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In the vestibule of the Lone Palms Golf Club in Lakeland, Fla., there's a portrait of the club's founder, George Jenkins -- and no matter where you stand to view it, his eyes look back at you. The optical illusion is a reminder of the legacy that "Mr. George," as he was known, has left for his family -- a family defined not only by blood, but also by the bond felt by the thousands of people who have dedicated much of their lives in service to Publix Super Markets, Inc., the regional grocery chain that he founded in 1930.
What's remarkable is that more than a decade after his passing, Mr. George today is still sharing his love of the business he founded, as his legacy is passed on to every new Publix associate via training initiatives and informal stories told by those who had the chance to know him.
The company -- now well into its fourth generation of ownership -- continues to abide by Mr. George's principles, including his famous saying: "Publix will be a little better place to work, or not quite as good, because of you."
Keeping a company's founding principles alive for over 70 years is no easy feat, especially for a retail operation that today boasts 130,000 employees and 900 stores. Yet the chain's current management sees this anchor to the past as absolutely vital to the future. Even as Publix changes to adapt to the latest consumer trends, it's Mr. George's long-standing philosophies that keep Publix relevant in today's competitive marketplace.
Jenkins, who passed away in 1996 but would have celebrated his 100th birthday this month, was a visionary grocer -- ahead of his time, according to those closest to him. While he loved learning new things and making his business better, he also recognized early on that people would be the key to his success. His standards for customer service and an edgy strategy of letting employees actually have ownership in the company are arguably two of the main reasons that Publix is still so successful today.
"Mr. George's vision of employee ownership being critical to his ultimate success was extraordinary to me," notes Hoyt R. "Barney" Barnett, vice chairman of Publix and the husband of Jenkins' daughter Carol, who holds the title of president of Publix Super Markets Charities. "For a man just starting a company to want his associates to be that involved....[M]ost people have a hard time letting go."
Carol Jenkins Barnett lauds her father's sensibility toward people as among his most admirable traits. "He was very perceptive of people -- and if he trusted someone, he wanted to share with them."
The Publix of today reaches multiple high-growth markets in five Southeastern states: Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee. Its annual sales are now upwards of $20 billion. Its stores are known not only for top-notch customer service (the chain has received numerous recognitions for its service), but also for a great product selection, including trademark fresh departments.
Its brand is so well loved by its customers that many like to lay claim to "my Publix" when they refer to their grocery store of choice.
In recent years, Publix has become even more sophisticated, adapting new technologies and merchandising and marketing initiatives, and branching out with innovative formats to serve specific customer needs. Publix Sabor, a Latino-centric version of its conventional footprint, is being tested in Florida, and this month Publix GreenWise Market -- a store dedicated to natural and organic foods and earth-friendly products -- will make its debut in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
While these accomplishments are certainly impressive for a regional chain, they're a far cry from the company's humble beginnings.
The story of Publix is also the story of George Washington Jenkins. Born in Warm Springs, Ga. on Sept. 29, 1907, Jenkins was one of eight children of well-educated and religious parents. From an early age, he worked in his father's general store, which served as the perfect primer for a career in retailing.
Unfortunately, Jenkins was introduced to adversity at a young age. When he was six, the family home was destroyed by fire. Then, in the 1920s, he saw the local economy wiped out by the boll weevil.
By the end of the second disastrous cotton season, the store vault was filled with more than $50,000 in IOUs. While his father went to Atlanta to start over, young George was left with the task of liquidating stock and closing the store.
Despite such hardships, Jenkins practiced what his parents had instilled in him. As Carol puts it: "He was always taught to make the most of what you have."
Doing just that, at age 17 he headed south to Florida, and it was there that he found the path for his future. In 1925 he went to work as a clerk in a Piggly Wiggly store in Tampa, with the intention of earning money for college. But before he got to college, he was bitten by the retailing bug.
Perhaps it was because he was an "extraordinary people person," as the Barnetts describe, or maybe it was the exposure to his father's trade at an early age, but food retailing was a natural fit for Jenkins. Within two months of joining Piggly Wiggly, he was promoted to store manager.
Within eight months, the enterprising Jenkins had increased the store's gross fivefold. He might have continued to move up the ranks at Piggly Wiggly had it not been for a fateful encounter with the chain's new owner. When he went to meet the owner personally, Jenkins ended up waiting and waiting, and was finally told that the exec was in a meeting. The young merchant could overhear that the "meeting" sounded more like a chat about golf.
That encounter was enough to inspire Jenkins to quit the Piggly Wiggly job. It was 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression, but in a true leap of faith, Jenkins struck out on his own.
As it turned out, the space he found for his store was just a few doors down from the Piggly Wiggly unit. By staying on a few more weeks at Piggly Wiggly to train the new manager, he was able to tell his loyal customers that he'd be setting up shop nearby.
"My father was very competitive," says Carol. "He realized that he had to outmaneuver the competition, that whatever he could do to differentiate himself with his customers would be the secret for his success."
The first Publix store opened in Winter Haven, Fla. The Publix name -- borrowed from a chain of movie theaters -- soon came to stand for service, cleanliness, and beauty, as well as unprecedented employee relations.
Jenkins formed the company with 30 shares of stock at $100 a share, but from the start, he believed in profit sharing and employee ownership. That wasn't a problem for him and two of the original employees who owned shares, but the other six store workers couldn't afford to buy stock on salaries of $15 a week, notes Carol. To resolve the issue, Jenkins told his staff he'd give them a $2 a week raise, and sold them one share of stock each for $100, then withheld the raise money to pay for the stock.
By 1935 Jenkins had opened his second store, on the other side of the downtown business district. In 1940 he was able to put a down payment on his dream store -- Florida's first real supermarket. The store featured amenities never seen before in a grocery store in the state: air conditioning, fluorescent lighting, electric-eye doors, frozen food cases, piped-in music, and eight-foot-wide aisles. People drove from miles away to shop there.
As he grew the business, Jenkins counted on customer feedback to continually make his stores better, notes Barney. "He would respond to every customer complaint with a personal letter."
Jenkins was able to grow his company with a major spurt in 1945, when he purchased a chain of 19 All American grocery stores. Through the acquisition, he also gained a new group of employees, including seven who would become officers of Publix.
By 1956, when Carol was born, Publix was in its heyday. "The first 10 years of the business were obviously the most difficult for my father," says Carol. "He didn't know if he would make it, but he continued to surround himself with people who he felt were capable -- he had faith in them."
That uncertain period was behind him by the time she came on the scene. "While I was growing up, the Miami warehouse was built and the company was expanding rapidly into new markets," she says. "I was able to glean knowledge from one of the best eras of Publix."
As in many grocery families, Carol and her five siblings took their turns working at Publix when they turned 16. In fact, one of her siblings went on to take a major role in the company: Brother Howard M. Jenkins is chairman of the board and formerly held the title of c.e.o. (Other Jenkins family members who have been closely involved in the company include George's brother, Charles; Charles' son, Charles H. Jenkins Jr., who's the current c.e.o.; and George's grandson, William E. Crenshaw, who serves as president of Publix.)
The Jenkins kids hardly saw working with dad as a chore. "It was fun," says Carol. "The way I grew up, everything was about Publix. We'd go to store openings. I remember attending the 100th store opening when I was eight.
"I was there for the glory years," she recalls fondly. "Dad's goal was to open 100 stores in his lifetime, so by 1964 he had realized his lifelong dream."
In addition to being devoted to Publix, Jenkins was extremely family-oriented, she says.
"Dad loved to do things with us. He would arrange separate trips for the older three kids and the younger three. He loved to explore what was happening not only in the business world, but in the world in general."
And he never missed a chance to check out a new store. Through many of these visits, he discovered new products to sell and new ideas about how to sell them, she adds.
Jenkins also had a passion for helping others, which consequently helped his business thrive, according to the Barnetts. Whether through giving to his local communities or sharing his knowledge with young employees, he believed that what you give comes back to you in gold, observes Barney -- although as a devoutly religious man, Jenkins was probably thinking of "gold" in more spiritual terms.
By the 1960s Jenkins was so confident in the future of the company that he was willing to invest in a charitable foundation called the George W. Jenkins Foundation, known today as Publix Super Markets Charities.
Displaying his concern for the welfare of his employees, in 1959 Jenkins made the company stock available to all of them. And in the 1970s Publix set up an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP).
"Publix was very early in adopting an ESOP," notes Barney. "Mr. George had a scale, according to your job and how long you'd been with the company, to determine how much stock you were entitled to."
Today Publix is known as the largest employee-owned supermarket chain in the United States. Employees who have put in 1,000 hours of service in a year receive shares of the company. They are vested in the company after five years of service. They can also purchase shares as an associate or via the ESOP or the company's 401(k) plan.
"We have more stockholders than most public companies," notes Barney.
In addition to offering his workers some financial stability, Jenkins also passed on intellectual capital to young workers just starting out, says Carol. "Mr. George made learning fun. He would leave quarters behind areas on the shelf with out-of-stocks -- and a quarter was a lot back then.
"He loved seeing lives transformed," she notes.
He also had an open mind when it came to employees' ideas, according to Carol. "He ran the company, but he always asked the opinions of those people in whom he had placed responsibility."
Jenkins' knack for building relationships extended to the vendor community as well, which was an obvious business advantage.
The mission continues
Although Jenkins hasn't been directly involved in the company for the past two decades (he suffered a serious stroke in 1989), Publix has managed to keep his spirit very much alive among its employees and customers.
Every store has a photo of Mr. George on display. New employees are indoctrinated in the lessons he taught. During orientation they watch videos of Mr. George in action -- he was a gifted and inspirational speaker, notes Barney.
"People always ask what makes Publix successful," explains Maria Brous, director of media community relations. "The answer is that in 77 years, we haven't wavered from Mr. George's mission: to serve customers and employees. People always come first."
Barney admits that it's "amazing" how Jenkins' legacy has been carried on, but there's clearly been a lot of careful planning to make that possible. For instance, even though today it's impossible for one person to answer every customer complaint, as Mr. George did, Publix has a team of people to carry out the task, still with a personal touch.
In addition, the chain's commitment to service is articulated on every associate's business card: "We will never knowingly disappoint you. If for any reason your purchase does not give you complete satisfaction, the full purchase price will be cheerfully refunded immediately upon request."
In the past few years Publix has adapted a new strategy to make sure associates are fully committed: a pay-for-performance system. "The main purpose of this is to award the performance of our top employees," explains Brous. "For people who are already making top pay, this delivers an incentive to keep them going."
Indeed, Publix continues to focus on employees, and in today's competitive retail environment, where people have more choices than ever about where to work, that focus falls largely on succession planning.
"We're looking for people to make careers at Publix," affirms Brous. "We want young people to understand that if they're interested in being a lawyer or an architect, we can offer that at Publix. There's an opportunity for them here."
Publix is also willing to help its young associates invest in college, she continues. "We offer a tuition reimbursement program in which we can offer an allotment to community college and university students."
Considering this long-term orientation toward its labor force, it's no surprise that Publix has repeatedly been named by Fortune magazine as one of the "100 Best Companies to Work For."
It also helps that Publix looks at each of its members -- and owners -- as family. In some cases, blood families have made the grocery chain their family business. "We have families who have 20 to 30 people in them who have worked for Publix," says Carol. Yet the definition of "family" at Publix goes beyond bloodlines, including the Jenkins name.
In the spirit of Mr. George, the management at Publix is striving to look ahead, to be proactive when it comes to growing the business, notes Carol. That's why the company is inventing new formats and adapting new merchandising tactics. "I think my dad would be proud of what we've accomplished. He never wanted to be too out there, but he had the gift to sense trends."
As Mr. George's centennial birthday draws near, Publix will be celebrating the milestone in numerous ways.
"We're buying advertisements in newspapers in our major markets to mark the occasion," says Brous. "We're also including a message on associates' paychecks, and we've developed lapel pins to remind folks of his birthday."
But, as Carol sees it, this is a celebration that runs much deeper than a birthday. "We can celebrate my father's life in terms of what has happened in Florida in the last century, as well as the generations of people who helped build this company."
Happy birthday, Mr. George.