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Food Industry Hall of Fame Northeast Retailer of the Year

Popular President Says Brand Deserves Recognition, Not Him

Ira Kress

Ira Kress, president of Landover, Maryland-based Giant Food, has been inducted into The Shelby Report’s Food Industry Hall of Fame.

Kress began his grocery career at age 18 in 1984, working as a part-time cashier. Over the ensuing 38 years, he has served in a number of progressively responsible and cross-functional leadership roles at Giant Food and its parent company, Ahold Delhaize.

After serving in several store management roles, Kress transitioned into human resources and held leadership positions in training, staffing, management, development, organizational development and labor relations.

In 2003, he was named VP of human resources and labor relations for Giant Food. He stayed in that role until 2011, when he was named SVP of human resources and labor relations for then parent company Ahold USA.

Two years later, Kress returned to Giant Food as SVP of retail operations and assumed responsibility for all store operations and asset protection for Giant Food’s 164 stores throughout its market area of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C.

In 2019, Kress began serving as the interim president when the then president went to lead Stop & Shop, another Ahold-Delhaize brand. Kress was named president in May 2020.

He and his wife of eight years, Heather, have three children each who range in age from 17 to 32 years old and one grandchild who is 2.

Along with his duties at Giant Food, Kress is an active member of his community. He currently serves on the boards for the Johns Hopkins Pediatric Oncology Advisory Council, the Capital Area Food Bank, the USO National Capital District and the Ahold-Delhaize USA Family Foundation.

But Kress rarely talks about himself. For example, when interviewed for his Hall of Fame induction, he immediately touted the company and the great work its associates are doing.

“Being awarded Retailer of the Year – or even me, Ira Kress, in the Hall of Fame – is not what we’re in business to do. It’s not why I lead this organization [as president],” he said. “For me, I think we do deserve recognition as a brand. It’s for what our associates do every single day. They literally are the ones who are living, breathing and delivering upon our brand promise and our commitment to our customers. And then the managers and leaders in this organization – not Ira Kress – are the ones delivering what our commitment is to our associates.”

While noting that his years in the grocery industry are not “a long career, just a long time,” he said there are two core reasons why he has stayed: “I love the company. I love Giant.”

He likened his feelings for Giant Food to playing with an all-star athlete. “When you’ve been working with the No. 1 player, it’s hard to suggest you’re ever going to make the decision to say, ‘I think I want to go play for the No. 2 player.’”

He also appreciates how the food retail business has changed over time, saying he “never got bored.”

The second core value that kept Kress around was the company’s ability to adapt and stay relevant, something he finds exciting.

“I’ve never viewed myself as having worked for one organization for 37 years,” he said. “I’ve probably worked for four or five truly different businesses over that period of time. Yes, the name may say Giant or Ahold, but for all intents and purposes there was always something new.”

As he was taking over executive responsibilities as president during the COVID-19 pandemic, many things were happening and changing. Adaptability was Kress’ key term when it came to his leadership and how the company and its associates led their communities through the worst of COVID.

“It’s what made us successful, not just throughout the pandemic but frankly throughout the last 86 years,” he said. “I wouldn’t say there’s even been a host of policy changes. I think the impact on people is what’s changed.

“How our associates and our customers view the world has changed, competition has changed, the economy has changed and we’re seeing that impact a lot of those things today. The resiliency that our associates and our customers have shown in navigating through just an extraordinarily uncertain period of time – a scary period of time – has been simply astounding.”

Kress explained that seeing how the communities that Giant Food inhabits change, accept and adapt to the evolving world that surrounded the pandemic was heartwarming.

“I knew we had great people. I would have never imagined this is how our associates are going to react to it,” he said. “I would have never guessed they would have reacted the way they did, which is with tremendous enthusiasm and passion and commitment to Giant Food.

“They were doing what they do for the company to a degree, but a larger purpose was what they were doing for their community; what they were doing for their neighbor; what they were doing for their customers. For me, just seeing that and seeing it continue for a very long period of time – given the uncertainties and the unknowns and the risks, all of the things that they went through – it was very heartwarming.”

Kress believes Giant Food’s virtue lies within its authenticity and autonomy. Franchise owners make a majority of the in-store decisions. That’s a trait that helps connect more with their local community. No two stores are exactly the same. And that personalization helps them connect with their communities. To Kress, that’s simply “our brand.”

“The reality is every single one of our current 164 stores is a community store. It’s not a Giant Food brand store. And they are all unique based on the associates and start there,” he explained. “We hire associates from within the communities that they’re serving. The managers are embedded in the communities in which they’re serving, whether they live in that community or not.

“And it runs with everything from the Boys and Girl Scouts to bake sales to softball and baseball games. They’re embedded in the community…the customers are classically shopping within the community that they live in. It’s their friends and neighbors and family.”

Along with bringing in members of the local community, Giant Food looks to stock store shelves with brands and products that are meaningful to the community. The company considers the demographics of the communities and their lifestyles.

“We’ve got an extraordinarily diverse community base and not just diverse in race and gender, but diverse in life experiences and interests,” Kress said. “Our customers, regardless of their race or gender, experience life through food…that helps us embed ourselves in the community.”

That community impact goes well beyond the stores. Giant Food has four core charitable pillars that include local food insecurity and access, military support, pediatric cancer research and social equality. Beyond the company, the communities organize their own food charitable events.

“Frankly, it’s something that I didn’t build,” Kress said. “It’s been built by the associates in this business…it’s our associates rallying behind the church down the street, with a synagogue down the road or the school that is struggling. That’s not something that we put out and say, ‘Do this.’ They do it because they’re a part of that community.”

Kress saw the change that emotions were making in the workplace and throughout Giant Food’s communities when he took over as president.

On the store side, he saw that sense of community being challenged. Everyone wore masks and shoppers couldn’t see each other’s faces and Plexiglass separated them from associates. On the corporate level, he saw some people retire due to health and safety concerns, while others worked away from the office.

“I could never put my finger on what people think now or this is how they feel now. It’s different person to person…I think how people think about home life and quality of life is different now. Working in the office is different,” he said. “Human emotions, they span huge aspects of our lives. And that’s what we saw was the people change. Beyond that, there’s not so much a difference in the way we operate our business today. We had to lean in on core qualities and traits of the business and the brand. One of those was trust with our customers in our associates. We had it going in and built it throughout.”

Kress has based his leadership on open communication. As his tenure as president immediately began with putting out fire after fire, he found that being open and honest with his leadership team, associates and customers was the best option. He still believes that keeping communities informed is the best possible way to maintain trust.

“We were really up front and out front in our communication,” Kress said. “That being with our associates and our customers. We were grounded in the decisions that we made. We were very overt in telling customers and associates where that grounding was coming from.

“There were a lot of thoughts and opinions from customers, from associates, from my leadership team. We decided very early on what our priorities were. Our priority was the safety of our associates and the safety of our customers.

“It was interesting to watch [municipalities] take what we did as a precautionary measure and then make it mandatory…we looked to do what was beyond mandatory and we kept our customers and our associates informed.”

Kress said interaction with people is his favorite part of leading Giant Food as president.

“I have been known to say, ‘We sell pork and beans for a living.’ It’s not because I love selling pork and beans, I love the ability to interact with and lead people. We are a consumer business. We literally see the impact of what we do every single day.

“We’re all consumers of this business. So for me, one of the things I love about this industry is we’re all in it. All my friends and all my neighbors and all my family – everybody I know – is a customer of this business…that’s the most wonderful thing about it.

“And the most difficult thing about it is I’ve never been at a neighborhood party or event or a family gathering where someone doesn’t have insight and input for me on what we should do better or different – from the products we carry to where we stock them to what height they are on the aisles. Because we’re all a part of this business and we’re all a part of a community. I love it.”

To view the complete Hall of Fame/Retailer of the Year section, presented by The Shelby Report, click here.

About the author

Jack R. Jordan

Content Creator

Jordan joined The Shelby Report in May 2022 after over a year in the newspaper industry. A native of Marietta, Georgia, he studied writing and communications at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. He spends too much time in the grocery store trying to find recipe ingredients, so he looks forward to covering the industry.

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