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No Pretense At Wegmans

Wegmans’ home town paper, the Democrat and Chronicle, ran an interview with Danny Wegman and his daughter Colleen Wegman, titled Wegmans: A sit-down with Rochester’s hometown grocer.

The interview is not particularly earth-shattering in content, but it is valuable none the less, mostly because you get a sense of how comfortable the Wegman family members each are within his or her own skin. There is not a hint of pretense or phoniness.

It is such a contrast with so many retailers who seem to find it impossible to admit error.

Here is the exchange regarding the onset of the recession:

You must have a unique perspective on the recession, because regardless of how bad things get, everyone still needs to buy groceries. Did you see any trends ahead of time that told you the recession was coming?

Danny: Unfortunately, we didn’t read the signs. The signs were there, but we kept wondering whether it was us, or the weather, or something else.

Colleen: We kept making excuses.

Danny: Easter was earlier last year, and the weather was bad, so we said, “Oh, people weren’t ready for Easter.” But there were other things going on. So the change started as early as March last year. We should’ve known.

No, “We had a secret strategy” or “We knew it all along” or “We were the first to catch it.” Just “We kept making excuses,” and “We should’ve known.”

Considering its size and location, there is no natural reason Wegmans should be pre-eminent in so many areas of food retailing.

Yet the easy tone and the willingness to admit mistakes may explain a lot.

The interview goes on to report that with seasonal produce starting up and a stronger stock market, consumers are acting a little less cautious.

For Wegmans, though, the key may be an ownership and top management group that loves what they do. The interview talks about transition:

Wegmans has been a family business through four generations. Growing up, did you have a say about what you wanted to do when you entered the professional world, or was it assumed that you were going to take over the company?

Danny: It was on Canandaigua Lake, and I don’t remember the exact date, but I do remember the occasion. She was just getting done with college and the official offer went like this: “Colleen, what do you really enjoy?”

She said, “Well, I really enjoy natural foods and helping people learn how to eat them and enjoy them and so on.” So I said, “That’s perfect, why don’t you just come to Wegmans and do that?”

Colleen: I tell my boys they can do whatever they want, as long as it’s working at Wegmans. But honestly, when someone loves what they do so much, it’s contagious. My grandpa, my dad and I all share that same love of the business, so it doesn’t feel like work for us. We love what we do.

We have a lot of MBAs in the business now and a lot of clever consultants who tell everyone how to position things.

Yet Wegmans is the retailer we get more requests to tour than any other. Maybe it is that a low-key approach, a willingness to admit error and a love of the business accounts for more than most executives realize.

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