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Ralphs, Gelson’s Women Execs Share Their Histories And Wisdom

Hee-Sook Nelson and Valerie Jabbar
Hee-Sook Nelson and Valerie Jabbar

Last updated on April 11th, 2017 at 02:17 pm

The Food Industries Sales Managers’ Club of Los Angeles (FISMC) fittingly held its Women in the Food Industry Luncheon during March, which is Women’s History Month.

Cynthia Weifenbach of CLW Consulting, chair of FISMC, emceed the event, during which Valerie Jabbar, president of Ralphs Grocery Co., and Hee-Sook Nelson, VP of team development and public affairs for Gelson’s Markets, were added to FISMC’s Honor Roll of Women.

“The stories of women’s lives that are shared and the choices they make encourage us all, men and women alike, to think larger and bolder,” Weifenbach said. “Through the sharing of women’s achievements, we challenge stereotypes and social assumptions about who women are and what we can accomplish. Women have been a growing force within the retail and CPG industries for many years. And for 24 years, FISMC has been honoring strong women in our industry who have contributed such amounts of great energy and have made a dynamic difference.”

In her introduction of Nelson, Weifenbach called her “a strong, engaging and energetic force within our industry.”

Nelson: driven to achieve

Nelson was born in Seoul, South Korea. Her parents moved the family—Nelson and her two younger sisters—to the U.S. because they believed an American education was the best education, she said. Her father continued his career as an artist while her college-educated mother learned how to be a manicurist to support the family. Nelson graduated from UC-Santa Barbara with a degree in film and sociology; both her sisters are educators who graduated from UCLA. Her father’s art has collectors in Asia and Europe and it has appeared in various galleries, but perhaps his greatest achievement is that at age 83, he has become the first Korean American to have an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Unexpected Light: Works by Young Il Ahn).

She said that growing up, she and her sisters were “all driven to achieve; we didn’t have any choice to not achieve…that was the expectation.”

At age 18, she began bagging groceries at Vons.

“In those days, and I think you guys who have been in this industry for a long time know, that was a revered position. If you could get in a grocery store and get a bagging job, that was pretty cool. I worked my way through college, I checked groceries and always told myself I would never commit to the business; it was just a part-time job…well, here I am 30-some-odd years later.”

She kept her cashier job after college since that part-time job paid more than her full-time job, which was selling time slots for affiliates of major television networks. She worked 65-75 hours a week at that time, prior to moving into the public relations field as a publicist, and then in financial sales. She decided that “sales was not my forte.”

The grocery industry drew her back, this time to Gelson’s. She said she was “buying some time to figure out whether I was going to go to law school or whatever.”

She’s been with Gelson’s since 1989. One of her first observations of her co-workers at Gelson’s was that they were all “on some kind of Kool-Aid or something” because they were happy at work.

“As I got to know people, there were a lot of people who have been in this company for a long, long time because we have a passion for what we do and for our business,” Nelson said.

“We have people like Donna (Tyndall) that were basically born at Gelson’s,” she joked. “And people who are just very, very dedicated.”

Nelson, who is a graduate of the Food Industry Management (FIM) Program at USC and a firm believer in the importance of education, said she has been given many opportunities at Gelson’s, which is filled with “some great mentors. We really think it’s important to have people in upper management who have worked up the ranks because they have a true appreciation for the masses that do the hard work every day on the front lines and deliver our goals and our initiatives. I really believe that having that experience and having a company full of people who have worked in the ranks really adds value.”

Today, Nelson wants to make sure she’s a good mentor and role model for those coming up behind her.

“Learn from other people’s mistakes and your own. And always teach people to be the best at whatever they do,” she advised, adding that living by the golden rule—treating employees the way you want to be treated—is vital.

“We all know what our titles are, but that doesn’t earn you respect. You earn respect by being good examples of leaders,” Nelson said. “We have to have some humility, be able to make fun of ourselves, see some humor in the things that we do and, most importantly, mentor or coach. Since we’re talking about women today, we have great woman leaders in this room, and I’m so proud to be honored with Valerie (Jabbar) here today and getting to know her.”

Outside work, Nelson and her significant other, Justin, oversee their pack of four dogs and three cats. Nelson is an animal advocate who volunteers her time to place dogs and cats in loving homes. She’s also a Los Angeles Kings fan.

Jabbar: dynamic and high-energy

Weifenbach introduced Jabbar as “a very dynamic and highly energetic lady.”

She would have to be. In addition to serving as president of Ralphs Grocery Co., Jabbar is a wife and mother of three daughters.

She was named president of Kroger’s Ralphs Division in Southern California in July 2016. She is responsible for the operation of 194 Ralphs stores throughout Southern California that employ more than 20,000 associates.

This year will mark her 30-year anniversary in the grocery industry, having begun her career in 1987.

“I didn’t have what many would consider a typical start in the food industry,” she said. “I started in the lingerie department at Smitty’s, (which was) much like a superstore or a Walmart.”

Since that interesting start, she has held a variety of roles at Smith’s, Fred Meyer and Fry’s. In 2012, she moved to Kroger’s Mid-Atlantic Division to serve as VP of merchandising. In 2013, she was moved to the Ralphs Division as VP of merchandising. That put her in line for the promotion to president last year when Donna Giordano announced her retirement.

(Incidentally, Giordano was in the audience, making her first appearance at an industry event since her retirement.)

Jabbar, who said it is easier for her to talk about Ralphs than about herself, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, where her family lived until she was in eighth grade. She went to high school in Arizona then to Colorado Institute of Art in Denver.

“I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer until I got there and realized I really didn’t have the drawing talent I needed,” she said.

She and her husband, Sam, are parents to a 15-year-old soccer star; a 19-year-old nurse practitioner-to-be; and a real estate agent in Connecticut and expectant mother. Jabbar’s first granddaughter is due in June.

Jabbar credits her family with allowing her to pursue her career without limitations.

“My daughters, my husband, my family—they have all played an incredibly supportive role in my journey throughout the years,” she said. “There is no question, I would definitely not be where I am today without their support and sacrifices they made for me along the way. They were moving five times across the country, back and forth to the East Coast, to the West Coast. They have been through a lot of long hours that we work in this industry, and they sometimes have to visit competition’s stores when we’re on vacation.”

One of those moves came when Jabbar, at age 32, was on maternity leave with her second daughter. Her boss at Fry’s called her and asked if Jabbar could come in and talk to her about a job at Kroger headquarters in Cincinnati. Jabbar didn’t have a babysitter for her four-week-old daughter that day, so her boss told her to just bring her along, that she’d like to see the baby anyway.

“Long story short, six weeks later I was living in Cincinnati, not only with a newborn and a three-year-old, but I was taking on a new job in a new environment with a much different culture than the West,” she said. “It was crazy, but I’ll tell you, Sam and the girls were real troopers. Again, I couldn’t have made it without them and their support, which means I would never have made it here to talk to you today. Because, remember, in this industry, it’s not just about me, it’s about we.”

Jabbar, who is a board member of the Western Association of Food Chains, said that being president of Ralphs “is the best job that I have had yet.

“I feel very blessed to have had the opportunities with a great company that has given me so many different experiences that has laid a great foundation for my growth and career,” she said.

“Most of us just start out with a part-time job and don’t imagine being here the rest of our lives,” Jabbar added. “Lucky for me, there have been many people in my career that had much more confidence in my abilities than I did.”

She cited Giordano as one of those people. “She gave me that little, gentle nudge I needed many times to keep going.”

Jabbar said she set her sights on being a leader at Kroger about 10 years ago, “with a goal to do as much as I could do to make an impact on the lives of not only our customers but our associates throughout The Kroger Co. and the communities in which we serve. It’s never been about a title for me; it’s more about what difference I could make in every position that I held.”

The mentors she has had over her career, whom she has “the utmost respect for and trust in,” are the people she reaches out to when she needs help and also are her inspiration to “give back to others in the industry and to pay it forward to our future leaders, both men and women. I would say I’m in it for the long haul now. I love my job, I love the people that I work with and I love what I do. And when I stop loving it, that’s when I’m going to stop doing it, because life is just too short. If you don’t love what you do, I say go find something else to do.”

For all “up-and-comers” in the industry, man or woman, Jabbar shared some of the things she lives by:

• Be a leader that your associates want to emulate.

• Be genuine, be authentic, be positive, approachable and supportive.

• Always have high standards and end results.

• Be trustworthy and show care and compassion.

• Be present in the moment; slow down. “Things are fast-paced, we’re busy; take some time to stop and listen. When we listen we can become great managers, and when we don’t listen, we sometimes miss some critical points.”

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