The Shelby Report and The Grocery Group have introduced a new series entitled People To Watch that focuses on current and future leadership in the grocery industry. In this second installment, The Grocery Group Founder and CEO Cindy Sorensen interviews Jess Warzecha, learning and development business partner for Coborn’s. Sorensen’s questions are in bold.
This month, The Shelby Report is focusing on independent retailers, wholesalers and distributors. This is great timing for telling your story of opportunity and advancement at one of the leading independent retailers in the country. Tell me a little bit about you and what do you like to do with your time away from the office.
I got married in September (2018), so my husband and I are enjoying being newlyweds. When I’m not at work you can find me on the lake with my husband and our dog with family and friends. During the colder months, we are typically working on some sort of a home improvement project.
Give us a brief description of Coborn’s Inc.
Coborn’s Inc. is a growing employee-owned retail company that strives to live out our vision to be remarkable by inspiring happiness, healthy living and simplicity, one guest at a time. We have 54 grocery stores and 70 convenience, liquor and other retail locations throughout the Midwest. We employ about 8,000 remarkable employees, representing five generations of Coborn family leadership. We offer a variety of different retail locations to include: Coborn’s, Cash Wise, Marketplace Foods and our unique service CobornsDelivers, which is an online grocery ordering and home delivery service. We also own and operate 35 liquor stores, have our own convenience and pharmacy division, as well as an in-house warehouse and distribution center, Central Bakery and Topps cleaners. Further entities include Ace Hardware, Caribou Coffee, Country Floral, Dunn Bros Coffee and Subway. We believe in giving back to the communities that we serve and continue to invest in the health and education of our employees and guests.
What is your role at Coborn’s? Responsibilities?
As a learning and development business partner, I am responsible for conducting training and gap analysis for requested training programs, facilitating training programs and train-the-trainer workshops, overseeing coordination and implementation of the developmental programs we offer—LEAP, SDI, DMA, Retail Management Certificate and Retail Internship Program—as well as partnering with non-fresh leadership teams to design, implement and oversee training for non-fresh departments. Other duties consist of designing, developing and updating training programs and instructional materials, implementing training around the company’s employee engagement survey and collaborating with company leaders to determine strategy, design and rollout plans for various initiatives.
What was your career path to this position?
I started as a part-time cashier in high school. Once I graduated high school, my mentor at that time encouraged me to transfer to a store location near the College of St. Benedict, where I obtained my bachelor’s degree. Throughout my college career, Coborn’s was always flexible with my class schedule while providing me with tools for growth. In addition, I took advantage of cross-training opportunities and was always looking for different ways to learn and grow in my role. Once I was nearing college graduation, my then-mentor encouraged me to continue to develop my career with the company. That was really the start to my long-term planning with Coborn’s Inc. Since then I’ve continued to learn about different locations and further my growth as an HR professional. I moved into an administrative role before joining the HR team as a generalist. Today, as a member of the learning and development team, I feel I have a unique opportunity to pay forward the guidance and mentorship I once received through our training initiatives and our developmental opportunities.
What do you see as the greatest opportunities for workforce and leadership development within the grocery industry?
Take advantage of developmental opportunities to absorb as much knowledge as possible to assist with growth within the industry. Whether your company provides these internally or partners with an external resource, these are great opportunities to learn different leadership and operational skills. Find a mentor and ask as many questions as possible to learn hands-on skills and techniques that you can apply to your unique career path.
In previous discussions we’ve had, I’ve heard you reference Coborn’s emphasis on developing future leadership. Tell me a little more about that.
Coborn’s offers a variety of leadership development programs for employees interested in growing and developing with the company. Currently Coborn’s offers a variety of programs and resources including, but not limited to, leadership development programs, self-study courses, scholarship information, tuition reimbursement, computer training, training programs, resource library, training and support for company initiatives, and an employee engagement platform.
Do you personally play a role in helping to develop/coach/mentor future leadership in the industry, either internally or externally?
In my role I have a great opportunity to invest my time in developing our future internal leaders. In my past role as an HR generalist, I coached employees who were looking to advance within the company by having developmental discussions about what they were passionate about as well as practice interviewing skills. Today, I assist with developing our future leaders by facilitating various training initiatives and partnering to develop instructional materials, as well as coordination and implementation of various developmental programs.
Did you utilize or participate in any mentoring/coaching experiences as you developed your career?
One of my favorite things about Coborn’s Inc. is its deep-rooted passion for investing in our internal employees. This has held true to me throughout my 13-and-a-half years of experience with the company. No matter which location I have worked at, I’ve always had a leader investing time in my development. This has by far been the biggest impact to me both professionally and personally.
What advice do you have for college students and young professionals looking at the grocery industry as one where they can build a career?
The grocery industry is a great option for a long-term career path. No matter the state of the economy, people need to eat. The industry is filled with remarkable employees and leaders who are passionate about their employees and the organization they serve.
What pieces of advice did you receive as you built your career to this point that you found most helpful? Share two or three points.
As I built my career, the advice that has stayed with me was to shoot for the moon and follow your heart. Find what you are passionate about and follow that. When you can follow what you are passionate about, that will lead you toward your purpose.
What else would you like the readers of The Shelby Report to know about you, your employer and/or other relevant industry information and insights?
This year Coborn’s Inc. was recognized for the third year in a row as a Top Workplace in Minnesota by the Star Tribune. This is an honor for us as it is a direct reflection of the happiness and culture of our employees.