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Retail Executives Try New Hats

Retail Executives Try New Hats

“I wanted to not spend a lot of nights away from home. One of the motivations for going into business was having that personal time, that family time.” — Dwayne Goodwin, former Bi-Lo executive, now owner of Save-A-Lot franchise

For some former high-level industry executives, the end of one career is just the beginning of another.

As the massive Baby Boomer segment of the population approaches retirement, and as companies like Supervalu undergo restructuring, more and more supermarket executives are exploring life after food retailing. For some, that means becoming industry consultants, for others it means starting their own businesses, and for many it means being able to schedule more time with family after years of long hours and busy travel schedules at their previous jobs.

The ability to work in an environment with more freedom is attractive to many industry executives who have worked their whole careers for large organizations, said Jose Tamez, managing partner in the Denver office of Austin-Michael Executive Search.

Read more: Compensation packages emphasize bonuses, stock awards

“Some executives also want to establish relationships with the core workforce — moving on to something that harkens back to their old days and how they started out in the business has a lot of appeal,” he said. “A lot of these senior-level executives spent much of their career building a big bureaucracy, a big behemoth, and yet in the latter part of their career they develop a distaste for what they just got through building, in terms of its size and scale.”

Following are three examples of former supermarket executives who have successfully made the transition from being high-ranking leaders at large supermarket chains to new careers.

Leveraging Old Contacts

Bob Shelton spent more than 40 years at Safeway, working his way from being a store-level carryout worker to become senior vice president of the company’s nonfood business. After several relocations and a corporate realignment in 2002 that moved him to Safeway’s Pleasanton, Calif.-based headquarters, Shelton finally said good-bye to Safeway in 2010.

“Probably one of the biggest challenges you face when you leave after working a high-pressure job is the wind-down — you go from 1,000 miles an hour back to zero,” Shelton told SN.

Shelton now runs his own independent consulting firm, Shelton Professional Consulting, which allows him to work from his adopted hometown in Phoenix, where he had first moved from Southern California early in his Safeway career. There he is able to spend more time with his young grandchildren — he has two sons who also live in Phoenix and work for Safeway there.

“I think of myself as a full-time grandparent and a part-time consultant,” he said.

The consulting business, which he has been able to nurture through his extensive contacts in the industry, has encompassed a range of tasks, from working with investment firms to evaluate the potential sale of Supervalu assets, to helping a retailer open a store on an Indian reservation.

His years of experience competing against Supervalu-owned Albertsons stores in the West, as well as his experience sitting at the highest levels of Safeway management, have led investors to seek out his perspective, he explained.

Executive paydays: 2012 Food Retail Salaries

Shelton also gets some work as an independent contractor for CMS Consulting, a Philadelphia-based firm that trains CPG sales forces, among other activities. He knew some of the principals at CMS from his years at Safeway.

“I am able to provide a peek behind the curtain, as far as what the buyers and merchandisers are looking for,” he said.

Becoming an independent consultant “has been the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he told SN. “I certainly miss the grocery business, and I always will. But although I had a lot of fun, I would never go back.

“I had the opportunity to go back and work for some regional players, but it would have meant moving to Texas or moving to New York and I just wasn’t prepared to do that again.”

From VP to Jack of All Trades

Likewise, Dwayne Goodwin said he wanted to “gain more control” over his schedule and personal life when he left Mauldin, S.C.-based Bi-Lo two years ago after 25 years at that company, most recently as vice president of operations.

Goodwin stayed in the retail business, however, launching his own Save-A-Lot franchise that has rapidly expanded to four locations near his home base of Pickens, S.C.

“Opening four stores in 18 months, you wear a lot of hats,” he told SN. “I found it to be challenging, but fun.”

Goodwin said he wanted to run his own business to be closer to the customer and make sure he was making the right decisions for them. In the process, he has been able to be closer to his wife, a stay-at-home mom, and their five daughters, who range in age from 6 months to 17 years.

“Opening four stores in 18 months, you wear a lot of hats. I found it to be challenging, but fun,” says Dwayne Goodwin.

“I wanted to not spend a lot of nights away from home,” Goodwin said of planning his local Save-A-Lot business. “One of the motivations for going into business was having that personal time, that family time.”

He noted that Save-A-Lot, the St. Louis-based division of Supervalu, has been supportive in terms of finding locations for his stores and planning out a calendar for his store openings. As a veteran of the operations side of the business, Goodwin said he needed the help in the early stages of store development, in terms of navigating real estate and negotiating through local regulations and the permitting process.

“They do a good job coming up with some sites based on demographics and geographic locations, and they run them through some filters as far as what has made other stores successful,” he explained. “I was most comfortable once we cut the ribbon and began operations.”

He said the Save-A-Lot limited-assortment format requires a lean organizational structure — in fact he is the only manager above the four store managers. It forces him to keep things as simple as possible.

Executive paydays: 2012 Food Retail Salaries

“I like the Save-A-Lot model,” Goodwin said. “We’re not tying up cash in inventory of items that don’t sell. We just say, ‘Let’s sell the 20% of the items that generate 80% of the sales in a typical grocery store.’”

Goodwin said he was never really too worried about launching his own business, even in the midst of the economic downturn.

“For the first few weeks while putting my investments into the store, there might have been some uncertainty, but I was also confident — I had been in the business 25 years, and I felt if we were focused on the customers, we would be successful.”

New Challenges With Acosta

Jim Lewis also has no regrets in his career move.

The former Safeway executive — he put in 37 years before leaving in 2010 as senior vice president of main meals — is now the director of customer teams for Acosta Sales and Marketing in Northern California.

“I had always admired Acosta from afar,” he said of the Jacksonville, Fla.-based company, the largest in the brokerage space. “It’s a great company to be a part of — we have enlightened leadership that believes in staying hungry, but also staying humble.”

He said he did have some opportunities to work with other retailers after leaving Safeway, but he was reluctant to relocate from the Bay Area of Northern California.

In his new role, he said, the nature of the work he does is changing on a daily and weekly basis, and is much less predictable than the routine he had gotten used to at Safeway.

“Each day is new and different, and in many ways it’s very exciting,” he said. “It’s not an easy job, but in many ways it is a very rewarding and exciting job.”

Lewis works with all of the retailers in the area except his former employer — Acosta has a separate team dedicated to Safeway — which he said requires him to constantly think about the different ways each positions itself in the market. In addition, he also works with Acosta’s CPG clients, which also have different ways of going to market.

Read more: Compensation packages emphasize bonuses, stock awards

The job requires that he be a self-starter and highly organized on a day-to-day basis, he explained.

“What gets me excited about work is that at the end of the day, I have added a little extra value, and I feel like I am doing that,” he said. “It’s great to have a job where I feel like I’m making a difference, and each day is a different day.

“Even though there was a little bit of shock when the job I thought I was going to finish my career with came to an end, I found out there are many great opportunities out there, and I was fortunate enough to be given one, and I am having the time of my life.”

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