Judy Spires has an undeniable passion for food. Getting her start at a young age, initially for college money, Spires quickly rose in the ranks of the food retailing world, acting as president of three different companies before becoming CEO of Angelo Gordon Supermarket Holdings, where she is currently working on enhancing all 25 locations and refreshing its Kings Food Markets brand.
Spires is also spearheading a commitment to enhancing the Balducci’s Food Lover’s Market shopping experience, first with the grand re-opening of the Scarsdale, N.Y., location, its re-entrance into the New York City market with its new concept, Balducci’s Gourmet On the Go Café, and later this year, the opening of Balducci’s first wine store. Balducci’s Food Lover’s Market in Greenwich, Conn., will also be remodeled later this year and a newly renovated Westport market will be unveiled as well.
We talked to Spires about her journey to where she is now, how her upbringing never made her gender an obstacle and three things she’s learned along the way about leading in the food retail industry.
Can you tell us about your path to becoming CEO of AG Supermarkets?
When I started working in the supermarket industry in high school, I was exposed to a store manager who I guess gave me the best augmented education to my college education you could ever imagine in this business. I just fell in love with the business, with the immediate positive reinforcement of delighting customers and I saw that the standards that this store manager had set for us and the rewards for really taking care of and delighting the customer, and so, I caught the fever of the supermarket business.
And fortunately for me, it’s never been a job – I’ve been able to live my passion. I worked my way through all the departments, as president of three different companies before getting the opportunity to come to Angelo Gordon, and this was my dream because I absolutely adore the upscale, fresh part of our industry. When the opportunity came, I jumped at it.
Did you find being a woman in this industry and rising to the top challenging?
I remember a story one time when I first became a store manager, my district manager came in and said to me, “I don’t care if you’re a man or a woman, if you’re green or you’re yellow. All I care about is you making money and doing the job.”
That kind of set the tone in my head that it doesn’t matter as long as I’m performing. And I use myself as my barometer, I didn’t measure myself against other people so I guess maybe I was naïve to the challenges, but I just put my nose to the grindstone and really wanted to make sure that my store or my department or wherever I was, was the best and had fun doing that.
Another time when I was a store manager, I was in a meeting one day and I walked outside when a management person asked me, “What does it feel like?”
I said, “What does what feel like?”
“Being the only woman in the room,” he said.
It never entered into my mind to think that way. I was a store director in a group of store directors. So I guess because the way I was raised, I was raised in a family of five where there were boys and girls, and all of us were going to college and all of us were exceeding. We weren’t treated differently, and so I guess that’s what I brought into my mind in the workforce is that boys can do the same things that girls can do, etc. I was very fortunate to be raised that way, and on top of that, I went to a private all-girls academy where we had to be everything. The guys weren’t one thing and the girls the other, we did everything, so I think that probably had a great influence on the way I approach life also.
How do you feel the food industry has changed or evolved in the past 10 years, and how has that affected your leadership style and the direction you’re taking your company?
So much has changed in the last decade and it’s continued to move very, very quickly with how customers are eating, shopping and getting their food. And in order to know what’s going on, it takes a combination of listening intently, with action in mind, to our companies and to our customers, and also the expertise of the incredible team I have. I depend on my department heads because they work so hard to stay ahead of trends.
And then what’s really nice is the size of our company – we can quickly move things forward in our company, so it’s never a dull moment. We are known especially for our prepared foods and our freshness, and what we offer the customers is so spot on with what they’re looking for today. We have a very rich history in delivering that from the beginning of both of our companies so we have such a great platform to build on and the talent just keeps taking it forward.
Are you working with the Food Marketing Institute to lead and offer guidance to the industry?
Absolutely. Food safety is critical to our customers and customer satisfaction around that. We are closely aligned with FMI in assuring that we help the governmental leaders and officials really understand the issues and the effects their decisions have on our consumers and our associates.
Customers want to be able to trust in what they’re being told and what they’re experiencing, and what is the definition of natural, organic, GMO, non-GMO, and how does that get communicated? I think Leslie Sarasin and our representatives to FMI with the backing of the retailers and CPG and wholesaler companies really have credibility and know how to do what needs to be done to support and educate. So I urge all of my fellow industry people to be a member of FMI so we can use our collective voice in protecting our consumers and our associates that the right kinds of legislation take place in our industry.
How do you get your team to get excited about, get on board with and invest themselves in these initiatives, or initiatives that are priorities to your company?
My secret ingredient is our associates, our knowledgeable associates, at every level of our organization. At store level, each of the department heads want to know the answers, want factual communication and proper training when it comes to the items where they can really earn the customers’ trust. Our customers come to us and ask questions, so we provide as much educational, factual information as we possibly can and train our associates and provide it to our consumers so they consider us a trusted source of information.
The culture of our company is one that is self-incentivized. Both brands have just a fabulous culture and history of wanting to be there for the consumer, giving them the information and giving them at all times the highest quality product that we possibly can, so they take pride and want to know. We have great dialogue and communication. We’re a very flat organization where people have access to everyone at every level of the organization.
What do you look for in potential leaders, how do you develop mid-level managers?
Talented leadership is the key to any company’s success, so we really do look to promote key leaders from within our company. This commitment that we have for sharing the love of food that is manifested in our commitment to quality, innovation and service, we have that culture and we continue to build on that, so the people with the passion that are promoted through the ranks. I would say 80% of promotions come from within through training and development of our own personnel.
Our whole evaluative system is based on achieving a role model level. That means you are walking the walk, not just talking the talk. We reward role models—we’ve got our mission statement, our core values and it’s all about role modeling.
What are three key things you’ve learned along the way that you’d like to pass along to other emerging leaders in the food and beverage industry?
Number one – it’s all about people. You have to honor your team and know what that means to your team. We live our core values, we recognize and reward performance, we give people opportunities to be innovative. The success in our company comes from knowledge of the basics, a real core excellence in the basis and yet that entrepreneurial side that we encourage in everybody, and that’s a bit different from the real large corporations. So honor your people and give them the ability to be all they can be is something I think makes everybody successful.
The other thing is that when you’re running a company or business, stay true to what your brand is. And establish the attributes that set you apart. Don’t try to be all things to all people. We know who we are, we know what our specialness is and that’s the area that we continue to work on and deliver growth from.
And finally, you have to live the core values, you have to role model. You cannot just talk it, you have to be it. So to me, it’s very simple.
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