provide a high level of service to customers.
I am a merchant, and I have therefore my own philosophy about merchandising: That is, to do something that no one else is doing, and to be able to offer the customer a choice she doesn't have at the moment. This is the only reason for being in business. To my own way of thinking, this is the only way it should be.
I think that uniqueness gives one an opportunity to profit. If you are doing the same thing that everyone else is doing, your opportunity for a substantial profit is materially reduced because of the price ceiling your competition will impose. Thus, good merchandising resolves itself into rendering a service in such a way as to be difficult for your competitors to emulate. This is the basic premise of the way we at Wegmans operate.
“We call it the ‘I Am A Merchant’ speech,” explains Danny Wegman, reciting the above lines from a speech written by his late father, Robert B. Wegman, in 1967. “It's something we still talk a lot about today.”
For his dedication to doing what no competitor was doing, and for providing customers with new choices, Robert B. Wegman helped build Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans into one of the most admired, innovative and successful chains in the supermarket industry. He is among the inaugural class of SN's Hall of Fame.
Danny Wegman, who succeeded his father as chief executive officer of Wegmans in 2005, in an interview with SN said his father's system of beliefs and values was his greatest gift. Those values were committed to paper when Danny Wegman was asked to give a speech in 2001, he said.
“I was aware that a number of our competitors could have been in the audience, so I asked myself, what could I say that's important, that I feel strongly about, that they won't necessarily be able to use? So I wrote about our values,” he explained. “Little did I know at the time how useful that talk would be. Because after that, I copied them down and started sharing our values with all of our people in the organization.”
The values — which center on caring about employees and customers while pursuing high standards of excellence in retailing — were modeled by Robert and have taken deep roots at the company, Danny Wegman said.
Robert Wegman was born in 1918 in Rochester, where his father, Walter, and his uncle Jack operated a small food business together. In 1930, the Wegman brothers opened what at the time was a cutting-edge store of 20,000 square feet that featured a 300-seat cafeteria, refrigerated foods and vaporized water sprays to keep vegetables fresh, according to a company history.
After the death of his father in 1936 and his graduation from Aquinas Institute in 1937, Robert Wegman joined the business full-time. He served three years in the U.S. Marine Corps and took over as president of the company at age 31 following the death of his uncle in 1950.
His efforts would put Wegmans on the forefront of food retail innovations ever since. One of his first tasks was to convert all Wegmans stores to self-service, and later he pioneered what would become an industrywide move to one-stop shopping. Wegmans stores were among the first to add pharmacies, photo labs, video departments and children's play centers. A relentless pursuit of quality at the same time produced stores with ever-increasing selections of prepared foods and specialty items.
Wegman had his eyes open to what his contemporaries were up to and pursued the best of those ideas vigorously, Danny Wegman said.
“I remember he'd come from a visit to Raley's on the West Coast, and saw they had a Chinese restaurant in their store,” Danny Wegman recalled. “He said we'd have to learn that. That's how we got started in the Wokery business, which remains a strong part of the business today. His attitude was, ‘Let's not be afraid to go into this.’”
Peggy Wegman, Robert's widow, agreed.
“He'd get an idea, then he'd find someone who wanted to listen to him, and they'd get together and go to work on it,” Peggy Wegman told SN. “He was wonderful that way. Even if the circumstances were tough, he never lost his go-forward attitude.”
Wegman led contemporaries as chairman of the Supermarket Institute (today known as Food Marketing Institute) and was an aggressive champion of introducing technologies such as product scanning that made the retailing business more efficient and convenient.
“This industry would not be what it is today without the leadership of Bob Wegman,” Tim Hammonds, president and CEO of FMI, said of Wegman shortly after he passed away in 2006. “Scanning would never have got off the ground without him.”
Hammonds added that in all of Wegman's activities on behalf of SMI and FMI, he “was always about people putting aside their competitive differences for the good of the entire industry.”
Wegmans' reputation as one of the best employers in the country is a major point of pride, and is Robert Wegman's ultimate legacy, his family said. The company has been named to Fortune magazine's “100 Best Companies to Work For” list nine straight years, including garnering a No. 1 ranking in 2005. The groundwork for this recognition dated back to when Robert Wegman raised all salaries upon being named president in 1950, the company said.
A scholarship program launched by Wegmans in 1984 has since provided nearly $60 million in tuition assistance to some 20,000 employees. Wegmans also pioneered a work-scholarship program targeted at reducing dropout rates among inner-city students.
“Charity and education was a tremendously important thing to him,” said Peggy Wegman. “He started with scholarships for his own people. He realized there was a tremendous need for things like scholarships and jobs for kids. He went to work as a kid himself, and he never lost that attitude.”
Observers recall Wegman as a man who could be forceful in his determination to make his company great.
“Our front-end service is one of the excellent aspects of our stores. But if he'd visit a store and see lines, he'd stand there and glower until you fixed it,” recalled Danny Wegman. “A lot of store managers felt that glower. Trust me, we have great front-end service today because of that glower.”
Peggy Wegman, who accompanied Robert in his weekly store visits, said that visiting with employees in Weg-mans stores was his favorite activity — next to golf, where he was a 2 handicap in his heyday.
“We'd spend Saturdays in the store, and sometimes he'd take Thursdays and Fridays to go to Buffalo and Syracuse. We went to all of them, and he loved it,” Peggy said. “I loved watching him in the meat department. He'd pay attention to how thick the steaks were cut and what the tenderloins and rib roasts looked like. He was a meat man in the beginning, and he never lost that. And he had a wonderful relationship with store managers. It was like we were all family.”
Colleen Wegman, the retailer's president since 2005, said she could feel her grandfather's passion for the business every day.
“My office was right next to his,” she told SN. “My favorite memories are seeing him come in every morning, either singing a song based upon how the day before went, or with a game face on, trying to figure out whatever challenge was ahead that day.
“It speaks to his passion for people in this company, and it's been contagious,” she added. “There are 37,000 people living with that spirit of wanting things to be better every day. He helped in making that happen.”