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Taking United Supermarkets All the Way

UCrew, a community service outreach program, is one trade secret that United Supermarkets here is willing to share with its competitors.Why? Because UCrew transcends the competitive environment, explained Matt Bumstead, United's 32-year-old vice president of customer and community service, who conceived and launched UCrew 17 months ago.UCrew is about assembling teams of United volunteers

LUBBOCK, Texas — UCrew, a community service outreach program, is one trade secret that United Supermarkets here is willing to share with its competitors.

Why? Because UCrew transcends the competitive environment, explained Matt Bumstead, United's 32-year-old vice president of customer and community service, who conceived and launched UCrew 17 months ago.

UCrew is about assembling teams of United volunteers who go into the community, and donate their time and labor to a multitude of community service projects — cleaning up trash, participating in fund-raiser walks, delivering food baskets, holding school-supply drives, building houses for Habitat for Humanity, to name a few. The list of volunteer activities is endless.

The spirit of UCrew is non-competitive. It puts people first, before sales and profits. For United, it's all about how to effectively give back and make a difference in the West and North Central Texas communities where it operates 44 stores. If the spirit of giving and good works derived from UCrew can be duplicated in communities outside of United's market areas, so much the better, Bumstead told SN.

United Supermarkets will be honored on Oct. 21 with SN's first Community Service Award. The award honors a supermarket retailer that excels in its relationship with its community. The award will be accepted by Bumstead for conceiving and executing the UCrew program. The presentation will take place during the Food Industry Leadership Center Executive Forum at Portland State University in Oregon.

"We place high value on the biblical idea of servanthood — the giving of oneself with no strings attached," Bumstead said in drafting the original framework of the program.

While many retailers focus on a finite number of charitable causes and limit their contributions to cash or food donations, United raises the level of community involvement by tapping the talent and energy of its 6,500 employees, and empowering them to work for worthy causes.

The program not only accomplishes good works within the community, but it builds team spirit and fellowship among United's workforce.

"As wonderful as UCrew is for our communities, UCrew gives our employees an opportunity for fellowship outside of work, and to feel good about what they are doing together. UCrew is based upon going out as a team," said Bumstead.

UCrew accomplishes several goals:

— It provides employees with opportunities to be involved in and service their local communities.

— It allows United to expand its role outside its corporate community service funding projects.

— It gives employees an opportunity to strengthen their relationships with co-workers.

— It provides a community service model for others to emulate.

Fulfilling a Vision

In structuring the program, Bumstead had a vision. He saw scores of United employees choosing to go out into the community, and work side by side on various charitable causes. "God put the idea in my head," he said. His vision was realized first hand when he worked with 150 co-workers last fall in building 15 houses for Habitat for Humanity. Approximately 50 UCrew members participated in two shifts each per day, working a total of 14-hour days over a three-day period. A total of 2,100 UCrew man hours were logged during the project.

"United has been outstanding as far as a partner organization that we work with," said John Mallory, executive director, Habitat for Humanity here. "One of our goals is to build communities at the same time we are building houses, and this fits well with United and their volunteers, who work side by side with our families. It's a strong and meaningful way to build communities."

To date, approximately 8,100 hours of community service — or about 500 hours a month — have been donated to community activities since UCrew's inception. Currently, 15% of United's 6,500 employees have become UCrew members. Bumstead expects that percentage to climb.

The essence of UCrew is summed up in a full-page UCrew ad that ran in the Amarillo Globe-News as part of a partnership campaign on volunteerism that the newspaper is sponsoring. The headline read: "Some of Our Best Work Is Done Off the Clock."

There are no benefits, pay, incentives or rewards given to United employees for volunteering their time to UCrew. "Above all, there is no pressure to join," Bumstead said. "The benefits of the program are the intangible, natural benefits of serving people."

Founded in 1916 by H.D. Snell, who opened his first United Cash Store in Sayre, Okla., United has built its business and reputation on serving people — whether they be customers, employees or communities. Service is at the core of the retailer's operating philosophy.

United was recognized in 2001 with the National Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics given by the Better Business Bureau to those companies that make a demonstrable effort to promote ethical business practices. In presenting the award, the BBB recognized United for its superior customer service. "Its 'Personal Touch' philosophy is so appreciated that customers send in hundreds of letters and phone calls each day praising my checker, my sacker or my United. Fostering an atmosphere of mutual trust, the company lets its employees know that their work and abilities are appreciated through recognition, career advancement and benefits programs," said a BBB release.

"We've always believed as a business we don't exist by divine right," said Gantt Bumstead, president of United. Both Gantt, who is 35 years old, and his brother, Matt, are the fourth generation of the founding Snell family.

"It is our duty and privilege to be part of a community," Gantt Bumstead told SN. "There is a responsibility there, and we take it seriously. We want to do everything we can to build communities and be integral and take an active part in the community. That's what we are really in business to do. At the end of the day, we have done something to make people's lives a little better."

According to Kent Moore, senior vice president and chief executive officer, who has been with United for 15 years, the company returns more than 10% of its pretax profits back to the communities it serves.

"Our volunteers have transcended the routine focus on the bottom line, and infused all of our co-workers with their passion and energy to make a difference — to create deep meaning and purpose in serving others," said Moore.

UCrew Framework

The position of vice president of customer and community service was created to help better manage and facilitate the growth of United's community service funding projects, and take community service to the next level through the formation of UCrew, said Matt Bumstead.

Gary Lawrence, CEO of Market Lubbock, an economic development corporation, noted that United has been giving back to the community for years. One example is United's $10 million gift to build the United Spirit Arena on the campus of Texas Tech University. "I'd vote them Lubbock's No. 1 corporate citizen for the last decade," Lawrence said. "They give back more than they take, and that is very unusual for any business anywhere," he said.

The beauty of UCrew is in its simplicity. Store directors are charged with putting together about six community service activities each year, and then they put out a call for volunteers. Store directors or other store managers who serve as UCrew leaders are paid for their efforts because customer and community service is part of their jobs. United mandates and pays for store directors to serve on two community boards each year and assistant store directors to serve on one board each year. "Our store directors understand that being successful in business is a lot more than what your sales are," said Bumstead.

Theron Baker, a 17-year United employee and store director for store No. 539 in Borger, Texas, said he tries to build a team spirit within the store first. "Then it's easier to put together a UCrew team," he told SN. Baker expects to run six to seven community activities this year. "We look for different opportunities with nonprofit organizations and schools, and explore their needs. Meals on Wheels has provided us with good opportunities," he said.

United is low key about publicizing its UCrew efforts. Employees who donate their time are featured in the Spirit, the United employee news publication. The company also developed clever chat-room buzz posters targeted to young baggers and checkout clerks to encourage their participation. "Word of mouth takes care of the external marketing," Bumstead said.

United Communities

United serves 23 communities centered in and around the Texas Panhandle, including Amarillo and Abilene, and North Texas cities such as Wichita Falls. Large-chain competition includes Albertsons, H.E. Butt and Wal-Mart Supercenters. Populations range from 200,000 in Lubbock to smaller communities with only 3,500 people. Last week, United opened its 45th store in Colleyville, 300 miles away in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex area. United is breaking new ground by going into a fast-growing metro area with 1.7 million people. There, United will compete with chains such as Kroger and Safeway's Tom Thumb, said Bumstead, who noted that competition is not a prime concern of United.

United's store growth over the last five years has been predicated upon "solidifying healthy markets, and strengthening weaker markets through expansion and renovation, and to bring the United name into new markets," according to a company publication. Since 1998, the company has expanded square footage by 30% to 1.7 million square feet. United declined to disclose annual sales. However, the company is ranked No. 70 on SN's Top 75 list with estimated sales of $800 million in 2002.

The economy in Lubbock is thriving, according to Mayor Marc McDougal. Annual growth of 3% to 5% is due to new housing starts and commercial projects; the growth of Texas Tech University, which has an enrollment approaching 30,000 students; and development of advanced medical facilities in the area.

"When I think of corporate citizens in Lubbock, United is on the top of the list," said McDougal. "Every time you turn around — whether it's the United Way, food banks [or] Texas Tech — United and their employees are there helping. They continue to support growth in this community by putting supermarkets in locations in which there is a need."

Bumstead credits the effectiveness of the company's civic spirit to the inherent nature of the communities it serves. "At our roots, we are rural and very community-oriented.... People here still embrace traditional core beliefs that some people only read about in storybooks," he said.

Said McDougal, "Everybody here is willing to step up and help somebody when a need arises. We still have a small-town atmosphere here. I may not know you, but I have a friend that does."

Because United's success is predicated upon customer service, Bumstead admits one of his fears is losing concern for customers and fellow employees by becoming too big. "Our culture of service and customer service is so important to who we are that if we ever grow to a point that we start to lose our concern for people, then we have to stop growing," said Bumstead. "Service is our identity."