It can be easy to get lost in the grocery industry. Supermarket operators are some of America’s biggest employers, with thousands of people working in stores, distribution centers and corporate offices.
But for Lee Gelb, vice president of human resources for Save Mart, which runs more than 200 stores in California and Nevada under banners including Save Mart, Lucky and FoodMaxx, there’s no reason every one of the 16,000 people who work for the company can’t get individual attention.
"Working for a grocery company wasn't really on my radar, but I have intentionally gone back and forth between the private sector and the nonprofit sector, and the common denominator is people and their careers," said Gelb, who moved from Boston to Northern California last year to join Save Mart. "What people choose to do with their life is really important to me."
With guidance from Gelb, Save Mart’s approach to people management captured the attention of Forbes magazine, which this summer named the grocery chain one of the United States' best employers for women. The company was ranked No. 35 nationwide and secured the top spot among grocery companies.
Gelb, who has degrees in agriculture and nutrition and joined Save Mart in 2019, views working in the food-retailing business as the perfect way to channel her devotion to putting "the whole person" into action. "I have a lifelong passion around working to ensure that people have access to food that is good and clean and affordable," she said.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GROCERY DIVE: At a high level, what steps have you taken to develop a culture at Save Mart that is supportive for women?
LEE GELB: We focus on the whole person at Save Mart, which I think resonates with all people — men, women, transgender. Everybody. That is our secret sauce.
What we do to attract whole people and get them to choose to stay here at Save Mart is we have development plans where there are conversations between a person and their supervisor where they talk about their career aspirations, not just their next job, but their runway here at Save Mart. And then we talk about what it’s going to take to prepare for different jobs. To have that seriousness about someone's career is a very powerful and tangible attraction and retention tool.
Do you try to meet benchmarks in terms of the opportunities the company creates for women?
GELB: Of course we look at our retention and our turnover and our progression. We don’t have any allocations, but we are mindful of the holistic numbers. We don’t manage to that. We manage to the whole person, meaning their talent, their expertise and how they behave. How do they treat people? Do they bring people along?
What specific things are you doing to position women for growth?
GELB: Because our culture is focused on all people and whole people, we actually don't segment our training programs for women or any other group. We actually think that would be counter to what our culture is and what putting people first espouses.
If Mary wants to be a leader in one of our banners, we will have a conversation, develop a plan with her sure that she gets the financial training and make sure she gets the HR training, and give her an opportunity for a couple of weeks to see what it's like to be a leader in that banner and go from there. It’s individual, but it’s also consistent.
How do you help people position themselves to grow in ways that also work for Save Mart?
GELB: We really look at people’s career aspirations and how they fit our business opportunities. Right now, we are very focused on produce managers and meat managers. We know in our company that those are two roles that really need a pipeline of people, so we are working with all three banners to have conversations with the team members in the stores about their careers and would that be of interest to them and here’s what that looks like and here’s what you’d have to do.
How would you describe Save Mart’s approach to nurturing people?
GELB: We know from survey and engagement data that what people are looking for, all people, women, men, is, "What is my career path at Save Mart? I love this company, I love this culture, but I want to grow, I want to earn more money."
Some people say they don’t want to grow into a management position, but do want to go into a different function. So by having the conversation, having a literal process to track that and to get feedback, that is one of the ways we attract and retain people at our company.
Especially in this day and age, people want to feel that they can be themselves, that they can speak honestly, that they can say the inconvenient truths, that they will be listened to. It sounds so simple and straightforward, but that’s what we do to recruit and retain people.
How do you ensure that the values you have developed translate to the store level, where associates are hired?
GELB: Translating this across the enterprise — 200-plus stores and three distribution centers — is definitely a challenge, but here is how it works. The executive team empowers the store managers. This is not about checklists and lots of policies. It’s about having confidence in your store managers and leaders and empowering them to use their judgment and their humanity and to know when to ask for help. We see it working every day.
Another element is that the store managers have excellent partnerships with their HR team. We have an HR field team, and there's an HR business partner and a couple of other people who are assigned by the banner and by group and so there are constant resources available to not only help train and help communicate but also solve problems.
We respect hierarchy in our company, but we are not driven to only be hierarchical. People know that they can ask questions of anyone and try to get help from anyone, and I think that loosening of reins helps people to know that they're not alone and that they can solve things together.
What qualities do you seek when you recruit people?
GELB: We look for people who have passion around food, nutrition and cooking. When we opened our flagship store in Modesto, we went to farmers markets and wineries and cooking schools around the northern part of California to source people who share that passion for our core business, which is bringing food and people together.
What do you think distinguishes Save Mart as an employer?
GELB: We are touching people at every level of the company because they know we are authentic. I know that’s a loaded word, but that’s what sets us apart. We care about what is going to be good for all people. We want them to feel whole at our company and make sure they are recognized not only for the talent and expertise that they bring, but for their human side. We haven’t quantified that, but I can tell you it's a real thing at Save Mart.
Has the pandemic affected your ability to showcase Save Mart as a good place to find a job and develop a career?
GELB: In the five-plus months that the pandemic has been with us, we have hired over 2,100 team members for the stores. That’s a lot of people. We have been really focused on converting about a thousand of those people into regular full-time employees. The silver lining of the pandemic is that with many people losing their jobs in hospitality and retail, the pool of available candidates got bigger for us overnight and we were able to upgrade our talent.