business news in context, analysis with attitude

Reaction to yesterday’s piece about how the hiring of former Albertsons COO Peter Lynch to be Winn-Dixie’s CEO, replacing Frank Lazaran, may not do much to reduce the internal turmoil at the company. We noted that Lynch said he would focus on improving morale, re-establishing the company’s brand equity by executing better at store level, and trying to quickly improve perishables departments – and said with some skepticism that this seems to be the boilerplate statement made by every new supermarket CEO when trying to figure out how to turn around a company.

One MNB user responded:

Unfortunately, it looks like the Winn Dixie board…could have saved money by hiring a Sesame Street character if all they were looking for was a puppet. Instead they chose Lynch and as expected he said what they wanted him to say…If Lynch is brave enough, he may have to take the walk himself through the stores and chat with the customers and employees…By the way, what was the board doing all these past
years when the numbers were telling them that change was imminent?
Shopping elsewhere I guess!

And another member of the MNB community wrote:

Hiring a new CEO usually never improves morale. After the new CEO fires everyone and replaces them with his friends, the other 99% of the company is usually just that much more depressed. I don't think anyone serious believes Winn Dixie will survive without the closing of several hundred more stores. These stores have fallen so low they are at Kmart-esqe levels with regards to sales per square foot. Publix and Wal-Mart are not going to allow themselves to lose one dollar of market share to a company like Winn Dixie. Doesn't Winn Dixie realize that Wal-Mart and Publix are targeting their best stores for new locations? Winn Dixie's worst stores already have a Wal-Mart or Publix nearby. I'm afraid Humpty Dumpty is broke and can't be fixed. Wal-Mart won on price and Publix won on service. Winn Dixie can't compete on price and with no labor left in the stores, service is out of the question.

The prognosis doesn’t look good.

We have an ongoing discussion taking place about gender discrimination in the food industry, prompted by stories about the suit filed against Wal-Mart. (The discussion is not Wal-Mart specific, since there has been no finding in that case.)

MNB user David Livingston has written that he believes that such gender discrimination suits are frivolous, that “women who are determined to overcome this barrier generally do. Those who don’t generally sue.” We’ve disagreed with this assessment, saying that life is not that simple and that old-boy networks often exist in such a way that women sometimes have no other alternative than litigation. (Sad, but true.)

We also wrote:

Relevant to this discussion, by the way, is our contention that one of the reasons that US supermarkets are out of touch with consumers is that too many chains have too few women in senior management. Which seems silly, since the industry’s primary customers happen to be women.

But heaven forbid that the people running the companies ought to be the same people who are customers.

One MNB user responded:

Your comments echo what I told HR during my exit interview. As a former supermarket employee, I also expressed my dissatisfaction with how working moms are treated by their employer. After all, we were told that our demographic represents a supermarkets "best customers" and yet the same falls short when dealing with that group as employees. I seem to recall that the last published list of Best Companies for Working Moms didn't included any supermarkets.

MNB user Barrie Carmel wrote:

I'm sure that you are shocked to see that a female reader disagrees with Mr. Livingston's assessment that this is a free country and that salaries are negotiated...

It is a much more complicated situation than that. Even in this enlightened day and age, men still hold most of the cards. Currently, women only make about 85% of men in comparable positions. That's better than it has been, but how many men are willing to take a 15% pay cut?

But it is not only a function of salary, but work conditions. I have been laid off because my male counterparts "have families to support," and told that I don't need any support staff because I am a single woman, "so what else do you have to do?" These events have occurred in the last 5 years.
It is much more common than you might think. I expect that it will take about another 10 years before the old-timers are put to pasture that we will see a major swing in the treatment of women in the work force. The real question is, will the change be brought about by a new generation of leaders or enough lawsuits that companies finally decide to equalize the policies?

Probably a combination of both.

Another MNB user wrote:

You said, “Relevant to this discussion is our contention that one of the reasons that U.S. supermarkets are out of touch with customers is that too many chains have too few women in Senior Management, which seems silly, since the industry’s primary customers happen to be women.”

I could not agree more.

I am female, but a far cry from a militant feminist, since my career is in advertising and there are no personal complaints on gender bias. I have been treated with respect not only by my employers, but corporation CEO’s and executives in companies that include areas such as computers, financials, education and general retail. All of these had at least a respectable number of women in positions of power, but more that that, they were treated with respect. The only exception I have noted… (granted, from an outside perspective) is the grocery business.

Over the years, working with four good sized supermarket chains I saw very few women in positions even resembling power, and those who did manage to acquire a “title” were treated as the village idiot and denigrated behind their back. Although regularly attending meetings with heads of major corporations, I was often not allowed to personally present my proposals to Marketing Managers at grocery chains (they had to be presented by a man to be considered worthwhile).

You say, “Silly, since the industry’s primary customers happen to be women”. I say, criminal. Who better to know what a woman wants in a supermarket than another woman? Could this possibly be why so many chains are in trouble?

Could be.

And another MNB user wrote:

Let me preface this by stating that I am not a nor have I ever been a "women's libber", I am a female who grew up in the supermarket industry as did most of the men in my family. I spent most of my career with a chain in northeast and I can tell you for a fact that women did not get the promotions.

Back then ( late 80's early 90's) out of @50 stores there were at most 2 female Store Managers and 2 female directors one being in floral. The first female promoted to store manager actually made the local paper but it did not note that she was given the smallest size/volume store the company had in a remote location. She also was not qualified for the job so, that did not last long.

Now I am involved with the supermarket industry in a different capacity that deals directly with employment. I work with chains today in the Northeast, Midwest, Southeast that have expressed desires to fill positions with female candidates, however, when the process is done nine times out of ten the job is filled with a man. Reason: There is not a large candidate pool of female executives to choose from. Try finding a female VP of Grocery, VP of Produce or VP of Meat not to mention VP of Operations...finding a female at Director level or District Manager is challenging enough.

Look in areas of floral, human resources, HBA or sometimes merchandising and the task becomes somewhat easier. The largest pool of females can be found in buying, category management, assistant store management areas, etc. I am not going to debate that there are companies that do a better job than others, however, in the grocery business you would be blind and ignorant to say that it is still not a man's world.

And MNB user David Livingston wrote in to clarify his position:

I have worked for companies that openly behind closed doors discriminated against women and minorities. I have seen a man taken out of Human Resources because a new CEO says he wanted a "woman" in the job. I have seen "make-work" vice president positions created because a CEO wanted to appear politically correct. He didn't want to give a woman or minority the responsibility of being in charge of a profit center, so he would create positions like VP of Diversity - usually the only function is to attend non profit luncheons, recruiting some minimum wage workers, and have his picture taken. Or the VP of Communications= which is basically being in charge of the company newsletter or printing off colorful notices and pinning them on the bulletin board. The rest of the responsible positions were reserved for men. I bet everyone knows a company just like this.

What if the tables are turned? What if you are a middle age white man trying to go to work for a woman or minority controlled company? Are your chances for advancement any better or worse? Generally I have found that about 95% of time, people did not get hired, promoted, and given= salary increases because they were basically not liked by the manager in charge. It had little to do with their gender or ethic background.

Complaining, screaming discrimination, or filing lawsuits is an act of desperation and a sign of weakness. You are permanently labeling yourself as a troublemaker and in the long run, you won't be the winner. I think its better to have a more positive focus. First, if you are discriminated against, you shouldn't be working for a company like that anyway. Second, take all that negative energy and turn it into positive energy. Become even more determined and even more ambitious. And always be focusing on improving your salary negotiation skills - this is not something you should only be thinking about once a year but all year long.

We don’t think anyone would disagree that a lawsuit ought to be a last option. But sometimes, unfortunately, it is the only way to get justice – and we’re not sure that equating it with “complaining” and “screaming.”

If the kind of ceiling that you describe in your email exists, and the infrastructure exists to prevent women from breaking through it, then why shouldn’t women be able to use every legitimate means available to them to achieve, when deserved, the same career goals as men?
KC's View: