Among the disadvantages that come with working at Kroger, America’s largest grocery retailer, is that the individual is invariably subordinated to the corporation.

David Pinto, Kroger, Jim Hallsey, president, Krogerís Salt Lake City-based Smithís division, Sam Skaggs, Mark Tuffin, Rodney McMullen, Krogerís president and COO, Congo

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Inside This Issue - Opinion

People come second at Kroger

August 22nd, 2011
by David Pinto, Editor

Among the disadvantages that come with working at Kroger, America’s largest grocery retailer, is that the individual is invariably subordinated to the corporation.

At Kroger, the company’s achievements come first, the individual’s contributions to those achievements finish a distant second.

Nowhere is this disdain for individual accomplishment more apparent than in Kroger’s relationship with the business media, if indeed relationship is the right word. Truth is, America’s largest grocery retailer has no relationship with the business press. Rather, Kroger’s policy toward the media appears to be anchored in its ongoing effort to minimize its sometimes-exemplary performance and ignore the individual contributions to that performance rather than publicize them, when giving innovative programs and the innovative people behind them the credit they deserve would help humanize the retailer for its consumer clientele and enlighten the financial community as to its initiatives.

A case in point: The retirement last month of Jim Hallsey, most recently president of Kroger’s Salt Lake City-based Smith’s division, once popularly known as Smith’s Food & Drug. For almost half a century Hallsey has been one of the more exemplary and accomplished executives in the retail grocer business. He began his retailing career in 1964, at the age of 22, when he signed on at Smith’s. Over the next five decades he labored — and excelled — at virtually every job within the organization: senior vice president of Smith’s drug unit, senior vice president and manager of the retailer’s regional office in Phoenix, executive vice president of sales and marketing. In 2001 Hallsey was named president of Kroger’s Smith’s unit. During the decade since, he not only brought Smith to new levels of financial performance, customer service and what Kroger terms "associate engagement," but he played a crucial role in the 1997 melding of operations at Smith’s and Fred Meyer.

More interesting than Hallsey’s accomplishments, however, was the metamorphosis of the individual. Before Kroger acquired Smith’s in 1999, Hallsey was among the most engaging, outgoing and accessible of grocery executives. Whether on or off the record, he would answer a question honestly and offer candid assessments and insights about Smith’s plans, programs and problems. Most significant, he was innately curious about the retailers with which Smith’s competed, even when that curiosity entailed telling competitors about Smith’s challenges, though it must be said that Hallsey never shared more than was reasonable for him to share — and which, at any rate, any competitor could discern merely by walking into a Smith’s supermarket.

At one point Hallsey expressed interest in meeting Sam Skaggs, the legendary food and drug executive who was living in Salt Lake City at the time and running American Stores, a retailer with which Smith’s competed. Though the meeting never came off, it was not due to any lack of interest on Hallsey’s part — or excitement at the prospect of meeting one of retailing’s iconic figures.

Once Kroger acquired Smith’s, Hallsey became a different person — less accessible, less overtly curious, less interested in meeting new people. For their part, as time went by industry people still mentioned him, but only in passing.

Hallsey was popular not only as an accomplished supermarket executive but as a fascinating individual, one with interests and activities that transcended food retailing. One time, several years ago, he took his son to Katmandu, from where he attempted to climb Mt. Everest. Though he didn’t attempt to reach the summit, he got more than halfway there.

Then too, in retirement he will pursue many of those interests that made him so interesting. One example: He and a friend recently visited thc Congo, where Hallsey was stunned to discover the poverty and hopelessness with which the population struggled on a daily basis. Committed to help change the situation, he is already planning future visits to the Congo.

At any rate, Kroger announced Hallsey’s retirement on July 19 in a terse press release out of Kroger’s Cincinnati headquarters. One-third of the 30-line release was devoted to the appointment of Mark Tuffin as Hallsey’s successor at Smith’s. Hallsey’s retirement, "after nearly 50 distinguished years," received another third of the space, though Rodney McMullen, Kroger’s president and COO, did acknowledge that "Jim is the executive and leader we all strive to be. He is respected throughout our company for his commitment to associates and our Customer 1st strategy. He is a beloved friend and mentor to many people. Jim is leaving an inspiring legacy at Smith’s and Kroger, and he will be missed."

The remaining third of the press release was all about the company Hallsey was leaving: the number of employees, the number of stores, the number of states, the number of banners, the number of processing plants. And, oh yes, the release included a few words about Kroger’s commitment to hunger relief, health and wellness initiatives, and various community organizations within Kroger’s markets.

Not a word, however, about the commitment Jim Hallsey is about to make to the Congo, where he hopes to influence hunger relief and improve health and wellness. Well, what’s one man’s ambition compared to a corporate program that encompasses 31 states?