Treating Employees Like Customers

Longtime grocer has helped make Wegmans an employer of choice.

By Donna Owens Oct 1, 2009
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October CoverA substantial part of Gerard "Gerry" Q. Pierce’s time is devoted to improving recruitment and employee development. That’s why Wegmans Food Markets Inc., one of the nation’s major regional supermarket companies, researches the needs and desires of its employees the same way it researches the needs of its customers.

Gerard Q. Pierce

Education: 1971, Bachelor of Science in business, University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio. 1976, MBA, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, N.Y.

Current Job: 1986-present, senior vice president of human resources, Wegmans Food Markets Inc., Rochester.

Career: 1975-86, manager of human resources, Wegmans.

Personal: Age 59; born in Rochester, N.Y.; married to wife, Priscilla; one son.


"We just surveyed our 37,000 people, and 33,000 actually answered," Pierce says, noting that questions such as "Does management know what it’s doing?" yielded a 96 percent positive response.

"Our employees also took the time to write," he continues. "We had 3,400 pages of written comments. The most common word that we heard was ‘family’—that they view the people that they work with as an extension of their families.

"We have a fun, family-friendly atmosphere."

In fact, at last count, more than 7,000 employees were related to at least one other person on the payroll, Pierce says. "We have whole families and multigenerations working alongside each other."

The workforce also includes people of various backgrounds, from high school students to retired professionals. "I just ran into a retired school superintendent working part time in the cheese department," Pierce says. "He enjoys the employee contact."

Prospective hires who "have a propensity to serve" and the skills to interface well with the public are the type of people the HR team recruits, Pierce explains. "We want the very best."

Clearly, that approach works for this family-run company whose corporate values include caring, respect, high standards, empowerment and making a difference in the communities it serves. For the past 12 consecutive years, the organization has been recognized by Fortune as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For, ranking No. 1 in 2005.

Stocking Shelves

It’s not surprising that Pierce would become a top executive at Wegmans: The grocery business is in his blood. Long before launching his Wegmans career 34 years ago and rising through the ranks to become senior vice president of human resources, he spent his youth stocking shelves, cutting meat and working the cash register at his father’s small grocery in Rochester, N.Y., where Wegmans is headquartered.

"I worked at Dad’s store after school and in the summers from ages 13 to 19," says Pierce, who left home to attend the University of Dayton, where he earned a business degree.

By the time the elder Pierce sold the store, his son had the foundation of his career. Pierce started at Wegmans in 1975. By day, he was a graduate student in business. In the evenings, he worked as a store night manager.

"The store had three cash registers and was about 20,000 square feet," he recalls. "Today, our stores may have 33 registers and be 145,000 square feet."

After several store assignments early on, Pierce was asked to take on a project in personnel. He has served in an HR capacity ever since. He spent a decade as manager of human resources before being promoted to his current position in 1986. That year, Pierce helped launch the Wegmans Federal Credit Union and became its first president while also handling HR responsibilities.

Indeed, as Wegmans evolved from a small family-owned business founded in 1916 to a regional group of 73 Northeastern stores with fiscal 2008 sales of $4.8 billion, Pierce played an integral role. He leads a 200-member HR department and reports to CEO Danny Wegman.

In many companies, Pierce notes, HR executives don’t have that access to the top, but at Wegmans it’s a management practice that has been part of the strategic vision. "I can counsel him on ways to look at a particular situation," says Pierce, a soft-spoken man who exudes calm. "He counsels me back."

Wegman describes Pierce as "a one-of-a-kind individual. His focus has always been our people, and he cares about them intensely. Gerry has a unique ability to foresee what our people might need and create programs to help them."

Empowering Employees

Along the way, the company has garnered kudos in diversity, employing people with disabilities and community service. Wegmans received a Presidential Point of Light award in 1991 for its Hillside Work Scholarship Connection, created in 1987 to help at-risk youth stay in school, achieve academically and learn the skills to hold a job.

Pierce serves as board chairman for the program and voices passion about its work with thousands of young people. "There’s a strong need for talent in this country," he says. "And our young people must be better prepared. You’d be surprised how many don’t know basic things, such as how attendance at work can affect your future."

He says the company—known for its sprawling, prodigiously stocked stores—offers competitive salaries and benefits. They include health coverage for full- and part-time workers, 401(k) retirement plans, smoking-cessation and adoption-assistance programs, and educational scholarships.

Wegmans’ leaders strive to empower employees. If someone desires a product not on the shelves, any employee can set about procuring the item for the customer, Pierce explains. As a result, many employees genuinely like their jobs and often talk up the company. Employees, Pierce says, "are the best ambassadors about what type of place Wegmans is."

When Wegmans recently opened a store in Fredericksburg, Va., more than 7,000 people applied for 500-plus openings. The company plans to open three or four stores a year during the next decade and expects its workforce to grow to about 60,000.

Once employees are hired, Pierce and his team try to keep them happy. HR staffers can often be found strolling Wegmans’ wide aisles, chatting up employees and serving as their advocates, Pierce says.

The HR department also records thousands of employee testimonials. For example, when Charlie Henley of Syracuse, N.Y., left the company to become a Peace Corps volunteer, he wrote: "Thank you for all the people who make Wegmans the beautiful place that it is. I care, and that is partly because of all the people I met at Wegmans. … Wegmans has been my anchor, my friend, my teacher."

Pierce identifies with those sentiments, too. Wegmans provides him hands-on education. "I am constantly learning. We’re out in stores all the time," he says, noting that he and other top managers make site visits during the Christmas holiday and at other times to thank employees. "I love to meet people, shake their hands and let them talk about what they’re doing. Just as we engage our customers, we want to let our employees know that they’re valued."

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