Dennis Gibson had a choice to make. It was 1984 and Fred Meyer had just acquired Grand Central Stores, a grocery chain for which he was working in Utah.
“One of my best decisions ever was staying with the company at that point because it’s just been an amazing journey,” said Gibson, who later became president of Fred Meyer, a position he holds today.
The Portland, Oregon-based company, a division of The Kroger Co., operates 132 stores in four states – Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Among the first one-stop shops in the country, it is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2022.
Gibson had taken part in Grand Central’s management training program, then became a store manager and later a merchandise supervisor with the company.
“When Fred Meyer bought Grand Central, I became an apparel product supervisor,” he said. “We had a district of 22 stores. I was in charge of helping the stores with merchandising and growing their business. And I then went to Eugene, Oregon, where I became a district manager of apparel and did that for many years. Let’s say I fell in love with the apparel industry, first and foremost, and then grew to love the food.”
In the early 1990s Gibson was given the opportunity to learn about the food business by creating a store director training program for the company. During the year it took to get it up and running, he gained “all the information that you need to have hands-on experience with food.”
“That was an amazing experience,” he said. “And it truly did teach me the importance of food in the Fred Meyer Company.”
‘Never as easy as it looks’
Reflecting on his career in the grocery industry, Gibson said he has “loved every aspect of learning each department.”
“I understand what it feels like to be a cashier and have long lines,” he said. “I understand what it feels like when things aren’t ringing up correctly. I understand what it’s like to run the front end and to be able to keep the service level high. I was provided the opportunity to gain insight and understanding of each specific department at Fred Meyer. I learned so much from our very experienced team at our Hollywood store in Portland.
“I learned them hands on, which is one of the best ways to learn, as we all know, because it gives you an ingrained knowledge of working with it…and it’s never as easy as it looks.”
Indeed, over the course of his career, Gibson and family have lived in Salt Lake City; Portland and Eugene, Oregon; Vancouver and Bellevue, Washington; Columbus, Ohio; and Denver, Colorado.
“It’s been a wonderful journey. I’ve really enjoyed the kind of nomadic opportunity to get out and see different parts of the country,” he said. “I am always amazed about the great people I have met.
“I always miss the Pacific Northwest when I leave because of the greenery. There are so many great parts of our country, but none that make me feel like the Northwest. But the people I have met on my journey in the Kroger family of stores have been fantastic.”
As Fred Meyer marks a century in operation, Gibson marveled at its evolution. “At Fred Meyer, you are not just running a food store. Our customers can find quality meat, seafood, groceries, natural foods, apparel and electronics.”
Gibson was quick to point, COVID-19 was “new to all of us.”
“None of us had been through a pandemic,” he said. “But we did all the things we could do to continue to be a reliable provider of food and also for other necessities that people were looking for…it was just a different world than you’ve ever had.
“If somebody had told me 10 years ago, ‘Hey, you’re going to come to a period of time when you’re not going to be able to keep the stock.’ Yeah, right.”
Gibson attributed a lot of the company’s ability to weather the pandemic challenges to Kroger. “Kroger is an outstanding company,” he said. “As our parent company, they provide us with great resources, great advice, but still allow us to make decisions that are right for our business.”
To that point, Gibson noted that the Fred Meyer team works in lockstep with Kroger.
“As a group, we have the same vision and goals within Kroger,” he said. “You look at any division out there, it doesn’t matter if it’s Ralph’s, Smith’s, Fry’s or QFC – we all operate somewhat differently but still very much the same. The common theme is to be full, fresh, friendly.
“Our e-commerce business continues to grow year over year. We provide our customers the choice to shop inside the store, pick-up or delivery. It is important that our customers know that they can choose. We just need to continue to provide ‘anything, anytime and anywhere options to shop.’”
Like many food retailers, Fred Meyer saw a big uptick in business as a result of the pandemic.
“Definitely, we saw all aspects of the business improve,” Gibson said. “It was natural, in the fact that many restaurants were closed or had limited hours or didn’t have staffing or they were reduced to 50 percent capacity. Families now are eating more at home.
“We were able to survive through that period of time and thrive in many ways, because we are doing all the right things to take care of the customer. I would say that the pandemic itself was a very hard world for a lot of smaller businesses. And many businesses didn’t survive, many restaurants didn’t survive. It’s unfortunate that it transpired to that level.
“Fred Meyer created a safe place where customers could find everything on their list and more.
E-commerce played a role in that format as well.
“That’s why a lot of people use the e-commerce side…do you want to go to three or four different stores or do you want to come to one? Fred Meyer makes a good match and has great quality products, fresh produce,” Gibson said.
“We are experts at sourcing locally grown fruit fruits and vegetables. Our produce departments offer customers their favorite regional produce at its peak. Fred Meyer prides itself with fresh seafood, meat and wild Northwest salmon, which is top of the list.
“My favorite Fred Meyer quote is, “Take care of our customers so well that they will want to return with us again and again.’
“So much of it is a people business. The customers that come into our store truly want to have that friendly smile and that ‘hello.’ “We don’t know what they’ve gone through, but we know we can make it a better day for them every time they come in. It’s our choice and we choose to be friendly every customer, every time.
Gibson continued on the topic of customer service.
“I learned early on in my career that it’s much easier to hire friendly people and then teach them the skills that they need. That’s what we really strive for at Fred Meyer,” he said.
“We’ve got a great company package. We’ve got great benefits. We take care of our associates. There are so many individuals that started out as baggers and are now executives within the company. It’s just amazing to see the upside potential.
“For people who want to work hard and do the best job they can each and every day, it’s noticed. Again, the cream rises to the top – always. You see a lot of individuals that have done that throughout the years and have continued to advance within our company.”
According to Gibson, the company has different ways to assess job and store performance.
“We’ve got a lot of different programs…but the one that’s working for us best right now is measuring friendly,” he said. “We have an outside service that actually measures friendly and gives us a true time stamp of how things are going.
“We do a lot of observations of our associates. We give them good accolades for being friendly or accolades for running a great department. That motivates people a lot when you can thank them for the work that they do. We strive to do that every day.”
The company conducts recognition at every level, according to Gibson.
“We always recognize the associates on their perfect shops,” he said. “And we recognize the stores for their performances on financials, the work they are doing to run great stores. We’re creating a lot of fun excitement with 100-year anniversary shirts, buttons and vests for our team to wear proudly.”
But it’s the personal touch that Gibson most appreciates.
“There’s something to be said for a ‘thank you.’ Look them in the eye [and say], ‘Great job. Appreciate everything you’re doing for us.’ That’s just as impactful, right? It just big time.”
Mentoring and more
Talent development is as equally important as retention for Fred Meyer.
“I always make the comment, ‘Happy associate makes happy customer.’ Happy associates enjoy their work. They work better, they treat people better, they’re more involved, they’re more engaged,” Gibson said.
“We’ve all been there. We’ve all seen people that don’t look like they enjoy their jobs very much. And it’s kind of a painful situation, right? We’ve also seen that engaging person who loves their job. We really try to thrive on that and to develop engaged associates. Most of our associates came for a job and found a lifetime career.”
Gibson acknowledged that employees are at different levels.
“We really pride ourselves on our associates, and we really value them,” he said. “We focus on going above and beyond to ensure they feel welcome. We just announced that every hourly associate is getting a $100 on their loyalty card to use however they want to use it.
“The past two years through the pandemic, The Kroger Co. and Fred Meyer and other divisions have done multiple incentives to take care of our associates, to do more than what’s expected or do more than is required.”
Mentoring also is key within the company’s culture.
“Mentoring to me is a really important aspect of the business,” Gibson said. “Because what I’ve found is that most people sell themselves short. Most people don’t believe that they can take on a new role unless somebody else believes in them first. As I see individuals that have a light about them, that have passion, have purpose, work hard and do a good job, I like to tell them, ‘There’s more you can do. There are so many more opportunities for you.’
“There’s this world called Fred Meyer, which is great. And we’re located in four states. Or there’s this big world called Kroger. And I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been able to experience both. Kroger and Fred Meyer have many great career opportunities.”
Gibson himself benefited from “so many great mentors over the years.”
“It’s important that we need to help people see what their possibilities are. I know it helped me so much, with having leaders believing in me,” he said. “I try to make sure I take time to talk to people and get to know them a little bit.
“You can see excitement and energy when they see that you have that interest. I had many people believe in me. I think it’s kind of giving back and it’s helping people on their journey. Because once they know that you’re believing in them, they’ve got so much more confidence in what they can do.”
Gibson is not one to sit still, as his weekly schedule can attest.
“A normal week for me would be that Mondays I’m out in stores, visiting the stores to see how the weekend went,” he said. “On Tuesdays, I’m jam-packed with meetings all day long. The rest of the week, I want to be in stores again. I love being in the stores.
“I love being in the action. I love being able to talk to associates and love being able to solve problems with associates and teams. One question I always ask our store managers, ‘What can I do for you?’”
To that end, Gibson is known for alerting his colleagues to issues.
“I don’t send notes off to get people in trouble. I send notes off to resolve the problems that they’re having,” he said. “And in most cases, I can make their life so much easier.
“We have a plane every other week that we use to travel to the outlying markets. We get up to Alaska, Idaho, Seattle.”
Gibson noted that Kroger is very data driven.
“Kroger collects more data on everything you could possibly want to know, really item specific, store specific, customer specific. As a customer, if you were shopping our stores, you should be receiving only coupons for products you buy.
“We have all the information needed to help us drive the business. But the Alaska market is not the same as the lower 48 [states]. It takes four days on the water to get product to our stores in Alaska.
“Our transportation departments do a great job of really determining how best to get the goods there. We do everything we can to have fresh products,” he said.
For Gibson, retirement is “definitely” in the near future.
“At this point, I’ve got a lot of years in the business. And I love the business still to this day,” he said. “I have enjoyed giving people guidance over the years as they looked at advancing and taking on a new role or a new job. I always told them this, ‘If it’s the right thing to do for your family, then do it. If it’s not, don’t do it.’ Because there’s nothing more important than your family.”
Family for Gibson includes his wife of 45 years, Karen, and their four children and eight grandchildren, most of whom live in the Pacific Northwest.
“I use that same advice with myself,” he said. “All of the different moves that I’ve made, I had conversations with my kids. When Grand Central was bought by Fred Meyer…I said, ‘Hey, Pacific Northwest, what do you think?’
“We started talking about all the beaches only an hour away [from Portland]. Now we thought it was a beach like California, not a cold beach. We were a little surprised when we went to the beach in our swimsuits and tank tops and had to stop at Newport Fred Meyer for sweatshirts.”
Asked how he would like to be remembered, Gibson didn’t pause.
“As a caring leader,” he said. “It’s always about the people. I truly care about people and their families.”
For more information, visit fredmeyer.com.
To view the full section from Fred Meyer’s anniversary celebration from The Shelby Report, click here.