New Mexico Struggles To Find Post-Recession Footing

New Mexico Struggles To Find Post-Recession Footing
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by Terrie Ellerbee/associate editor

The Albuquerque Journal took a look at New Mexico’s employment numbers in a recent article and asked why the state continues to struggle long after the national recession ended in June 2009. The story suggests no one knows for sure.

In October 2012, New Mexico’s jobless rate was 6.3 percent, down from 6.4 percent in September and 7.2 percent a year ago.

But the rate of over-the-year growth in New Mexico was negative 0.7 percent, or a loss of 5,900 jobs, according to the state’s department of workforce solutions. It reports that the job losses started in June, following 10 months of over-the-year job growth.

The Journal’s story puts forth several theories for the lackluster jobs picture, blaming bad data, the government, builders, the labor pool, uncertainty or even Lehman Bros.

The state before the recession had tens of thousands of people employed in construction, a profession hit hard by the recession. New Mexico has had a large government sector in the past, too, but even in that area, employment is down 4,500 jobs from October 2011 to October 2012.

Forbes has just ranked New Mexico No. 43 out of the 50 states in six economic areas. The state’s best ranking is No. 28 for its labor supply. The worst puts New Mexico at No. 49 for quality of life, which takes into account school test scores, crime and poverty rates, according to Forbes.

Emory Russell knows people are struggling. He and his family own and operate two Russell’s Truck & Travel Center locations and three grocery stores.

Business is steady, he told The Shelby Report, but the economic outlook is marred by the lack of job growth. Government nutritional programs are more heavily used, he said.

“With New Mexico being a low-income state, we strive to keep our costs down and pass the savings to the customers,” Russell said. “Consistency and continually giving our customers what they need will continue the success we have had in the past and ensure a prosperous future.”

Government restrictions and mandates, and competing with what Russell called “monster corporations” are challenges common to independent operators, and he is no exception.

“The regulatory nonsense is a big burden,” Russell said. “The upcoming health care guidelines, the country of original labeling, plastic bags and everything else that is regulated end up costing the businesses, and in turn our customers.”

Walmart has circumvented a lot of the costs Russell’s business have had to shoulder, he said, like utility tax breaks, exemptions and the “unfair business practices of purchasing at lower price point than anyone else is able to.”

He also bemoans Walmart’s low wages and higher percentage of part-time workers who do not receive benefits like employees do at a traditional grocery store.

To fight back, the Russells are adding new departments and continually updating the stores, keeping service at the forefront and offering aggressive ad specials and hundreds of in-store specials. The company also tailors each stores to the community it serves. Two feature a tortilla factory and larger selection of perishables.

“We are continually looking to expand produce, bulk items and prepared food, especially in hot deli,” he said. “We also are bringing in new lines of organic and natural foods.”

To keep employees engaged, Russell says the company tries to give them “a sense of pride in the service they provide for our customers. An employee who likes what he or she is doing and feels appreciated will always do a better job than someone who doesn’t.”

From logger to entrepreneur

Emory Russell

Emory Russell

Emory Russell enjoys the grocery business. His education in the industry was mostly trial and error as he and his wife, Barbara, grew their business.

They have been married since 1960. He was a logger in Montana. The Russells moved to Cimarron in 1964 with their four children so he could find that type of work. While driving a lumber truck, he broke one of his feet. As he convalesced, he took an interest in a hamburger business his wife was running at the time. Then when the local grocer retired and closed his store in Cimarron, Emory Russell built one himself. The 2,400-s.f. store opened in 1971 and the initial inventory was made possible by a $4,000 bank loan. The store has been expanded four times, and today it is 8,000-s.f.

Emory Russell and his family certainly have been a blessing in Cimarron. Often when a business in the town closed, the Russells would reopen it. They have operated a drive-in restaurant, laundromat and game room—and they took over two subdivisions, too.

In 1982, Russell began opening stores in Las Vegas (N.M.) and the company grew from there. At one time it operated 14 grocery stores in New Mexico and Texas. As he took over stores, including a 15,000-s.f Super Save and several Furr’s and Safeway stores, Russell went in and took out liquor sections and put bakeries in their place.

The family’s Christian principles are important to them and they have applied them to their businesses. The Russells believe faith in God and perseverance brought them to where they are today, and they have passed along to their children their Christian heritage.

The Russells sold 10 of the stores in 1995 and opened their first truck stop in Springer.

Now in its 41st year, the company operates three large supermarkets and two travel centers, one located on Historic Route 66.

The most recent Russell’s Travel Center opened in Glenrio off Interstate 40 that features a 45,000-s.f. car museum with more than 30 classic automobiles on display. Admission is free, but donations are accepted to help people in need. A worship chapel also is part of the complex and is a testament to the Russells’ strong Christian faith.

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