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I often remember my parents joking with one another about who truly was the most capable "c.e.o." of our family-owned supermarkets. Most often, it was my dad who conceded the title to my mom -- Freda Olszeski, chief emotional officer of Hartville Foods.
She was the one in charge of making sure we kids all loved one another, even after attending school together, working at the store together, and getting reprimanded by my dad for backing the company-owned Chevy El Camino into a tree in the backyard.
She was in charge. Miss one of his kids' high school band concerts because he was needed to close the store that night? It wasn't going to happen. Dad would have to depend on the head cashier to do the job.
And, by the way, we were able to discuss the stores during Mom's elaborate Thanksgiving dinners, but only for half an hour.
Our "c.e.o." was the one who proudly stood by my dad during good times, such as when the once-poor kid from Dillonvale, Ohio turned successful independent grocer was twice honored by IGA as International Retailer of the Year, was appointed to the executive committee of the Food Marketing Institute, and was honored for his community initiatives in a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House by President Reagan.
Likewise, my dad also relied on my mom during the tough times he faced in business: when he had to dismiss a longtime associate for misconduct on the job, when the local bank once turned down his loan application to expand the business, and when he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 1999, and officially passed the leadership torch of the business on to his children and management team.
Here's to the women
Today I often find myself wondering how much success my dad would've enjoyed had he not had my mom, his "honeybunch," by his side. While he's not here to answer that question, I'm sure he'd say that his remarkable journey in the supermarket business -- and in life -- wouldn't have been as meaningful or rewarding.
As we honor in this month's issue Progressive Grocer's Top Women in Grocery, I'd like to share with you the work of an organization that has for a number of years celebrated the accomplishments of women who have also contributed significantly to the grocery industry, the Women Grocers of America (WGA), an advisory arm of the Arlington, Va.-based National Grocers Association (NGA).
Membership in the WGA is open to any woman affiliated with a retailer, wholesaler, manufacturing company, or state/local association maintaining membership in the NGA.
The group supports and encourages the education of students pursuing a career in the grocery industry through its Mary Macey Scholarship program, which was founded in honor of the memory of an active member of the WGA who was the wife of Utah independent grocer Waldo Macey, and mother of retired Macey's Food Store chairman and c.e.o. Ken Macey.
"We're very fortunate to have the WGA as part of our organization," says NGA s.v.p. Frank DiPasquale. "It's really the conduit for women who are seeking educational and professional opportunities within the independent grocery industry."
The WGA also makes a point of shining the spotlight on retail/wholesale women in the industry, through its annual Woman of the Year Award. Indeed, since its introduction 10 years ago, the award has gone to several of the women executives named in PG's Top Women in Grocery list.
While creating educational and professional opportunities are at the top of the list of priorities for the WGA, the group is also involved in a number of philanthropic efforts. Most recently, membership has encouraged all segments of the food industry to promote breast cancer awareness and prevention.
Movin' on up
As PG honors this year's Top Women in Grocery, let's pause to give thanks for these leaders, as well as the many others who have, like my mom, served unofficially as the "c.e.o.s" of their family businesses, and in doing so encouraged other women to move beyond the cashier's offices and bakery departments of the supermarket world, and into the seats of power.
Indeed, these ladies, and many others I admire, from large organizations and small -- such as Price Chopper's Jane Golub, Dagmar Farr of FMI, Buehler's Mary McMillen, Nada Spoa of Elwood City Save-A-Lot, Tamara Foster of Ohio-based Howard's Foods, and Giant Eagle's Vickie Clites, Liz Simone, and Cindy Heisler -- continue to serve as outstanding examples for aspiring women in our industry to follow.
A decade of inspiration
WGA Woman of the Year award recipients:
1996: Mary Lucas, co-owner, Kountry Korner, Maximo, Ohio
1997: Ruby Wyatt, owner, Wyatt's Supermarket, Inc., Falmouth, Ky.
1998: Sue Richardson, operator, Richardson's Piggly Wiggly, Danville, Ky.
1999: Neva Lamb, co-owner, Lamb's Thriftway, Portland, Ore.
2000: Dale Danahy, president Colella's Supermarket, Hopkinton, Mass.
2001: Penny Pederson, v.p., Conrad's Sentry, Sun Prairie, Wis.
2002: Mary Anne Kowalski, co-owner, Kowalski's Markets, Woodbury, Minn.
2003: Carole F. Bitter, president/c.e.o., Friedman's Supermarkets, Butler, Pa.
2004: Lana Amodei, v.p., Carcieri's Supermarket, Providence, R.I.
2005: Lee Ann James, president, E.W. James & Sons Supermarket, Union City, Tenn.
2006: Terrie Baker, v.p., Baker's Foods, Coshocton, Ohio
2007: Tessa Greenspan, owner and c.e.o., Sappington International Farmers Market, St. Louis