NEW YORK — Since assuming control of a wobbly Southeastern Grocers in 2017, Anthony Hucker says he’s “put people first” in every aspect of the grocery retailer’s turnaround — essentially betting that by trusting and empowering employees, the workers would save the company.
And that’s what’s happening, Hucker said during a keynote session at the NRF Retail Converge conference, held virtually last month due to the pandemic.
Over the past three and a half years, Southeastern Grocers has emerged from bankruptcy, returned to profitability, earned a Great Place to Work certification, and is growing again, Hucker told CNBC’s Kate Rogers, who interviewed Hucker for the session, billed as an exploration of “a future fueled by trust.”
“There’s an old adage that you can never over-communicate. Trust is earned, or taken away, in a kind of balance sheet. We set about on a journey of communication and transparency,” Hucker said. “You have to help people understand the why before the how or the what. It gets to the purpose, what we call our way of being.”
The Jacksonville, Fla.-based company operates more than 500 stores under the Fresco y Más, Harveys Supermarket and Winn-Dixie banners in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina.
“We say we’re in the people business — we just happen to sell groceries,” Hucker told Rogers.
Hucker joined Southeastern Grocers in 2016 as chief operating officer. He previously served as president and chief operating officer of St. Louis-based Schnucks. Before that he was president of Landover, Md.-based Giant Food, and served on the executive board of Ahold USA. Earlier, Hucker spent seven years at Walmart in a variety of leadership positions, internationally and domestically. He began his career as a food industry analyst and later worked for 10 years with Aldi, with assignments in Germany, the United States and Austria. He was part of the leadership team that set up Aldi UK.
Since being named Southeastern Grocers’ chairman and CEO, Hucker has worked to implement a four-stage financial and cultural transformation process. The first two phases — “correcting the business” and “getting fit for purpose” — have been completed, and phase three — “getting fit for growth” is proceeding toward the final phase, “fit to win.”
“The cultural turnaround has helped the financial turnaround,” Hucker told Rogers.
Indicators of the privately held company’s financial health include its continued investment in new and updated stores as well as programs aimed at improving the lives of individuals and communities across its seven-state region. Southeastern Grocers added nine new stores in 2020 and upgraded nearly three dozen existing stores. It contributed more than $8 million to local communities to support neighbors in need. The grocer partners with some 4,700 local organizations throughout the Southeast, hosting more than 30 mobile food pantries and providing more than 10 million meals to help fight hunger. Additionally, the company has celebrated health care professionals, first responders, nurses and teachers alongside the community for their resilience and work on the front lines of the pandemic response.
Said Hucker, “There’s a famous African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.’ ”