Providence Brought Tandy Harvey to Supervalu
by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Midwest
Tandy S. Harvey will tell you she loves Supervalu, a company she has spent more than three decades serving. Her first job was a part-time summer gig in a warehouse in Champaign, Illinois, in the mid-1980s. She was in college earning a mechanical engineering technology degree at Southern Illinois University (SIU). The warehouse was called the J.M. Jones distribution center back then.
Today, Harvey is SVP-sales and operations for the Minneapolis-based company.
“I’ve always worked for Supervalu, and I’ve been given so many opportunities,” Harvey said.
“So many people have helped me along the way. There were people who really took the time out to invest in me, and that is a super big deal. There are not a lot of places you can go and really feel like you’re valued. At Supervalu I totally feel like, ‘you know what, this is where I belong.’”
Providence had a hand in her ultimately choosing Supervalu. She came by that first warehouse job in Champaign by way of her mother, Shirley, one of those moms who knows everyone. She connected Tandy with someone who sent her to the distribution center in Champaign. The billing clerk who would train her was pregnant at the time and about to go on maternity leave. One day not long into Harvey’s tenure the billing clerk came in popping Tums and complaining of gas pains.
“Neither of us knew any better. She goes home and has her baby that night. She was in labor and did not realize it,” Harvey said.
Though not quite prepared to take over, Harvey was smart enough to make it up as she went.
“The supervisors—everyone—helped me out, but that was my first introduction to trial by fire,” she said.
She got on well with the “warehouse guys.” Her job involved handing out pick tickets—a sheet of paper listing what they would go pick to build a pallet.
“They are very interesting because they sometimes like to curse,” Harvey said. “They would say, ‘you gave this guy gravy and you keep giving me these dog orders.’ Gravy would mean the easy orders. But it was fun.”
Harvey has a knack for remembering people. Her supervisor then was Udell “Skip” Strack. Harvey would give him a hard time, teasing him about needing better pay because she was a college student. The affection was mutual.
“Because I have a degree in engineering, he was always saying ‘Tandy, choo, choo! Hear the train coming.’ That was his big joke,” Harvey said. “I said, ‘ Skip, I’m going to come back here and be your boss.’ I was a tough little kid.”
He would let her come back for a couple of weeks at Christmas and every summer when school was out. In fact, the next summer Harvey was repackaging cigarettes and candy. She admits she wasn’t very good at it. She wasn’t fast enough. And she was wearing steel-toed boots to work. In the summer. In a hot warehouse.
“And that’s when I realized, ‘you know what, Tandy?’ You need to stay in school,” Harvey said, laughing.
Working in the warehouse pre-internet, Harvey didn’t realize at the time how large a company Supervalu was. She did not give much thought to making a career there when she graduated from college. She and some friends from SIU attended a job fair together in Chicago. While they were there, she was on her way to the restroom and happened to see a booth with a big red Supervalu sign over it. She stopped and talked to Ashley Culp and told him that she had worked at the distribution center in Champaign. He asked for her resume and she figured why not.
“That is how the rest of the ball started rolling,” Harvey said. “They flew me to the corporate office in Minneapolis for an interview. I had never been on a plane.”
Soon after, she was on another plane bound for Salem, Oregon, where she became a distribution management trainee.
“So I started out 2,117 miles from home. It was a very good adventure,” she said. “I loved working out there. I met some great friends, and we’re still friends now.”
From there, this is her career progression:
- Dispatcher, assistant buyer and buyer, Salem, Oregon
- Buyer/merchandiser, Great Lakes Division, Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, 1992
- Dairy and grocery category manager at the inception of the Midwest Region, 1995
- Director of merchandising, Kmart merchandising liaison, Troy, Michigan, 1999
- Director of advertising, Midwest Region, 2000
- Area marketing director, Champaign, Illinois, 2006
- Director of grocery, frozen, food & dairy, 2007, Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin
- VP of category management, Midwest Region, 2009
- SVP of merchandising in the newly created West Region, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2014
- SVP of sales & operations, Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, 2016 (her current role)
A day in the life…
A typical day for Harvey starts out with a little inspiration.
“I try to read a Bible verse before I read my email so I can get my mind straight,” she said. “You check the email first thing in the morning. You get your shower and you check it again just to make sure something hasn’t happened by the time you get to work. So on the way to work you usually make a few calls and then the same thing in the evening on the way home.”
Being in charge of sales and operations, Harvey’s day-to-day duties can vary. She travels quite extensively to visit retailers for whom she has responsibility. Her teams work with merchandising, which creates sales programs, and then work with retailers to sell and implement them. They also help retailers with operational needs.
“Typically a retailer may have sales issues or competition coming into the market,” Harvey said. “So we help them to put together sales plans for the competition. Then I also have development that reports up through me. The development team goes out and works to get new stores to come on to Supervalu.”
That is going very well, by the way.
“It’s a super exciting time for us at Supervalu because we just bought Unified Grocers on the West Coast,” she said. “We had such growth in this last year, so lots of exciting things are happening.”
She clearly enjoyed her time at the National Expo. For her, those events are almost like family reunions. Spending that time with retailers, vendors and former teammates from other regions energizes her, and she loves to meet new people.
“You can probably tell I’m an extrovert. When you meet new people, it’s like you meet a new cousin,” she said. “I love being out on the Expo floor. It’s really those relationships that give me those ‘yes!’ moments—the people I’ve gotten to meet, the retailers. I remember picking these retailers’ orders. We would take a sponge and wet the back of a label, write the store number on it and slap it on the box. And now, these are the retailers that I’m working with, the owners, and I’m like, ‘wow, I remember when I used to pick your order.’”
Be you, unless you’re an idiot
Few women have reached the status Harvey has in the grocery industry. As for advice for other women on the way up, she shares an adage from a former boss: Be yourself.
“It has served me well,” she said. “Don’t try to be ‘the guy.’ Just do who you are. Do your best you. Know who you are. Now, if ‘you’ is an absolute idiot, that’s not the best ‘you.’ And I would tell that even to my team. Be you. Be your best you.”
She knows that as an extrovert she has to be careful to stop and listen.
“I like to talk, so I have to make sure that I’m taking the time to understand who you are,” she said.
Her husband has on occasion reminded Harvey that everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time.
“You’re just as equal as the other folks in the room,” she said. “Believe in yourself, and know who you are.”
Family and career progress together
Harvey’s family views Supervalu as a “fantastic company, which it is,” she said. Her 73-year-old Aunt Lillie even works for a Supervalu-supplied retailer in Champaign, Illinois. And they have all watched her rise.
“Working at Supervalu changed my life,” Harvey told The Shelby Report. “Imagine you can be with a company and see the progression of your own life. I have a husband and kids, and it changes their lifestyles.”
There are funny moments with them.
“When they think of Supervalu, they always think, ‘Oh, do you service this store?’ My aunt called me recently. She lives in the St. Louis market, and she was at one of our stores there and she said, ‘they used to carry this item and they don’t carry it anymore. Can you please talk to someone about that?’ And so you get a few of those as well.”
Her children see something of a superhero in their mother. When her son had just turned 14 years old, he asked her about her job title. At the time it was vice president.
“He said, ‘so you’re everybody’s boss?’ He was so enthusiastic,” Harvey said. “I said, ‘not quite.’ He gave me a high-five, and I thought, ‘wow, this kid is recognizing that his mom has really put in some effort.”
On the weekend she sometimes would take her children to the office with her. The candy jar, often filled with new products, was a real treat for them.
“I’m still somebody’s mother so you always have to figure out that balance,” she said. “My kids have seen something very, very different than they would have seen otherwise.”
“An unshakable belief that by assembling the right team, providing strategy, emphasizing excellence, quality and focus and positively energizing them to see a successful outcome, we can overcome any obstacle. A passion for driving sales by understanding the customer. Dedicated to continuous improvement for self and operation, while having some fun and humor along the way.”
Harvey’s Greatest Influence Is a Woman Who Never Stopped
One of the most powerful influences in Tandy Harvey’s life was her grandmother. Mrs. Mary Avant passed away in 2014 at the age of 105.
“She was sharp up until probably six months before that,” Harvey said. “Between 95 and 100, we had a birthday party every year. I remember when she turned 100 and she was still just as sharp, and the number of people that came out and said something about her—I thought, ‘wow, the people’s lives that she’s touched,’ and she was just being her.”
Mary Avant was born in October 1909 in Mississippi, which remains today the poorest state in the U.S. She was a sharecropper. She told her grandchildren stories about how she used to pick bales of cotton.
“Imagine her being born in Mississippi. It wasn’t the most racially inclusive place,” Harvey said. “The things that she’d seen that she never even talked about to us. When you’ve lived that long, you’ve seen so many different things happen in your lifetime and experienced so many things. She had her last child at 40 and decided that they were not going to stay in Mississippi.”
She informed her husband, Dock, that they were going to move.
“Because that is how she was. She could read and write. My grandfather couldn’t. He signed his name with an ‘X,’” Harvey said. “But she decided she wanted something different for her kids.”
The Avants and their eight children made the move to Champaign in 1954.
“If you think about back in those days—this woman who has these kids decides ‘this is what we’re going to do.’ She saves up enough money. She sold chickens and churned butter. She did all these things. She was a very, very self-sufficient person,” Harvey said.
“She had the wherewithal to buy a house,” Harvey added. “It was an old funeral parlor. Because that’s grandma. She does what she wants.”
Later on, Harvey was one of 10 grandchildren Mrs. Avant watched over.
“When we were coming up, we didn’t have babysitters. Our grandparents always babysat us,” Harvey said. “Grandma was always embracing. Everybody could come to Grandma’s house. When people came to town they came to visit my grandmother. There were people that she didn’t even purposely adopt, but they adopted her. They were not related to her, but everybody called her ‘Grandma.’”
Mrs. Avant had a way about her that made people believe they belonged, no matter what.
“She would tell us, ‘it’s all right to mess up as long as you clean up,’” Harvey said.
Her grandmother always grew a garden, and that may have influenced Harvey’s work ethic.
She hated it.
“Because I hate bugs,” Harvey said. “But you always have to work in the garden. You have got to go do it.”
Mrs. Avant never stopped moving, never stopped working. She would make quilts. She had that garden. She put up preserves. Even into her centurial years, Harvey’s grandmother kept going.
“She didn’t sit around and complain. I know she had a lot of aches and pains, but she kept going. She had a stair climber in her living room. She’d get on that stair climber and she would take her time, but she would be doing her thing,” Harvey said. “I think to all my cousins and my mom and everyone, Grandma was truly that inspiration to us all. You just keep doing.”
Improving herself and her team
Her grandmother’s energetic perseverance was a powerful influence on Harvey, and even a casual observer senses that those traits may be genetic.
Harvey is careful to remember who she is and how she presents herself as a representative of her company.
“As we’re out talking to retailers, as we’re dealing with vendors, we’re the face of Supervalu,” she said. “So if I’m coming up and I’m a sourpuss, then people start to believe that about what I’m representing. So I like to ask, ‘how do you put your best foot forward?’”
Harvey is a firm believer in self-improvement. She observes others and takes note of their behavior—good and bad.
“Say we’re in a room and I see you doing things you shouldn’t. Then I’ll think, ‘I don’t care for that behavior. Make sure you don’t do that,’” she said. “Then say you’re doing something wonderful. I may think, ‘wow, that might be something good for my team.’”
She also evaluates her past roles and keeps track of those things “that I wish I had done in my old job.”
It isn’t just about her own self-improvement, her own success. Her role is to help her teams as much as it is to lead them.
“The team makes the leader successful; it is not the leader alone,” she said. “It’s not about Tandy. It is ‘how do you build a core team and make them feel like they’re part of something, that they have decision-making ability and they can really create and be innovative? How do you help them grow?’”
A Hugger Who Thrives on Chaos
Tandy Harvey is an extrovert. She would rather get in front of a crowd and talk than write an essay.
“That would be dreadful,” she said.
Give her a math problem instead. She likes those.
“If it’s math or something technical that I don’t know, I can figure it out,” Harvey said. “I may not have those specific skill sets, but let me study it for a few minutes. Yep, I can figure it out.”
She was the smart kid.
“Well, kind of. I was a smart kid when I applied myself,” Harvey said. “Math and the sciences really came naturally. I obviously use lots of math in this business.”
She is quick to laugh.
She is loyal.
She has been a Supervalu employee for more than 30 years. In return for her loyalty, the company has given her a sense of belonging.
“I’ve had so many people who have really taken a great interest in helping me over my career,” Harvey said. “This is a great place to work.”
“There are people who move to lots of different companies, and I applaud them,” she said. “Here, I’ve gotten to see things from A to Z, but even though I’ve worked for one company, it’s still like I’ve worked for different companies because things have changed over the years and I’ve gone into these different functional areas. There’s always something new to learn.”
She is unflappable. Give her a challenge. She likes those, too.
“I work well, period. But I work very well under pressure,” she said.
Years ago, when Supervalu had a contract with Kmart, which was at the time doing fairly well, Harvey had a spot in the retailer’s corporate office. They didn’t necessarily embrace her.
“It could be adversarial,” she said.
One day there was a brouhaha about an order or some such.
She said, “I remember coming into the room and telling my team, ‘this is what we’re going to do: A, B, C, D.’ And I remember one of the guys saying, ‘wow, Tandy, you are excellent under pressure.’ For some reason my mind settles down and gets sharper.”
She is energetic.
“There’s so much that’s changing in the industry. It’s almost like, ‘can you keep up the pace?’ But you have to,” she said. “We’ve proven that you cannot stand still.”
And she’s a hugger.
“I’m a hugger because everybody needs a hug,” Harvey said. “Because everybody needs that ‘feel good.’ Life is very short.”
The future of grocery
At the end of the day, the business is selling groceries, but the grocery shopper has changed. A consumer can order online and get almost anything he or she has ever wanted delivered in two days or less.
“I remember when Amazon was a bookseller. It’s not a bookseller anymore,” she said. “As we talk to our retailers and as we look at our industry, we recognize that’s out there, but what’s my place in that? How do I fit in that?”
A part of the answer to that challenge is to never try to be all things to all people.
“Pick your core. They say people can only focus on five goals at a time,” she said. “Pick your three to five things. This is our mission statement, and these are the things that we’re going to focus on. And stick to it, and what you’ll find is life will keep ebbing and flowing around it. Master what you’re good at.”
Harvey is fascinated with Steve Jobs, Apple’s late founder.
“Imagine the thought process that says, ‘I’m going to invent something that you don’t even know that you need,’” she said. “Whoever said, ‘I need an iPod with 5,000 songs?’”
The question is how to do that in grocery retailing and wholesaling.
“How do we see that future need?” she said. “Steve Jobs basically created demand, and that’s not an easy thing to do in the world of grocery retail.”
For Harvey, the answer is in innovation, customer service and employee development.
“Happy employees make happy sales make happy lives. That’s my philosophy,” she said. “How do you help employees feel good about working at Supervalu? Supervalu’s been great to me. I’ve had some great backing, and I’ve had some great leaders in front of me that have helped me. But how do you help other people—and how do you help our retailers—see the value?’”
You never know
“I don’t know what you went through this morning. I don’t know what happened at your house. So how can I give you a little joy?
“You just don’t know.
“I had to take my car in to the dealership, and I thought this guy was acting so sour. And he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know this will be my last week here.’
“I said, ‘OK, are you going off to do something fun?’
“He was a widower. He said, ‘My wife died two years ago.’ He was leaving because he had the opportunity to not work for a year.
“And I thought to myself, ‘I’m thinking that he’s sour. I had no idea what this person had been through.’
“I believe you should instill a little joy if you can. Bring some happiness. Bring some love. Bring something to people, because you just never know. You never know the difference that you make for somebody.”