by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Southwest
There is something special about employee-owned companies. Marc Jones, president and CEO of HAC Inc., sees it as an attribute that attracts both employees and customers.
“An employee-owned business is seen as a big plus in both groups, which is kind of a fun thing,” he told The Shelby Report’s Jan Meade, VP, Southwest.
The Oklahoma City-based parent company of Homeland Stores has joined with a group of organizations to create awareness around employee-owned companies. HAC is a founding member of Certified EO.
“You’ll start seeing that certification on our website and on our employment materials,” Jones said.
The idea of becoming an employee-owner is attractive to potential employees. Once they are hired, employee-owners tend to go above ordinary expectations.
“They’re not doing it for ‘the man’ or their boss,” Jones said. “It’s, ‘I’ve got a little piece of this and I understand why this is happening.”
Brian Haaraoja, HAC’s VP of merchandising and marketing, praised Jones’ leadership in that regard.
“With his lead, we’re building this culture around not only are we employee-owned, but also what it means to be employee-owned and what it means to have a piece of that and I think that will continue to build this loyalty and this culture of hey, we can make a difference with this company that we have,” Haaraoja said. “I don’t know that prior to Marc—not to say anything bad about anybody—but I don’t know that it was a focus in the past. I think that makes us a little bit different and unique and hopefully will attract some people once they see that.”
There is constant communication with employee-owners about how the company is faring. That drives ownership with employees, Haaraoja said. Where work needs to be done it gets done. They rally each other. Then the magic happens.
“When the results start to change, it is, ‘wow, I did make a difference.’ We are starting to see that, which is neat to be a part of,” he said.
It comes as no surprise that finding the right employees can be difficult, even with all the benefits an employee-owned company offers. Jones joked with Meade about it being great that grocery remains “a pretty glamorous business” attracting qualified applicants too numerous to count.
“You know, luckily you’ve got a lot of young people dreaming of entering the grocery business. I guess deli, meat cutters, I’m sure they are just beating down the doors for that part,” he said facetiously. “But back to reality and in all seriousness, it is a challenge.”
Retail is hard work. “Undoubtedly,” Jones said. He does not joke about leadership’s role in attracting workers.
“Hopefully it is undoubtedly also a very rewarding job, especially when you are doing it in your small town and you are part of the community, part of the store that feeds people,” he said. “That can be very rewarding but it’s our job as leaders is to make sure people understand it and maybe one day it will be seen as a glamorous business. We’re working on it.”
Old store getting new life
Something else HAC is working on is the extensive renovation of a store in downtown Oklahoma City at 1108 North West 18th Street. Originally built in 1972, its age has presented some challenges. The remodeling project was expected to be completed in time for the winter holiday season in 2017. Now hopes are to have the work finished by July 4 of this year.
“Our challenge has been that it’s just an old store,” Jones said. “We were listing off the different things that need to get done. We just ran out of time. We would have gotten a lot of the interior store done before the holidays but then we realized the roof needed to be redone. You wouldn’t want to spend a lot of money on the inside of a store with a leaky roof.”
Some work has been completed and Jones said in the interview that he expected customers would begin to notice the changes in January.
“I think everybody’s excited about it,” Jones said. “We’ve heard nothing but positive feedback.”
HAC has made reinvesting in its existing stores a priority, Haaraoja said. That also sat on the back burner prior to Jones’ leadership. The cost of the work on the downtown Oklahoma City location will total nearly $2 million.
HAC operates under several banners, including United Supermarkets, Piggly Wiggly, Super Save and Super Save Cost-Plus Food Outlet, Food World, Cash Saver (another cost-plus format) and Country Mart. Some of those stores have seen some updating as well. A Homeland store opened in Justin, Texas, in late November that previously operated as a Super Save.
“We also spent some money on the Edmond store remodeling it,” Haaraoja added. “We’ve upgraded some of our Cash Savers that we recently converted over the last few years. But we’ve got a pretty aggressive program of maybe not extensive remodels but reinvesting back in the stores.”
Don’t bet against convenience
Oklahoma City residents had been able to take advantage of online ordering and pickup from their local Homeland stores. The service has been discontinued.
“We switched everything in metro Oklahoma City to delivery,” Jones said. “It’s off to, I think, a good start. It seems to be growing. We’re learning as we do that.”
Convenience is what the customer wants now. Sure, people are looking for “more exotic, more unusual ingredients with local,” Jones said.
“But don’t bet against people’s desire to save time,” he said. “The one thing that isn’t changing in everybody’s lives is no more minutes are being added in the day, so it’s how do you squeeze more out of it and it’s just whether it’s pre-cut vegetables or cut fruit or any number of prepared foods we’ve got around the store, that seems like an easy bet.”
Prepared foods offerings are evolving with shoppers. Despite consumers asking for healthier alternatives, Homeland stores still sell a “heck of a lot” of fried chicken, said Haaraoja.
“Rotisserie chicken or baked chicken, that type of item continues to grow,” he said. “We’ve really done a great job of expanding our rib program. But really it is giving the customer that meal alternative from that standpoint out of convenience.”
One of the strongest advantages the independent grocer has is flexibility. These quick-change artists can be faster at adapting to meet the needs of their customers than large chains.
“We figure out new solutions every day and we try them, and then the ones that work we keep on doing, and the ones that don’t we hopefully give up on them fast and move on,” Jones said. “Probably the biggest challenge is that the changes are happening faster and bigger and from many more directions than they’ve ever happened before. We look around our company and say for a company rooted in the communities that we serve, that’s truly listening and meeting people’s needs—not just once a year or anonymously but face-to-face in their communities before work, after work, during work—we should be able to figure it out.”
The answer may not be the same in Justin, Texas, as it is in Edmond, Oklahoma. But Jones said figuring it out is what keeps the grocery business fresh.