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United Supermarkets CEO on leadership, sustainability and how small companies are leading the economic recovery

5 min read


Robert Taylor is CEO of United Supermarkets, a 10,000-employee, 50-store regional grocery chain based in Lubbock, Texas. I sat down with Taylor during FMI 2012 last week in Dallas to discuss leadership, sustainability and more.

What’s your leadership style?

It’s funny. I don’t know that I have a particular style. And I say that because I started out with a company [R.C. Taylor Distributing] with 12 employees and I managed that company until we had about 100 employees, and sold it to [United Supermarkets] four and a half years ago, a company with 10,000 employees.

I guess I developed a style out of necessity — I’m not an expert in the retail grocery business, but we have people that know the retail grocery business, that have been with United for a long time. So I guess my style is to make sure that everybody works together, talks together; we collaborate on all decisions. … We’ve all got strengths, we’ve all got weaknesses. But if you put a team together that understands those, and say, “I need to talk to you and you because you’re strong in those areas,” and not dwell on the weaknesses — you can sort of push those aside and shore those up and know that you’ve got another team member over here that’s going to be strong where you’re weak.

That’s my style, and I would not be successful if I went in and tried to dictate how to run a retail grocery store. If they put me in a retail store and told me to run it, it would be a failure, because that’s not my expertise. But I think I can get along with people and get the best out of people, and I like people doing what they do because they like to do it. … If they can go to work every day and look forward to it, and they want to do good, they’re going to do a whole lot more than if somebody says “You’ve got to do this.” So that’s my style — pretty laid back, pretty easygoing and collaborative.

Tell us about your sustainability efforts.

One of the things mainly is, in West Texas, there’s a lot of sunlight, so we’re harvesting light. We’ve got dimming effects now in lights so that the more light we’re bringing in [from outside], it automatically dims the overheads. And we’re using more spots versus trying to flood the whole area, and we think we’ll see a huge amount of energy savings.

Any grocery store uses a lot of refrigeration, but a grocery store when it’s 108 degrees outside uses a ton of refrigeration, so we’ve done a lot of things in the system [to make it more efficient]. … [The reach-in coolers are] a staple, we have them in all the stores. Now we’re asking our guests to open a door and reach in. We thought, oh boy, that’s not gonna go real well, [but] we have had no pushback at all. I think everybody understands that you’re conserving, so that has made a huge difference.

We do everything we can to recycle. For lots of reasons, we’re going through trash audits. We actually go in there and empty all the trash and make sure that we’re sorting the trash like we’re supposed to. Plastic recycling has nearly doubled since we started the trash audits. At some of the stores, we donate the land to put in the Dumpsters so people from all over that area can come sort their trash. If you’ve got it already pre-sorted, you get a lot more pure recycling.

United Supermarkets started as and remains a family-led company. With 50 stores and 10,000 employees, how do you keep that family feeling?

We never lost it. If we ever lost it, it’d be tough to get it back. It’s people long before me that made that happen, and the [Snell] family themselves, the fiber of that family is to give back. In fact, when we have board meetings, the most important things that we discuss first are the welfare of our guests and team members. The second thing is our community — we report on what we give back to the community. And then the profit and loss statement is the third thing we discuss. The family has always been that way. They donate far more than what is tax-deductible, for instance, back to the community. We put together a U-Crew, for instance, and the U-Crew goes around and does community service.

I think there’s a lot of really great regional grocery chains, and I think a lot of them are family owned. And I think that fiber is so important not only to food distribution but to communities. I’d like your readers to realize the importance of regional grocery chains to commerce in America. I think it’s a really important part. And if we’re going to make an economic recovery in this country, it’s going to be on the back of this size retailer. This size retailer is going to lead the charge — it’s not going to be government, and it’s not going to be the mega companies who are going to energize our recovery. It’s going to be these family-owned companies.