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Stew Leonard’s Finds Talent For The Future

Chief of the iconic Northeast grocery chain now is grooming leaders who emerged during the pandemic.

Stew Leonard Jr. was plenty busy adjusting operations of his independent supermarket chain for all the exigencies of the pandemic, ranging from spot shortages of Birds Eye frozen vegetables to the sudden shuttering of the stores’ popular open olive bars.

But the third-generation scion of the iconic Norwalk, Connecticut-based grocery brand also used the Covid-19 era to look at his company through a different lens: how his executives and managers performed while it was unfolding. It’s from that exercise Leonard believes he’ll gain the most for Stew Leonard’s over the long term.

“No one ever really gets tested until a crisis happens,” Leonard told Chief Executive. “Then some people rise to the occasion. It’s like when people are going through tough times in their life: Some friends avoid them, but others knock on their doors and say, ‘How can I help you?’”

One of the first things Leonard did as the crisis unfolded was to rip up the company’s previous two-day training regimen for new managers. “We had started in the morning and went through chapter one and chapter two, took a break for coffee and went out and talked, did chapter three and four, went to lunch – then at the end of two days they got a certificate that said, ‘Congratulations, you’re a leader!’

“So I told the management team, ‘Rip that thing up because we’re giving you a new diploma, and it’s for ‘leadership in a crisis.’ That’s what we went through, and we’re still going through it.”

In fact, said the chief of the chain that runs seven stores in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, Leonard put a lot of leadership principles into play during the pandemic and watched how various members of his own team reacted. From what ensued, he created an informal scorecard that is proving tremendously helpful as Stew Leonard’s continues to recover from Covid-19 and to advance an enterprise that Leonard’s grandfather founded in 1969.

“The first thing I emphasized is, ‘Don’t panic; keep your cool,’” Leonard said. “And I noticed our best leaders in the stores were able to take a punch and handle chaos.

“The second thing is that the best leaders walked the talk,” he continued. “They didn’t stay home and quarantined. They were out on the store floor every day, in the middle of the battle. [Employees] want to see you doing that, not be on a Zoom call all day.” Amid the tumult, he said, “the spotlight began shining on what [the late General Electric CEO Jack Welch] called your ‘A’ players. They came through.”

For example, the company suddenly had to quarantine its entire receiving department at the Yonkers, New York, store because a forklift driver tested positive for Covid-19. “So we had no receiving department – but a line of tractor-trailer trucks outside waiting to unload at that store, as many as 50 a day,” Leonard recalled. “All of a sudden we’re going, ‘Can anybody help?’”

Nevin Philip emerged to do just that. A store director in Paramus, New Jersey, Philip told Leonard’s team that he’d rush to Yonkers to drive a forklift and do whatever else he needed to do. “We contacted him on a Saturday and guess where he was Sunday morning?” Leonard said. “His normal day off was a Thursday and he didn’t even take a day off. That just elevated him in my eyes. Then he got right in there and recruited a bunch of other people, and the receiving department was open. He trained them as they were going. Isn’t that impressive?”

The dedication factor loomed heavily with Leonard even as it played out among rank-and-file employees. “We’ve always offered one-month sabbaticals to our employees, and many of them have taken them to go abroad and visit their families for a few weeks,” he explained. “But during the [pandemic], we had more than 100 people who wanted to take a month off” out of the company’s total employee count of about 2,200 people.

“A lot of them had prior illnesses” and so were taking precautions against Covid-19, “but we really needed the other people at Stew Leonard’s. There were people on that list who just didn’t want to be on the front lines.”

Leonard also noted which of his leaders were “able to become experts overnight,” sifting through often-conflicting media and government reports about coronavirus safeguards to figure out “what our customers want as far as feeling safe and secure when they come into the store.”

And, he said, “That blends into another thing: Can you pull the trigger in a crisis? You’re really out there with no data, and you’re wondering if you should do something – and you’ve got to make the right decision about doing it without approvals from everyone.” That’s what happened with some store managers’ decisions to put up plexiglass at checkouts. “I was delighted to walk into the store and see that,” Leonard said.

Also going into his evaluations of how leaders performed, he said, was whether “they were able not only to accept what was happening today but also think ahead to solve problems.” For instance, Stew Leonard’s stores initially faced difficulty ramping up to meet booming orders for pizza from homebound consumers. “We couldn’t make them fast enough, but good leaders would go in and, even with no historical data, were able to put up on a wall: ‘Here’s how many pizzas we have to make today.’ Everybody calmed down and weren’t rushing around anymore like chickens with their heads cut off.”

Amid leaders’ other moves to tame the crisis, Leonard said, the best ones did something continually: “Communicate, communicate, communicate.” Leonard himself showed the way by ordering the production of 21 internal videos during the pandemic. “Another thing our great leaders did was let everyone know what was going on,” he said.


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