Family-run Publix is both the largest employee-owned company and the most profitable grocer in America. Those two facts are linked, and they might be the formula for fending off Bentonville’s retail behemoth.
Passing through Publix’s sliding doors to escape the blistering Lakeland, Fla. heat is a welcome relief, but it isn’t just the air-conditioning that jumps out at you. As you walk the aisles, bag boys and clerks in sage-green shirts and black aprons routinely smile and ask questions: “How are you today? Can we help you with anything?”
When a middle-aged woman asks about a box of crackers, no aisle number is blurted out. Instead, an employee races off to find the item, just as he is trained to do. At checkout, shoppers move to the front quickly, thanks to a two-customer-per-line goal enforced by proprietary, predictive staffing software. Baggers, a foggy memory at most large supermarket chains, carry purchases to the parking lot. Even Publix’s president, Todd Jones, who started out as a bagger 33 years ago, stoops down to pick up specks of trash on the store floor.
“We believe that there are three ways to differentiate: service, quality and price,” Jones says. “You’ve got to be good at two of them, and the best at one. We make service our number one, then quality and then price.”
If that’s a dig at Wal-Mart–traditional slogan: “Always low prices”–which has recently targeted Publix’s home turf, Florida, it’s a subtle one. The more direct retort comes via the numbers. As best we can tell, Publix is the most profitable grocery chain in the nation: Its net margins, 5.6% in 2012, trounced Wal-Mart’s (3.8%), as well as those of every public competitor, ranging from mass market Kroger (1.6%) to hoity-toity Whole Foods (3.9%).
Those numbers in a field notorious for razor-thin margins stem from another heady fact: Publix, the seventh-largest private company in the U.S. ($27.5 billion in sales) and one of the least understood thanks to decades of media reticence, is also the largest employee-owned company in America. For 83 years Publix has thrived by delivering top-rated service to its shoppers by turning thousands of its cashiers, baggers, butchers and bakers into the company’s largest collective shareholders. All staffers who have put in 1,000 work hours and a year of employment receive an additional 8.5% of their total pay in the form of Publix stock. (Though private, the board sets the stock price every quarter based on an independent valuation; it’s pegged at $26.90 now, up nearly 20% already this year.) How rich can employees get? According to Publix, a store manager who has worked at the company for 20 years and earns between $100,000 and $130,000 likely has $300,000 in stock and has received another $30,000 in dividends.
The route to that payday is completely transparent. Publix almost exclusively promotes from within, and every store displays advancement charts showing the path each employee can take to become a manager. Fifty-eight thousand of the company’s 159,000 employees have officially registered their interest in advancement. Associates are encouraged to rotate through various divisions, from grocery to real estate to distribution, to get a broad sense of the business. A former cake decorator in a store bakery is now in charge of all strategy for its bakeries. A distribution-center manager overseeing 800 associates got his start unloading railcars. When Lakeland store manager Edd Dean started bagging groceries as a teenager, he never expected to still be working in a supermarket 30 years later. “When I graduated college I had been seven years at Publix, and I started looking for a ‘real job,’?” he says. “I interviewed at a lot of companies, but the manager I was working with kept hounding me to come to Publix. Eventually it just clicked.” Dean is one of 34,000 employees who have more than ten years of tenure.
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