Natural Foods Merchandiser

Natures Food Market team management model

When Zedrick Clark purchased Nature’s Food Market in Berlin, Ohio six years ago, he didn’t want to fall into the classic owner trap. He’d observed more than 500 natural products stores around the country and knew it was easy to lose sight of long-term goals by getting lost in day-to-day management. “One person can do it all with a small- to medium-sized store,” Clark says. “He just can’t do it well.”
Instead, Clark wanted to empower his employees so he could step back and maintain the perspective and vision to grow his business. The result has been a three-phase transition to a team management model that has enabled Clark to expand his store and boost sales.
Three-phase change is good
Nature’s Food Market lies in the midst of Ohio’s Holmes County in a rural community of 50,000. The store has operated successfully for 30 years and serves one of the largest U.S. populations of Amish and Mennonite. It started as a small bulk food store that carried vitamins and now is a 5,000-plus-square-foot full-service natural products store that sells 50 percent food, 30 percent supplements and 20 percent personal care along with general merchandise.

The first phase of the management transition took the store from a hierarchical structure to a team structure with Clark becoming the manager. This allowed him to form his goals and vision and get to know the business inside out. “It’s important to understand what your managers will have to deal with,” Clark says.

In phase one, Clark developed a clear mission statement, values and objectives so that he could communicate goals to his employees, evaluate their performance and get employees to buy in. “To shift from a single manager setting to a team setting, all of your key people have to be on board,” he says.

In phase two, Clark hired a co-manager to learn the ropes while he stayed involved in the day-to-day. “There was a manager in place, but that manager wasn’t held accountable for everything,” he says.
Phase three involved implementing a new team structure with the 15 employees. “Zed and I determined key areas for team leaders and communicated the concept to the staff members,” says Store Manager Tom Troyer. Clark stayed as the general manager and Troyer ran the overall operations. There are then smaller sub-teams: a group of four cashiers, four customer service people, two on the receiving team and two people in bulk. People in the individual sub-teams make choices and take ownership of their store sections, with oversight from Troyer and Clark.

Empowered staff sells more
In the three months after the switch to team leadership, sales and morale hit all-time highs. “Our gross sales figures have been the greatest for the year [2009],” Clark says. “We have seen about a 10 percent increase in sales and did approximately $1.6 million in 2008 and will be approximately $1.7 million in 2009. Employees are more excited, and they are more positive toward the customers.” Troyer has also noticed significant change in skillful interaction. “We’re seeing a stronger level of organization within the store and better communication and coordination within the team,” he says.

Clark still gives orientations to new employees so they can get to know the owner and his vision for the store. There are annual employee reviews, and managers share monthly and annual sales figures with the team so employees know whether the store is on target. “The key to all of this is training and communication,” Clark says. “You have to be willing to communicate on a regular basis.”
In addition to a boost in morale and sales, Clark has what he hoped for: space for him to envision the future. “It does take a fair amount of trust and humility to move beyond that point of being an owner simply trying to run a store, to being an owner trying to empower the staff to run their own show,” says Clark. “But this type of setting allows the manager to focus on ways to build and improve the business.”’

Jean Weiss is a Boulder, Colo.–based freelance writer.

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