ROCHESTER, N.Y. — “Never think about yourself; always help others.”
The motto of the late Robert “Bob” Wegman, who pioneered the Wegmans Food Markets founded by his father and uncle, hangs up with his portrait in his one-stop supermarkets. But the business philosophy on which the Catholic merchant founded the family-owned company came from the lesson the Sisters of Mercy taught him as a boy in Catholic elementary school: The most important thing in life is getting to heaven.
Today, Wegmans Food Markets, headquartered in Rochester, New York, has 92 stores in six states and is recognized as one of 12 companies in Fortune magazine’s “Great Place to Work Legends.” In fact, Fortune recognized Wegmans in 2017 as the second-best place to work in the U.S. — runner-up only to Google.
The company attributes its success to Robert Wegman’s vision that it is “essential to treat customers and employees right.” Wegmans is among a cadre of privately held companies that have put into practice the Catholic social vision that the dignity of persons, not the pursuit of pure profit, must be at the center of the marketplace.
Sarah Kenton has worked at Wegmans since 2010, when she was 15 years old working part time as a cashier at the Canandaigua, New York, store and, later, as a customer-service representative in the produce section.
“Everyone at Wegmans is a family,” she said. While it may sound “cliché,” Kenton said it “really is true.”
Wegmans later invited her at age 17 to think about a permanent career in the company, providing her an internship that allowed her to experience various store operations under department managers. She has an offer for a full-time position as a team service leader after her graduation from Niagara University in May.
“I consider myself fortunate to have a great employer who supports me,” she said. “Wegmans wants you to do your best and learn … and it really makes them better.”
One of her best memories was working on Wegmans’ Organic Farm, getting firsthand experience on how the stores’ “farm-to-table” process worked. She said helping with the harvest gave her a new appreciation for Wegmans’ produce.
And as an intern, she and her team were asked to propose how Wegmans could improve food product “best by” dating. The company has been concerned about wasted food, especially when some people in the communities they serve are going hungry. Kenton said she and the other interns tackled the problem — and were asked to present their recommendations to Wegmans’ corporate leaders. Kenton said their response was “amazing.”
“They said, ‘Thank you so much. This is great. We’ve really got to do something about this,’” she said. “Since then they really tried to implement the suggestions and make the place an even better version of itself. That spirit of continuous improvement really makes Wegmans successful.”
Wegmans stores — in the U.S. Northeast — employ 47,000 employees.
“We’re very much a values-based company,” Jo Natale, Wegmans’ vice president for communications, told the Register.
Natale has worked with the company for nearly 30 years and said Wegmans’ business philosophy is “always to take care of our employees, and they’ll take care of our customers.”
“It was a belief the family held as very important,” she said.
Wegmans considers its employees as their “most valuable asset,” Natale explained, so they provide competitive pay and benefits, including health care, dental care, prescription plans and retirement options. They also provide flexible scheduling to their employees, so they can care for their families.
The Wegmans employee scholarship program has awarded $105 million in scholarships to more than 33,000 employees since it started the program in 1984, including $5 million in college-tuition assistance to employees for the 2016-2017 school year.
That kind of investment in employees was a big help to Kenton as she pursued her undergraduate degree and an MBA at Niagara.
But Wegmans also truly regards itself as a member of the community where their stores are located and where their employees and customers live. Besides the Wegmans’ scholarships to help youth achieve higher education, they also work with communities to feed the hungry.
Natale said Wegmans’ success all comes down to their employees. She added that the company does not hire based simply on skills — they can teach people how to do the necessary work — so they look for employees whose “values match” Wegmans, whether they are pharmacists or chefs.
“We really look for people who have a desire to serve others, who smile and are engaging,” she said.
Catholic Social Doctrine
The Catholic Church’s social doctrine rests on four pillars: solidarity, subsidiarity, the dignity of the human person and the care of the common good. William Bowman, dean of The Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business, told the Register that this social teaching is rooted in the natural law.
Wegmans and a number of privately owned companies, he said, are living those principles in their business “day in and day out” without necessarily realizing that they have made Catholic social teaching part of their practices.
Bowman, a graduate of Harvard Business School and an experienced CEO, said a company’s lived commitment to Catholic social doctrine can be seen in how it treats its five stakeholders — the employees, the suppliers, the investors, the customers and the community at large — according to those principles.
Bowman said Wegmans practices “incredible subsidiarity” with employees, by giving them a lot of discretion to exercise responsibility and initiative, even at age 17 and 18, relative to the store’s competitors. He said, “They’re not just trained in best practices, but to think about how to improve what they do.”
Another company exemplifying Catholic social teaching, Bowman said, is Nucor Steel, which became the second-largest U.S. steel company. The company has a strong culture of solidarity linked with subsidiarity, where helping each other do better — like one plant team helping another team become more efficient on the line — means the company does better.
Compensation for the CEO and employees rises or falls together depending on the company’s success. The company has three levels — the CEO, plant manager and plant workers — which enables speedy communication and delegates authority to people to exercise judgment.
“They’re given a lot of latitude to act and do the right thing, and that just stimulates the creativity in people,” Bowman said.
The Wine Group, the second-biggest wine company in the U.S., Bowman added, is another company that exemplifies key principles of Catholic social teaching.
Senior executives are only rewarded with stock bonuses for their work 20 years down the road, and planning for the company is based on a “20-year time horizon,” as opposed to issuing quarterly reports, where research and development often gets cut to bolster quarterly returns, he explained. This has allowed the company to grow at a faster pace than its competitors, increase its stock value in the long term, and reward its employees.
Bowman said, generally, large, publicly held companies have a “much tougher” time implementing the business practices Catholic social doctrine calls for because their boards base their decisions on strict metrics for return on investment.
“That in itself is a minor violation of Catholic social teaching, because the person is the purpose of the business, and not the dollar, and that has to be reflected in how the company operates,” he said.
However, he said Google is one case of a big business whose success has been propelled by a culture of “radical subsidiarity” in which employees are nurtured and given the freedom to dream up new ideas and business ideas.
Reward of Integrity
A company that acts with “integrity” toward its employees, suppliers and customers has a long-term business advantage over those that do not, Frank Hanna III, CEO of Hanna Capital, told the Register.
The companies Hanna has seen act with integrity and follow the virtues that build up the human person, such as Wegmans or Chick-Fil-A, tend to have a wealth that is counted in happier employees and executives as well as happier customers, who patronize them because they enjoy doing business with them.
“That’s a form of wealth and well-being that may or may not show up on the balance sheet,” Hanna said.
That is not to say that a company that does the right thing will always make money over those that don’t. Hanna said that is a “prosperity Gospel” mentality. The true Gospel shows that acting with integrity may get you “crucified” instead.
“But you do the right thing because you have integrity, not because it will make you more profitable,” Hanna said.
In the end, he added, “eternal salvation” is the only victory that a person who acts with integrity should look toward — just as Robert Wegman believed.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.