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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Standing on principle

    Texas-based Lowe's Markets succeeds and grows in a tough market by putting faith and family first.

    Thanks to the advice he received years ago from a respected college friend, would-be attorney Roger Lowe Jr. made a decision that would affect both his own life and the future of his family's supermarkets.

    Instead of enrolling in law school, he earned a degree in management from Baylor University in 1991 and came home. Today, the 34-year-old third-generation grocer, who in 1993 got his M.B.A. at Texas Tech, stands at the helm of one of our industry's most progressive and employee-focused supermarket operations, Littlefield, Texas-based Lowe's Markets.

    Established in 1963 by Roger Lowe Sr., a former company commander in the Army, and his father, Bud Lowe, the 58-store chain currently operates supermarkets in west Texas and New Mexico. Catering to both Hispanic and Native American customers, Lowe's is considered to be among the most successful niche players in the highly competitive Southwestern market, which includes, among others, H-E-B and its sister Central Markets, Albertsons, Big 8, United Supermarkets, Smith's, and of course, the mighty Wal-Mart.

    While the competition is tough to ignore, the determined Lowes say they're far more interested in staying focused on what's brought them where they are today—their customers, associates, and guiding principles—than in worrying about Boise or Bentonville. And in this era of staunch separation of church and state, they make no excuses for the deeply spiritual basis on which their company was built: God first, family second, and business third.

    "We have committed our business to God, and he directs the path of our business," says the younger Lowe. "I know faith can be a tricky subject in a public forum, but the truth is, the reason we're successful is because of our faith and the way we treat our people."

    Formula for happiness

    Noting that there are other businesses in the food industry operating under a faith-based management philosophy, Lowe continues: "Too often in today's society, the importance of faith and family are overlooked. Even though we have 60 stores, we try hard to keep the 'family' in the family business, and we encourage our 2,200 teammates to do the same. We encourage them to take part in the important events in their children's lives, and we do a lot of one-on-one mentoring, which obviously makes our people and our company stronger. We believe that the happier a teammate is at home, the happier they will be at work."

    Helping to cultivate a spirit of teamwork within the organization is Lowe's Xtra Fun Place to Work Committee, which consists of both managers and hourly associates. The group's purpose is to create ways for associates to have more fun at work. Says Lowe, "One great idea that came from our fun committee is Teammate Bingo. Every Monday, we play bingo at each location among teammates, and we draw a new number at three o'clock. We've been doing this for two years now, and our folks love it. They can win certificates for free products, movies, and restaurants."

    He continues, "We strive to keep the workplace simple, and we encourage workers and managers to be creative and independent. They operate the stores as if they were the owners, and we listen intently to their ideas on how to improve our company. Treating our teammates as family and making their jobs fun make people love to work with us."

    Another unusual aspect of the Lowe's organization is its relationship with its wholesaler, Affiliated Foods, a co-op headquartered in Amarillo, Texas. "What makes our warehouse different from other wholesalers is that it's run by retailers, not management," says Lowe. "For the past 21 years, my dad has served as chairman of Affiliated. The organization operates with the same efficiency that it takes to manage our own supermarkets."

    He adds, "While I've traveled all over the United States and have gotten to know many retailers, I've not found one that's as happy with their wholesaler as we are. Our relationship with Affiliated, which services more than 650 retailers, is a real partnership."

    Calling the wholesaler "the goose that laid the golden egg," Lowe says, "We want to keep our warehouse strong, and therefore we buy everything we possibly can from Affiliated, which has its own bakery, milk plant, produce and meat facility, potato shed, and print shop."

    Father-son team

    Perhaps the strongest partnership in the Lowe's organization is the one between father and son. "My dad serves as president and c.e.o. of our company, and he's very active in the business," Lowe says. "We work together as a team. While I handle the operations, special projects, and new ideas, his involvement is more top level in that he deals with leases, the warehouse, and new acquisitions."

    He adds, "From the time I first worked in the business as a little boy and was charged with sweeping the parking lot and sacking groceries, my father influenced my career by being a great Christian example. He helped me to understand that it takes good people, communication, and above all, faith to run a successful organization."

    "My dad has definitely been the driving force behind Lowe's Markets. It was his vision, discipline, and respect for people that convinced me to come home."

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

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