Execs also cite family atmosphere, support for grocer’s bright future
by Mary Margaret Stewart, staff writer
In this special section, The Griffin Report of the Northeast honors Weis Markets as its 2020 Northeast Retailer of the Year. The Sunbury, Pennsylvania-based company has nearly 200 stores in seven states.
We begin by hearing from some of Weis’ key executives, who offer their thoughts on the company’s culture and success. In later stories, we’ll explore Weis’ community involvement, valuable team of associates and its response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Jonathan Weis, CEO and president
In 1912, Harry and his brother Sigmund Weis founded Weis Markets. 108 years later, Harry’s grandson, Jonathan, is living out the legacy of the family business as company CEO and president.
Jonathan Weis’ father, Robert, took over prior to this day and age, coming back to work and expand the company after serving in World War II. After studying some of the larger companies that existed, Weis Markets aimed to be an introduction of the modern American supermarket concept to Central Pennsylvania.
“Being progressive and caring about people and working pretty hard, they built up a substantial company,” Weis said of his father and grandfather.
And without a doubt, he said, Weis’ mentor in the business was his father.
“I was privileged to work with my father essentially for 20 years. You learn a lot,” he said. “I had total immersion with him, from him, professionally and personally.
“There are some great successes out there in our industry – far greater than we. But we are proud of what success we have achieved. We’ve been around for a long time…and we’d like to think we continue to refine what we do.”
As evidenced in the ensuing testimonials from members of the company’s leadership team, Weis Markets continues on – with humility, honesty and care.
Kurt Schertle, Chief Operating Officer
Schertle has been in the supermarket business since he was in high school.
“I can tell that tired old story of us starting out bagging groceries. For many of [those years], I was with companies that had parent divisions off in other places…I’d worked for other companies where the home office was in ‘blank.’
“And at Weis…I like that we own it here…the distribution is ours; we own our manufacturing plants; the stores are ours. As a matter of fact, we own a
decent percentage of those stores, not just lease them.
“We hold ourselves accountable for decisions. We make those decisions. And that really is gratifying.”
And making those decisions all comes down to acting as a family company, said Schertle, pointing to Weis Markets being a publicly traded but tightly held business.
“I think the Weis family is forward thinking and is focused on the long term,” he said. “In the last several years, I’d say since Jonathan Weis took over as president and CEO in 2014…we’ve grown significantly.”
In 2016, the company acquired and opened 44 stores in three months, Schertle said. Weis is currently conducting studies on how to expand its distribution to solidify its upward trajectory.
He added, “We continue to grow. We continue to look for acquisitions and remodels and invest in our store base…five brand-new stores this coming year, and we have a lot of openings back to back next year, which is really, really exciting.”
Schertle attributes this growth largely to the Weis culture, centered around people.
“We probably have, in my opinion, the best operations team we’ve had since I’ve been here – store managers, district managers, regional VPs,” he said.
“I think what we’ve been able to do the last several years…is really be on trend. And if not being first – because being first isn’t always the right thing to do – being fast followers, recognizing what works and doubling down on that.
“Whatever the merchandising program, the IT solution, the operations issue, the pharmacy trend, the distribution and supply chain trend, I think we’re good at recognizing early on and getting after it.
“And a word we use around here is about being nimble, and we certainly are.
“We can pick up on a new trend or service, see something going on and get after it quickly. We don’t stand on process.”
Part of growing and keeping the customers committed to Weis is knowing the marketplace and catering to what customers want.
“We’re a mainstream, conventional supermarket operator…and we think that’s a real good place to be,” Schertle said.
“It’s not ‘sexy,’ but it’s extremely effective in offering excellent quality, strong values and everyday convenience.
“Conventional operators get a bad rap sometimes and are considered boring, perhaps a little uncool. But the reality is that most people want to shop a mainstream, conventional supermarket. And that’s our sweet spot. We offer one of the best experiences.
“We have great pricing versus our competitors – not just conventional supermarkets, but mass merchandisers and limited assortment operators and the like.”
According to Schertle, these advantages come together to set the company apart.
“Great shopping experience, store of the neighborhood, really good pricing and high-impact loyalty rewards on top. And it probably doesn’t hurt that, hey, we are an American-owned company with a strong local focus. There’s something to be said for that.
“Going into the future, we think there’s a real place for conventional supermarkets. We do think that the nation is over-stored…and that it may create growth opportunities as it did in 2016, when we acquired 44 stores and converted them in three months. We will continue to be an acquirer, not a seller.”
Wendy Oliver, regional VP of operations
Oliver sees great success in the ability of the Weis family and company to keep their eye on running stores.
“In the operations, we have two main priorities, and they fit very well with the Weis culture,” she said. “And that is to build great teams and then build great stores, and to stay fiercely focused on that. That’s what our job is to do every day.
“We hold ourselves accountable, and we like to deliver results. We do it with respect. We’re a deliberate company that is very nimble.”
Oliver reiterated that Weis Markets is continuously refining its operations.
“We can and we often change very quickly – on an upcoming trend or a competitive response…what prompts that quick action is the voice of our customer. In Central Pennsylvania, they often have been with us for generations.
“What is it like if the company is not nimble? You’re not responsive to the customer. It becomes harder to be responsive if you can’t affect change quickly…and I think that can hold companies back.”
Amy Zimmerman, store manager
Asked her favorite part of working for Weis Markets, Zimmerman didn’t hesitate.
“The family atmosphere,” she said. “The support they offer. I couldn’t work for a better company. I’m honored to work and be part of the team here.”
And Zimmerman doesn’t see that support – or the success that comes from it – wavering.
“We’re a strong company. I foresee us continuing to be a strong company – an organization that will continue to give back to the community. Since 1912, we’ve been in business, and I foresee another hundred years of being in business.”
Randy Householder, store manager
Householder has been with Weis since 2013 as a store manager. He decided to pursue a career with the company after hearing a few people rave about working for a family-oriented company that was “so much different than the norm” – in a good way.
“Being with a family company, it was an easier transition than just hearing people talk about it,” Householder said. “It was a true fact that this company is one that you want to work for, that you want to grow in, and you want to move forward in.
“I’m a people person, and I really want to see others do well. And that’s what I take from this company…some of the things we do is managing through the teams. I really utilize my team to get the message out – through the funnels that we have throughout the day, to work through the teams, and to accomplish our goals.”
And coming into the company, Householder said there have been many people to help mentor him – people that stood behind him in everything.
“When you have that kind of leadership in place, that you can look up to and see where they are today, it makes you want to do more for yourself personally.
“I love what I do, but I always want to get my team to do more…I’m about people, but I always see more than others. And I feel like my bosses saw more in me – that I could do more for the company.”
Householder added that he foresees the future as “endless” for Weis Markets because of its clear direction.
“I think the biggest thing is retaining and hiring the right people. When I see our associates working hard in our stores, and when I see our executive leadership team being humbled, it means a lot about a company going forward. It really does. And it starts with the people.”
Elaine Cole, director of deli and food service
From Cole’s perspective, good leadership from Weis Markets has kept the business growing.
“Jonathan [Weis] and Kurt [Schertle] are really focused on current trends, and they also look a lot at emerging trends,” Cole said. “They do challenge us a lot, and we’ve seen extraordinary growth, especially with the meal solutions categories…and growing the Weis To Go brand, which covers everything with our mobile app, outside our stores and inside of stores.
“They also encourage the improvement of the department, where we leverage our size and the scope of our delis to make sure that we do have that competitive edge out there. We always want to be out there on the cutting edge of whatever we’re doing. And they support all of that and more.”
To Cole, its part of the company’s culture to accelerate with new ways to cater to the customer, trying to anticipate and capture the future demand.
“We just opened a deli in our stores. And it’s the first one of its kind for us,” she said. “It came out of COVID because of social distancing…and the great thing about it is it’s not just deli, grab-and-go or heat-and-eat meals – it’s the whole fresh department.
“The customer could come in…and they have meats that are ready to cook, but they’re already marinated and portioned, and they’re ready to go.
“And I think as long as they keep doing that, we’re going to go on forever because we’re there. And in all seriousness, we’re thinking about the next steps right now – where do we have to be in five years?”
Part of the growth has been keeping up with changes in technology. Since Cole started with Weis in 2012, she said the advances have been tremendous.
“Something else that we do every year – we just got done doing – is our upgrades with new equipment,” Cole said.
“Every year, they come up with making us better…we never just rest and say, ‘OK, we did our jobs.’ It’s that we’re constantly challenging to say, ‘What can we do better? What can we do for you?’ And I think that’s what makes us so unique.”
Prior to joining Weis, Cole had 32 years of experience in the industry, which has helped her appreciate the company’s unique style.
“It’s the personal aspect,” she said. “They want to genuinely know how you’re doing…if there’s anything they can help you out with. Everybody’s had different things in their lives, and they’ve come through for me.”
Jerry Hatch, district manager
Hatch has been with Weis Markets since 1977. He started out as a part-time clerk, or what was known at the time as “parcel pick up,” helping to load cars, assist customers and collect carts. He then moved inside the store to stock groceries and run the register.
After working with the company throughout high school and college – during which he switched from studying engineering to business – he joined Weis’ management training program. He transitioned into a full-time management trainee in 1984.
The rest is history. And for Hatch, the future is clear.
“Despite the growth and the increase in the number of stores, it’s always felt like a family business to me,” he said. “Never once did I feel like I was a number. People were interested in your development, took an interest in you and in your career, and the company just continues to grow and keep up with the times.
“I think Weis has a very bright future. I’m certainly proud of the company and everything the company has done over the years.”
Richard Gunn, SVP of merchandising and marketing
One area that keeps Weis Markets competitive is research – collecting insight from its customers.
“They tell us one of the best things they like about our company is the fuel reward points program,” Gunn said. “We’ve got one bucket of points that the customers can redeem for fuel, and we’ve also got a menu of other options that they can redeem the points for. Right now, it’s for a free turkey…so they can redeem the points throughout the year.
“We’ve organized the reward programs to be extremely simple and easy for our customers to understand…we’ve simplified the marketing message to, ‘Eat better. Spend less. That’s Weis.’”
When looking to the future, Gunn noted, the company is “in a great position.”
“The company’s debt free and owns more than half its store sites. The company’s very strategic in terms of its growth,” he said.
“Jonathan is very solid as the CEO and leader of our company. I think he’s got a really, really good team of people surrounding him that are very experienced. And I think Weis has got tremendous opportunity to continue to grow inside our own footprint.”
Ron Bonacci, VP of advertising and marketing and public relations
In Bonacci’s eyes, the success of the company for a century-plus is the family’s philosophy.
“They took their mission statement…that basically says, we’re going to deliver an exceptional shopping experience, given the best quality service and freshness, and be good stewards of our economy and environment, giving back to the communities where we serve,” he said.
“And that’s where – because they were benevolent people who cared about their associates, and they cared about the communities they served – it was paramount in the success of the entire company and the growth of the company over these 108 years.”
Philosophy aside, the Weis family just cared. And continues to do so.
“They really are kind, caring people,” Bonacci said. “They care about our families, and they care about our customers’ families.”
And this care has nurtured a culture of successful leadership in other executives.
“My boss is Richard Gunn…I very much respect his decision-making and his passion in the industry,” Bonacci said.
“And then Kurt Schertle, our COO, is an extremely passionate, very, very intelligent man – just so in tune with the industry and what’s going on every day…and he actually is on pulse with what’s going on daily and communicates with and checks with you.”
Bonacci went on to credit his team.
“I have a wonderful, wonderful staff of about 30 people,” he said. “Just a tremendous team that goes out and does this for us every day to make sure we put our best foot forward.
“And it’s all about the people. It really is. We wouldn’t be where we are without people, and the success and value of that is great…and I just feel blessed to be in a company like this.”
David Gose, SVP of operations
Prior to joining Weis, Gose had a successful career working for some large companies in the grocery industry. But he is quick to say he couldn’t have made a better decision landing where he is today – with his second family.
“First and foremost, we’re family. It’s a smaller company, so everyone knows everyone,” Gose said. “And even with that, we’re very respectful of other ideas. People have different experiences. There are different opinions on things. We’re a company that listens to all of those. It’s a very inclusive, respectful environment.”
Second to the relationships, Gose loves how quickly the company moves.
“We don’t have to have a plethora of meetings,” he said. “We don’t have to have presentation after presentation after presentation. Certainly, there are the analytics that we look at, and we have formal conversations and discussions around them. But I think part of our success has been, while other companies are in their umpteenth meeting, we’re out implementing and executing.
“And you have to be. If you’re going to be a small regional player, I think that’s kind of the ticket to the dance. You’ve got to be a lot quicker, more nimble, and do things faster than the competition.”
Gose added that he thinks that approach has served the company well.
“I’m very bullish on Weis Markets. When you look at historically how we’ve performed, we’ve been very successful. I think the future is just as bright, if not brighter, than the success that we’ve had in the past.
“It’s family. And it’s a blessing to be part of that.”
Joe Kleman, VP of distribution
When Kleman started with the company, unloading trucks on the night shift some 41 years ago, he didn’t know very much about the Weis family business.
“Over a number of years, I’ve learned more about them – some of the finest folks on Earth. I got to know Jonathan and his family, his mother and father,” Kleman said.
And these fine folks – with the help of their employees – have helped lead Weis to its success today by doing business with “high integrity and doing things right, for all the right reasons.”
Kleman added, “If you’re successful…many people helped you get to be successful. I would say, my role has been to help others get to their fullest potential. We’ve got many success stories – I’m one of them, but there are hundreds – if not thousands – of people who have made it to the next level and proved their position within the company.
“Our company is strong…I think it’s a good mix of people like myself, who have been here for many years…and then also a mixture of bringing in people from the outside to learn new ideas.
“We can learn from each other what works, what has worked historically here, and then what will work in the future, and then really embrace change. You can’t be afraid of change – that’s going to happen. You just want to be in position to achieve results when change will ultimately happen.”
Klemen closed by adding that he thinks the company’s future is bright. “We’ve got a high-caliber staff. We’ve got great growth potential, and we’re always looking to acquire companies – build new stores or remodel stores.”