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Retail success relies on execution

heb BBQ
(HEB image)

Jack Welch was one of the most notable CEOs of the 20th century. “Neutron Jack” led General Electric Company (GE) through a tremendous period of growth in the 1980s and 1990s. But his influence went beyond the financial performance of GE; he left an indelible mark on leadership and management development.

The Six Sigma model went far beyond GE, as many Fortune 500 companies worked to adopt this principle. Whether you liked Welch or not, there is no disputing his influence on American business.

Lesser known is Larry Bossidy, who worked closely with Welch at GE, ultimately holding the role of vice chairman and executive vice president before moving on to become CEO of several other companies.

One of the books Bossidy wrote, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, is a great read and as relevant today as when it was written. In the businesses I have been responsible for, it has never been an issue of “What do I want to do?” but rather “What can I execute, in scale, profitably?”

The ability to execute at a high level has never been more critical, given the dynamic state of retail. And I believe there’s a shining example of how execution breeds success: look no further than H. E. Butt Grocery Company BB #:106490.

During the various talks I give to groups or guest lectures at universities, it’s not uncommon to be asked who I consider the best grocery retailer in the United States. And given my professional background (Walmart), people are often surprised when I answer “H.E.B.”

In all my retail experience, I’ve never met a tougher competitor than H.E.B. The company is an excellent merchant, invests in the development of its people, and is willing to test new ideas and concepts. But the thing this grocer does, in scale, better than anyone else—is execute.

It’s not as though H-E-B has only a few stores, as there are over 340 stores. Now you might make a case that the company is essentially in only one state, but I would argue that Texas is a big state. And when you consider H-E-B has had to defend its market share against the likes of Safeway, Food Lion, Albertsons, Winn Dixie, and, oh yes, Walmart, what it has accomplished is truly remarkable.

It’s all about execution. H-E-B has this wonderful ability to convey the company’s strategic direction down to the individual store clerk. Its in-stock is impeccable; store personnel understand how to display and care for a wide range of products; signage is spot on; and service at checkout is friendly and efficient.

And I never miss a chance to grab a pumpkin empanada anytime I’m in a store.

H-E-B is a great company for students of retail, but it’s a great example for any company to study and learn from. Given the rapid growth Walmart had in Texas during my tenure, I spent a fair amount of time at H-E-B, learning what these stores did right.

And yes, H-E-B does many things right, but the key takeaway is to appreciate the importance of execution. This grocer was in business long before Bossidy wrote his book, and I’m sure he could’ve learned a thing or two by visiting an H-E-B store.

This is a column from the March/April 2021 issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine.


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.