Natural Foods Merchandiser

Managements hidden gems right under your nose

The Natural Employer

When you need to fill a management position, do you consider your current staff first? Perhaps an employee lacks technical experience but displays leadership qualities. Do you take a risk and promote her or him?

When Andrei Smerechniak came to work at Berkshire Co-op Market in Great Barrington, Mass., he was just looking for a job. His background—working for a state lottery commission, owning a messenger service—gave no indication of his leadership potential in a natural foods store. However, his interest in cooking led him to apply to work in the kitchen. As it happened, there were no openings in that department, but a produce-stocker position needed filling


Smerechniak?s exposure to ?a community of people concerned with what they put in their bodies? ignited his passion for healthy food. He took on the cause of improving quality. He instituted a rotation schedule for the walk-in cooler, implemented a tighter ordering system and raised the bar for display items.

Most importantly, he worked the floor five days a week, talking to customers. ?I let people know we may have had quality problems in the past, but I was there to assure top-quality products,? he explains. ?In eight to 10 months I had things shipshape on the floor, but it took me a year to get access to the brokers, ordering when the manager was out. He didn?t work weekends, so he didn?t see what happened on our busiest days.?

Meanwhile, Art Ames came on as general manager, with a background in running conventional grocery stores and a special interest in organic produce. Berkshire Co-op Market was planning a move to a much larger location. Ames reassigned the produce manager and started recruiting for his replacement. Smerechniak applied. ?I put everything I had into the r?sum?, the references and the interviews,? he says.

Ames was impressed by Smerechniak?s outgoing personality. ?Andrei had no produce experience,? Ames recalls, ?but he struck me as someone who?d figure out a way to do things. In spite of his lack of knowledge, he could connect with customers and vendors.? Nevertheless, he turned Smerechniak down for the department manager position. ?I felt he wasn?t ready from an operational knowledge standpoint. But I saw his communication skills and asked him not to be discouraged.?

For the next six months, Ames continued the search, eventually hiring an outside candidate with conventional produce experience. Getting passed over for the position frustrated Smerechniak. Nevertheless, he decided to make the best of the situation.

He only had to wait three months. The new manager alienated local farmers, customers and employees. ?He was too brutal,? Ames says now. ?He did more damage than good.? This time, Ames offered Smerechniak the job and brought in a consultant to help with produce department systems.

From Ames? point of view, all has gone well. ?The customers love [Smerechniak]. He works well with vendors, has great interpersonal skills, an old-fashioned work ethic and a great sense of humor. He started out a leader and now he?s learning to manage.?

From Smerechniak?s perspective, his promotion could have been more affirming. Whatever message Ames meant to convey, what Smerechniak heard was, ?We tried. Now we?ll just have to give the job to you.? Nevertheless, he has seized the opportunity to manage his department with gusto. ?This is what organic produce is all about,? he explains, ?empowering people on a personal level.?

Some pointers for recognizing and developing your hidden gems:

  • Look for what Ames calls ?the people part: communication, adaptability, taking joy in the moment.? Management and financial skills can be taught.
  • Give potential leaders on your staff tasks to accomplish. That will tell you more than an interview.
  • Observe internal candidates on days you don?t normally work.
  • After promoting your candidate, tell her why she got the job. Recognize her positive contributions.

Carolee Colter is the principal of Community Consulting Group. She can be reached at 206.723.4040 or [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 5/p. 26

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