Last updated on October 7th, 2014 at 09:22 am
Rose Mitchell was the first woman in the history of West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee Inc. to be named an officer of the company. That happened in 1992. Three years later, the company that was founded in 1930 named her to the board of directors, another first for a woman executive.
Had she not gone with Hy-Vee, Mitchell most likely would have been the first woman superintendent of a school system. She would have been the “first woman” something.
Her rise to the top is the result of her “got-to-get-it-done” attitude that has bolstered her as she stretched her abilities beyond what she thought she was capable of doing.
“There were times when I felt like Hy-Vee would ask me to do the impossible,” Mitchell said. “The first reaction you have is, ‘Well, I can’t do this.’ And then you sit down for a minute and you let it sink in. Then I would swing that chair around and say, ‘OK. I’ve got to do it.’ Taking that first step is really, really hard.
“You’ve got to start. The very first thing you do is the hardest—putting that first word on paper, taking that first step,” said the Spencer, Iowa, native. “But once you get the first sentence down, it’s like the dam opens and it just comes. I think it’s a mental thing. You climb over the wall. Then it flows.”
Over her 35 years with Hy-Vee, Mitchell has taken on many roles. In the early days, she performed human resources functions and started Hy-Vee’s career and alumni days.
“You grow into a lot of these positions,” Mitchell said. “Your talents kind of attract projects and jobs, and I started a lot of things that were eventually handed off into other departments. I did a lot of HR (human resources) functions in the early years before our HR department actually oversaw them—started our first Career Day and now that’s a huge event we hold every year. I even helped open small retail locations we experimented (with) back in the ’80s and ’90s.”
Mitchell retired from Hy-Vee in October 2013, after reaching the position of SVP of governmental affairs. Retired in her case doesn’t mean she’ll be on the golf course every day, although she does like the sport. She was director of the Hy-Vee Classic Senior Women’s LPGA Golf Tournament for two years and bested her husband Jerry by getting a hole-in-one before he did.
She’s keeping her company email address for one year, and wants to stay connected at least for a little while to the company she first went to work for in 1978.
She was a teacher back then, after graduating from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, with an English degree. The job she took at Hy-Vee was meant to supplement her income for a couple of months, until school started in late August.
When a corporate position came open and was posted, Mitchell saw it, read it and decided that she was not qualified for it, even though the job involved teaching and training development, strengths the former teacher surely had.
“There were a couple of lines in there—‘may need to assist with accounting or bookkeeping functions at store level,’ and I thought to myself, ‘Nope. Can’t do that part.’ And because of one line in the whole entire job description I didn’t think I was qualified for, I discounted all the rest of it. This is where it’s important to have mentors and others who, when you know your employees well, walk over and give them an encouraging word.”
Steve Budd, her manager at the time, was that mentor for her. He told her she could do it.
It turned out that the little piece of the job description that had given her pause was inconsequential.
She said that is a classic example for how women sometimes hold themselves back.
“They tend to want to be more over-qualified and be able to do every single thing, and so, in particular, when you look at women in our industry, they need a lot of encouragement,” Mitchell said.
“Women make a difference. If you don’t have a woman at the top with you, you need to get women at the table regardless. But it’s happening. Two key women in the industry are heading up the associations: Leslie Sarasin (president and CEO) at FMI (Food Marketing Institute) and Pam Bailey (president and CEO) at GMA (Grocery Manufacturers Association),” Mitchell said.
She also believes women should do more to help each other.
“More women need to speak up. We aren’t known for supporting each other as well as we should, so I want to put the onus a little bit on women to speak up. I’ve been known to be an advocate for women and to speak out for 15, 20 years. But those of us in our 40s and 50s, we really need to be vocal and active and supportive. I’ve tried to do my best to lead by example.”
She also tries to pass along the wisdom she has gained when she returns to Simpson College, which presented her with its Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award in 1995 and its Greek Alumni of the Year and Advisor of the Year awards in 2002. She remains active with the Tri Delta sorority, for which she has been a collegiate district officer since 2006.
She tells young people that they have to be ready when the opportunities present themselves, like she was when the training supervisor position that lifted Mitchell to the corporate level came along.
“You need to meet the people you work with, see what’s going on around you, learn other things, not just in your department, but in other departments all around the business, so that when opportunity comes, you know more than just your narrow little area,” Mitchell said. “That was good advice I got from a boss and something I’ve passed along. It’s what allowed me to help develop and write Hy-Vee University.”
Hy-Vee University is the award-winning in-depth training program for the company’s employees. It appeals in particular to employees fresh from college who want to continue to learn as they begin their careers.
“Having a teaching background, she came into our industry very well qualified to help us train the employees at the store level and also the future leaders at the company,” said Ric Jurgens, former CEO and president of Hy-Vee.
They began working together when they were both very young, new executives.
“We’ve been friends and colleagues for virtually all of her career, so I probably know her as well as anyone and probably appreciate her more than anyone else does,” Jurgens said. “She not only helped create virtually every significant training piece that we ever developed in our company, but she also set the pace for women in management. She was the reason we would hire so many over the years because they become such good managers.”
Another former CEO has high praise for Mitchell as well. Hy-Vee Chairman Emeritus Ron Pearson, who immediately preceded Jurgens as president, CEO and chairman of the board, said Mitchell was a “key individual in our company in a lot of areas.
“She was an example setter and a mentor for females coming up in our company wanting to grow their careers. Rose just set example after example, growing to the ranks of the board of directors of Hy-Vee and the executive committee of Hy-Vee,” Pearson said. “And then she also greatly helped us develop our relationships with the legislative arms of the state governments, somewhat in the federal government, too, although we only operate in eight states. Rose led that particular area for our company.”
She has been honored for her work in that arena, just as she has been in every other area of her service at Hy-Vee and her substantial volunteer work. Iowa Congressman Tom Latham recognized Mitchell’s accomplishments in the state house of representatives last September.
“Rose’s contribution to Hy-Vee and to the great state of Iowa cannot be overstated,” Latham said. “While Mrs. Mitchell’s expertise and experience are sure to be missed, she leaves behind a truly grateful community and an excellent example of service for which to strive.”
Her work with food industry organizations also has been lauded. Mitchell was active in federal and state politics and policy through her nearly two-decade-long participation in FMI’s government affairs committee. She served as chairperson of the committee in 2013. In January, she received FMI’s Glen P. Woodard Jr. Public Affairs Award.
“In government relations, Rose epitomized the ideal lobbyist for the industry—someone with a solid reputation in both the substance of the issues and access to key elected officials, which made a difference over and over again for FMI and the industry as we tackled priority issues in Washington and in the state capitols,” said Jennifer Hatcher, FMI’s SVP of government and public affairs. “Rose and Hy-Vee have been critical to FMI and the industry on a host of issues big and small, legislative and regulatory, and federal and state. We would not have had the achievements we did without the skillful work of Rose and the Hy-Vee colleagues she enlisted on three issues in particular: swipe fees, front-of-package labeling and hours of service.”
Mitchell’s influence continues to grow in a big way, and Jurgens said he would be amazed if it didn’t.
Mitchell has taken on the unpaid, volunteer role of campaign manager for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s re-election campaign.
Mitchell described her true-to-form reaction: “That was jaw-dropping when I was asked to do that. I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
There’s little doubt she’ll swing that chair around and get it done.
“Rose is retired from going to work every day, and I don’t anticipate that she will take on another full-time job,” said Jurgens. “But do not be surprised if you see big things from this lady in the future. She is someone who gets involved and makes a difference and I’ll be shocked if she doesn’t continue to do that for the rest of her life.”