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From Stores To Corporate, ‘Greatest Advantage Is Our People’ 

people Tops
Frank Curci

Maintaining a people-first culture is a priority for Tops Markets. The company is known for its people-centered approach and cooperative management style. 

“Our greatest advantage is our people, from the stores to the corporate office. A culture built over years of service makes a difference,” said Frank Curci, CEO of Northeast Grocery, the parent company of Tops and Price Chopper.

Tenures of 25-plus years are common at this company. Many headquarters executives began their careers at Tops as cashiers or baggers, meaning they have the perspective and insight to understand operations from the ground up. 

Management understands that store-level associates are the bedrock of the chain’s operations.

“It all starts in the stores. We have admiration and respect for what every associate does. Our job is to make their jobs easier,” said Jeff Culhane SVP of merchandising.

Added Kathy Allen, senior manager, community relations, “Store associates are our contact to our customers, so it’s very important that we make sure that they know how valued they are.” 

To ensure that these key stakeholders have a voice in operations, Culhane said ideas often are funneled through store-level personnel before they are executed. “The likelihood of success is much better when we have their input,” he said. 

As RVP Mike Patti put it, the company is “not siloed.”

“Because we have unified objectives, there aren’t a lot of surprises,” he said. “We all know that we need to work together to achieve our goals.” 

The chain stresses its consumer-centric values from day one and requires a community connection from store management. 

“Store managers are the stores’ CEOs. They need to be a part of the community, from fundraising activities for local organizations or community events,” said Ron Ferri, EVP. “They are making that strong connection with the communities they serve. 

“Many of our associates know customers by name. In fact, customers often refer to a store as ‘my Tops’ because they feel that connection with their store.”

Tops ensures that its associates have the right tools in place to grow and succeed through scholarships, health improvement programs and career advancement opportunities. 

“Our management puts a lot of effort into helping associates with career advancement and a big emphasis on mentorship,” said John Persons, president. “Our leadership is also very accessible.”

Management uses incentives to make development fun. 

“We run an annual promotion event to help educate our employees. Every time they answer a question correctly, they’re entered into a pool to win gift cards,” said Cheryl Colbert, director of customer experience.

When customers make a point to give an employee a shoutout, that employee gets a scratch-off thank-you card that allows them to win a $10 Tops gift card, free pizza or similar gift. “Those have gone over really well,” Colbert said.

Open communication also is a crucial ingredient in Tops’ recipe for success. 

“The leadership team is very open with sharing information. They are always keeping us informed every step of the way,” Allen said.

When tragedy strikes

Tops devotion to its employees and community was front and center when the unthinkable became a reality at the chain’s Jefferson Avenue store. On May 14, 2022, a shooter took the lives of 10 people in a racially-motivated attack in an East Buffalo Tops store.

To help navigate the aftermath of this tragedy, the Tops team leaned into the maxim that serves as the company’s North Star – put people first.

“During the COVID pandemic, we learned to lead with the heart,” said Kris Wydro, VP of HR. “We learned the importance of constant communication. So when that tragedy occured, we had a lot of those processes already in place.”

Persons explained that a shift to improved communications strategies and more flexible decentralized decision-making during the pandemic was an asset to the chain when dealing with the unexpected. But there’s no playbook for the challenges the company faced after the tragic attack.

“First, we wanted to make sure that we were doing the right thing for our associates, that they felt safe and supported, and we also needed to help the community,” Persons said. 

The company organized individual and group counseling services for staff at the library across the street from the store and continues to offer counseling services to Tops associates. 

Tops also reached out to the community, partnering with several organizations, including the Resource Council of Western New York and Community Center, for services. Tops also created the Buffalo 5/14 Survivors philanthropic fund, initially seeding it with $500,000 as well as covering all administrative fees.

It was clear that this store was important to the community and its loss was keenly felt. 

“We were more than a grocery store. All of the services customers needed from the store, such as pharmacy and baking, were taken away once the store closed,” said Kristen Hanson, VP, center store sales, merchandising and pharmacy.

To give the neighborhood alternative access to groceries while their store was closed, Tops offered a free shuttle to nearby Tops sites and delivery service of groceries and prescriptions. The company also partnered with Feed More, the central food bank of Erie County, to distribute food donated by Tops and its vendors. The company set up ATM and utility payments in a nearby location.

The people in the East Buffalo neighborhood needed their Tops store to reopen as quickly as possible. 

“People in the community wanted the store to reopen,” said David Christopher, manager of the Jefferson store. “There’s a need for us to be here.”

Building back better

Building the store from the ground up was a given. Tops also engaged in listening sessions with store associates and local community groups to determine how a new store could best serve the community. 

“We wanted to make sure people would feel comfortable in the store again,” Persons said. “Environmental safety and security were very important issues. We paid extra attention to sightlines and the environment around the building, we adopted an intruder alarm system, added an additional rear exit and bulletproof glass.”

Customers wanted healthier options, an expanded selection of organic products, more fresh foods, enhanced education around healthy eating and wellness programs in the pharmacy and a focus on minority-owned brands.

The new 30,000-square-foot store, built in 52 days, delivers on all those attributes. A new layout features mobile fixtures and better lighting and incorporates digital screens that highlight healthy eating and community events. 

Local brands are spotlighted and the store partnered with a local florist on an enhanced floral department. Minority-owned brands – Mercedes Winson, maker of Sadie’s Relish, Boss Sauce and Skincare Essentials by Jill – are supported with in-store demos.

About 75 percent of the store’s staff have chosen to return to work there or have transferred to another location. 

“We take a lot of pride in this store,” said Christopher, who has been a Tops employee for 20 years.

A memorial water wall displays a poem by Buffalo Poet Laureate Jillian Hanesworth that begins, “Let the hopeful healing waters flow.” It’s a testament to the lives lost and the resilience of those who survived. 

As Tops moves forward, the organization is more committed than ever to live its values as a people-centered company. 

“We’re always affected by something in the macro world or in the micro world of the store,” Persons said. “We try to prepare and make sure our people understand we’re operating in a dynamic environment with complexities you have to deal with, things you have to figure out.

“But you build camaraderie in that foxhole. It solidifies a bond and a family culture. We’ve learned this together. We’ve been through this together. We’ve weathered that storm together.”

To read the full anniversary section on the grocer presented by The Shelby Report, click here.

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