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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Keeping it pure

    Grocers can't let outside pressures push them off their critical mission. This consultant can help.

    Operating a family-owned supermarket business continues to grow more complex each day. As if understanding today's changing consumers and the latest government mandates weren't challenging enough, independents are being squeezed to pay for skyrocketing health care and overall operating costs while continuing to invest in the latest, often expensive technology in their efforts to remain competitive. At the same time, many storeowners are trying to figure out just how the latest wave of wholesaler consolidations will affect their businesses.

    But, according to Bob Kelley, founder of Midlothian, Va.-based Pure Culture Consulting, those independents who remain focused on strategy and differentiating through people will undoubtedly weather the supermarket storm.

    Founded in 2004, Pure Culture is quickly becoming an internationally recognized leader in helping a variety of businesses to build ethical, committed cultures that are aligned with a business strategy. Among the company's food industry clients are the well-known Dorothy Lane Markets, headquartered in Dayton, Ohio; Wooster, Ohio-based Buehler's Food Markets; trade group NGA; and global alliance IGA.

    How did Pure Culture begin? While studying for his doctorate degree at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va. during the early 1990s, Kelley received a copy of the book The Image of the Organization by Gareth Morgan. "The book has become one of my favorites," says Kelley. "In an early chapter Morgan makes the 'organization as organism' argument. He stresses that organizations should be viewed as living organisms that depend on proper nourishment for their growth.

    "In addition," continues Kelley, "Morgan believes that only certain 'species' of organizations are equipped to handle the rigors of certain environments. He uses the analogy of a polar bear. A polar bear is equipped to live in the Arctic. Its body, living patterns, and behavior are designed to allow it to survive in a very challenging environment. My notion of 'pure culture' evolved from this premise."

    World-class experience

    Perhaps his comfort in leading people was what landed Kelley at the world-renowned Richmond, Va.-based Ukrop's Super Markets, where he stayed for 17 years. It was in 1987, after a successful eight-year career in training and labor relations at Phillip Morris, that he joined the regional chain. Initially hired as v.p. of human resources, he later added distribution, operations planning, and pharmacy to his list of responsibilities when he was promoted to the high-ranking position of v.p. of operations. It was what many in the business would consider a dream job.

    "When I left Ukrop's in 2004, people thought I was out of my mind," remembers Kelley. "We had just had our best year ever, we'd opened three new stores and worked through a hurricane, and my daughter had just graduated from high school. It seemed as though everything had come together."

    But Kelley had his eye on other horizons. "I was at the point in my career where I felt the need to be my own head coach. The time was right for me to launch my own business."

    Today Kelley serves as an instructor at the IGA Coca-Cola Institute and the NGA Executive Leadership at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., as well as continuing to grow his highly regarded consulting business. He recently introduced an online survey tool at www.pureculturesurvey.com, and he has enlisted the talents of a clinical psychologist who assists with high-performance coaching and developing a battery of selection tests. In addition to presenting a series of keynote speeches to help clients communicate and reinforce their organization's strategic direction and initiatives, the company offers a number of two-day retail leadership seminars.

    "Our seminars, which can be customized, are full of actionable items that our participants can immediately implement," notes Kelley. "New to our curriculum are custom-designed films that supplement the content offered in employee orientations, company rallies, leadership seminars, or any other events that reinforce the culture of the company."

    Not surprisingly, Pure Culture earns high praise from the many family-owned businesses that it serves.

    Says Roger Buehler, v.p. of retail operations for Buehler's Food Markets: "Pure Culture has helped us to develop a process for building core competency models for key positions aligned with the mission and business objectives within our company. The competency models have proven to be effective for identifying successful, qualified individuals from within our organization, while providing clear expectations for employees wanting to move up in our company. The process that Bob introduced was later applied to many other positions within our company."

    Affirms Kelley: "We've all been around businesses that brag about their employees being their most valuable asset, to which I say, 'Prove it!' Look at your budget and determine how best to invest in training, loyalty, employee pensions, and the like. If you truly want to 'unfreeze' your organization and make your culture your key point of differentiation, it should be a lot more than just keeping your head above water."

    Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].

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