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The role of execution in success

When I reflect on my career in the produce industry, I often think about two management books that had a significant impact on how I viewed decision making.

The first was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey. This was probably the most influential management book of the 1990s and, in my view, is as relevant today as it was then.

But the second book is probably much less known: Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, by Larry Bossidy, published in 2002. I had the privilege of attending a seminar that Bossidy spoke at, bought his book, and my thinking was forever influenced. And I think the thought processes that he articulated are more relevant today than they were then.

I think it would be fair to say the produce industry is facing several transformational changes, whether it be retail formats, omnichannel disciplines, regulatory considerations, forms of agriculture production, packaging, transportation challenges, labor issues, buyer requirements, marketing and social media, and more.

It seems like there is an ever-growing number of “experts” who tout “strategic road maps” to help companies cope with these changes. But it seems the biggest problem is the central point of Bossidy’s book, namely, that the most successful companies over time are the ones that execute the best.

When I was responsible for merchandizing decisions at Walmart, we were frequently criticized in the trade press for lack of “flair” in merchandizing. Words like spartan, unimaginative, simple, (and other, more colorful descriptions) were used time and time again.

But what no one stopped to think about was the rate of our growth. At one point, we opened 75 stores in a day! We weren’t in the business of running stores, we were in the business of opening stores.

So, as I thought through the merchandising strategies I wanted to employ, it wasn’t a matter of what I wanted to do, it was a matter of what I could execute, in scale, profitably. When I came to Walmart in 1991, we had six Supercenters; when I left in 2007, we had over 2,400 stores!

Reusable plastics containers, co-managed replenishment, digital photography in receiving, and collaborative planning were all implemented to enable high levels of execution to support an aggressive growth strategy.

As you think about the future of your business, it would be time well spent to give execution high level consideration. Whatever human, financial, or systemic resources are needed to achieve outstanding execution, be prepared to do so.

It’s the same for retailers: if you want to play in the omnichannel game, you better be prepared to execute that strategy against best-in-class competition.

Three companies have always captured my admiration: Aldi, Wegmans, and H-E-B. All are very different in terms of size, merchandising strategies, and geography, but they execute their strategies better than anyone else.

So despite an ever-changing retail environment, they not only survive, but grow.

The more complex their merchandising, the more resources they apply to execute it. Training, systems, fixturing, and assortment selection are all elevated to the level of what these retailers wish to execute. And they are rewarded with success.

Regardless of the size or nature of your company, strategic direction is as important as ever—and the ability to execute strategy has never taken on more significance. Don’t let execution get lost in the articulation of the strategy. Larry Bossidy’s book has never been so right on!


Bruce Peterson is the founder and president of Peterson Insights, Inc., a consulting company specializing in the complex challenges of the fresh food industry. Peterson began his career bagging groceries, and went on to work for several supermarket chains, including 17 years at Walmart Stores, Inc. He has owned and operated a wholesale produce company, and served as chief executive officer of both Naturipe Foods LLC and Bland Farms.