‘Want To Make Workers Feel Wanted? Give ‘Em Stock! Texas-based Grocer HEB is Doing Just That

heb_logoHEB, formerly known as H.E. Butt, after the family that founded this Texas-based supermarket operator, just announced a pretty radical approach to making employees feel good about where they work: Anyone over age 21 and on board for more than a year, with 1000 or more hours on the clock in a calendar year, is being awarded some stock in the company. A total of 15% of it is being handed out across the company’s 370 stores in Texas and Mexico, The New York Times reported earlier this week.

What a super motivator for workers to, well, keep on working, right where they are, or at a higher level within the same company, without thinking for a moment that the grass might be greener elsewhere.

I have a particular liking for HEB, having had the remarkable (and exhausting) experience of profiling three of its store formats, in one day, in their San Antonio home market. That happened sometime in the 1980’s, when I was Senior Editor of then-current trade magazine called Supermarket Business. I spent close to two weeks a month on the road, largely looking at and talking to company executives about virtually every supermarket concept and store configuration then being employed. My experience at HEB was a one-off, tackling a herculean task of visiting, taking lots of notes about and tons of photographs of, stores that were, while significantly different in many ways, very much alike in the most important of ways: They were, uniformly, well-run, well-stocked, and staffed by customer-friendly workers in all departments. (And part of my mission was to determine that, as company officials had led me to believe, the latter was true; I was convinced!)

When I was there, in a pre-Walmart age, Texas was — and now is more — a tough market for supermarket operators. There are a lot of them, competing in a marketplace that is food-shopper-savvy, culturally diverse and, among other things, home to thousands of shoppers who are not shy about speaking out to managers if/when something displeases them. And HEB has long made it easy for shoppers to do so, by having managers ‘managing by walking around’ during a good part of each of every working day.

I have a strong liking for the food-retailing business, having been editor (or senior editor) of trade publications serving that field in both the U.S. and the U.K. and having spent an enormous amount in small and large food-retailing establishments in both of those countries as well as in Canada, eastern and western Europe (including Russia, Greece and Kosovo) and Scandinavia. I’ve seen some doozies, including a few where employees were there primarily because they needed a job, and didn’t intend to do more than was necessary to draw a paycheck, and others — at the other end of the spectrum — where workers clearly lived up to the maxim, carved in stone at the entrance of Stew Leonard’s iconic original store in Norwalk, Connecticut: “Rule One: The Customer is Always Right; Rule Two: Re-read Rule One.” While that’s a fine theory, it isn’t always true, but it’s great when a store’s employees perform as if it is.

Supermarket and convenience store workers tend to be underpaid, given the tremendous level of responsibility many of them have. And if there’s a ‘tip jar’ by a checkout, it’s never for the workers, but always for a ‘worthy cause’. And I doubt there’s a food store worker out there who would argue about one of the task too few are asked, too seldom, to perform: My local Food Lion store, in Virginia, recently had a couple-of-weeks-long campaign asking customers — without actually asking them — to sign a card to be sent to an active-duty military person overseas, a ‘thank-you’ card from a few Americans.

While I can’t say this from experience, I would bet that that HEB check-out people would actively encourage their customers to sign such cards. That’s the kind of workers that company grows.

Grows: They can take a high school kid, or one just out, with little or no experience in the working world, and teach them responsibility, and how to care about the job they have — and not to concern themselves, while they are on this job, about the ‘real’ one they intend to get down the road. HEB teaches, quietly, that the job those youngsters have is a real one, that is helping to prepare them, through their training and emotionally, for every job that will follow.

Many companies, of course, do this, to some degree. But the fact that, close to thirty years later, I remain so impressed by how well HEB does that speaks particularly well about that company. And its decision to reward hard-working workers with a stake in the company only reinforces my attitude toward them.

‘Almost makes me want to move to San Antonio. That and, of course, the outstanding array of restaurants along and near
The River Walk!