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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Who's minding the store?

    Hiring and retaining the right associates can give independent retailers a huge advantage in competing with the Wal-Marts of the world.

    During the past few years independent supermarket owners have striven to differentiate themselves from big-box competitors by offering consumers variety in fresh departments, impressive facilities, competitive pricing, and programs such as in-store child care, cooking schools, wellness classes, and more. While each plays a crucial role in pleasing the customer, nothing can help or hinder the reputation -- and hence the success -- of a store more than its own employees.

    According to Vince Crew, strategy adviser and founder of Naples, Fla.-based REACH Development, family businesses that embrace a 'keep the best and circulate the rest' philosophy when it comes to managing staff are most likely to succeed.

    Crew, a Cleveland native who earned his master's degree in marketing and communication from Franklin University, is no stranger to the people business -- or to the food industry. On receiving his undergraduate degree from Ashland University, he was hired as a territory manager for Brach's Candy Co. and was assigned to work with numerous independent supermarket owners.

    "That's where my real education took place," Crew says. "Not only did the mom-and-pop stores teach me about merchandising and margin sensitivity, they also taught me how their lives, and often the lives of their employees, revolved around the image, reputation, and significance of their businesses within their communities. They taught me that the food business is not about processing transactions, it's about people and relationships."

    Today, after three decades of service to corporate giants in and out of the food business, Crew has taken his people skills on the road. Through REACH Development he serves as a public speaker and author who shares with entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizations at conferences, executive workshops, and board retreats across the country the results of his extensive research on business ethics and leadership strategies.

    "When it comes to people, not much has changed over the years," Crew says. "Attracting, motivating, and keeping good employees remain some of the most important and time-consuming tasks of any effective leader."

    In his book, "Keeping the Very Best," which was published last year, Crew outlines a no-nonsense and often humorous approach to hiring and managing employees. "My goal was not to provide a pretty book with lots of pictures and graphs, but to provide real solutions to real problems," Crew notes. "The book was designed as a dog-ear, mark-up-and-refer-to-often collection of commonsense things that work."

    Employee types

    In one of the most tell-it- like-it-is chapters in his book, Crew defines the three types of employees present in any business. They include:

    -Workers: "These are the good soldiers," Crew says. "They show up day in and day out, and do whatever you tell them to do. When the workers call in sick, you can bet they're running high fevers."

    He adds, "They do things the way you want them done. These are the folks without whom all productivity, performance, profits, and operations would cease. Unfortunately this group is often ignored by poor supervisors, who give them few accolades and little attention. Workers are to be recognized, respected, and certainly retained."

    -Marginal employees: "These are, without a doubt, the employees you wish your competition had," Crew laughs. "With all due respect to everyone's role on God's magnificent earth, these are the ones with whom you struggle to find their purpose for being. They come to work late and always with an excuse -- or with an attitude that compels you to offer them an excuse to go home!"

    He continues, "In essence, the marginal employee is the bad hire that reflects most poorly on the hiring manager and the enterprise as a whole. They're the 'hangers-on' who'll never leave. They're not happy working for you, but they're even less attracted to the idea of starting over somewhere else."

    Crew's strategy when it comes to marginal employees? "Lose the losers," he says succinctly.

    -Best: "This is the absolute goal of every hiring manager," Crew observes. "This is the person who has brains, a skip in his or her step, and a ready smile, and is a delight to work with. These folks are technically and socially talented, and they have passion -- not a gushy naivete -- and a desire to do good for themselves, the organization, and others. They're goal-oriented and value-based, and will go the extra mile without hesitation. Age has no relevance with this group. The younger ones can remind us or encourage us; the older ones can be revered and sought after for their experience and insight. Because they have great pride, keeping these folks excited requires rewards, recognition, and challenges."

    In hiring and keeping the best workers, nothing is more important than the interview process itself, Crew believes. "You must ask questions that will help to determine a potential employee's values, ethics, and abilities," Crew advises. "Ask questions whose answers can't be rehearsed or faked, and remember that your reputation is on the line with every single hire. Know what you're getting -- not what the job candidate wants you to think you're getting."

    Following are a few of Crew's favorite and most telling interview questions:

    -What is it about our company that attracted you?

    -How do you see yourself fitting in with our team?

    -What is the most difficult problem you've faced on the job?

    -What will keep you here for the long term?

    -What is the one thing your parents taught you that you're thankful for?

    -As a manager, how can I help you to be your best?

    -What would make you stay with your current employer?

    "The ultimate objective in the interview process is to identify and send the marginal candidates off to your competitor," Crew concludes. "The 'hiring warm bodies is better than nothing' philosophy is, in my mind, one step above the critical thinking of a tree stump -- except a tree stump doesn't have a reputation to protect."

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

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