(Photo by Erika Fontana)

Mike Orf approaches produce with zest and artistry, and he encourages his people to do likewise.

As the group vice president of produce purchasing for Hy-Vee stores, Orf works on strategy, ad writing, supplier relationships, procurement and in many other areas as well. He watches trends and works to ensure Hy-Vee has great assortment and quality in key segments like local, organic and fresh-cut.

His focus is the big picture, but the merchandising of fruits and vegetables is still his sweet spot.

Nate Stewart, executive vice president of perishables for Hy-Vee, first worked with Orf in 2001 while training to be a store manager. He described Orf as an artist with produce.

“His aisle was alive, it was exciting,” Stewart said. “If you had a couple days off, you couldn’t wait to come in and see what he was going to do. He was the guy that got the reputation our produce aisle had (for) the big, huge, crazy display – very bold, very colorful. Things that no one else would even dream to do he did in his aisle. It was fun to watch and fun to be a part of.”

Orf continues to inspire excitement in Hy-Vee produce departments, whether by driving store-level creativity with display contests or by finding ways for produce departments to go to the next level.

“Mike has an uncanny ability to be able to see a department for what it could be, to be able to lay out a department really with his eyes, and then a really good ability to explain it to people,” Stewart said. “Sometimes you’ll see people that have one or the other, but rarely do you see people that have both."

“He’s a gifted merchant, but he’s also a gifted teacher as far as his ability to explain it in a way that almost anybody can understand,” Stewart said.

Orf started his career with Hy-Vee when he was 16 years old and has been in produce for most of the ensuing four decades. Year after year, surveys have shown that produce is a differentiator for grocery retailers, and he takes that responsibility seriously.

“Produce is the focal department of the store, so it really is your invitation that sets the tone for the rest of the shopping experience,” Orf said. “The idea is to really set a great tone with this beautiful department with great presentation, with great assortment. It comes down to the artistry of it because it’s such a visual department. People are drawn in with their eyes. You have to be awesome at that, so it’s very much about the presentation.

“It’s very much about things being stocked and merchandised in a particular fashion so things look really neat,” Orf said. “If you’re really awesome at that, I think you do a lot to really help the fortitude of your entire store, so that’s what the goal of it is to me.”

All of it is aimed at giving customers what they want, so Hy-Vee gives each produce manager the opportunity to make decisions for his or her store. They control the assortment, where items are merchandised, how they are priced, and which tools are used to promote different products.

“The heart of it is nobody knows their customers better than the people in that town,” Orf said. “The Olathe store knows more about what their customers want than I know here, so we afford them that (latitude) for them to say, ‘I’m going to be relevant in my marketplace, and I know what my competition is and what our customers’ lifestyles tend to be, and we listen to them.’ They can cater directly to what they believe is right for their store, and frankly do a better job of that than me in West Des Moines.”

Along with giving produce managers ownership of their departments, Hy-Vee also motivates them to be creative and to take inspiration from others. The company does about 15-20 internal display contests each year, often tied to ads.

“It’s a chance for stores to get creative and just have fun,” Orf said. “And some of the best stores, maybe the produce manager doesn’t even do it, and he says, ‘I’m going to assign you to do it,’ and it gives people a chance to take ownership and to be the decision-makers.

“You always talk about these phrases in business about empowering people, but that’s empowering people,” Orf said. “Sometimes these people are quiet and they have the best idea ever and they don’t talk, and you have to give them some opportunities. It’s kind of a chance for stores to show off … but we incentivize it. We make it a really big deal and then we make it a really big deal if you win.”

The idea is that the shopper wins every time, as big displays infuse excitement into the departments.

“You’re competing in a way that you just don’t find in many stores,” Orf said.

Both Stewart, who has worked with Orf for years, and Springfield, Mo., produce manager Heather Gengler, who just met Orf recently after being recognized by the United Fresh Produce Association earlier this year, remarked that 40 years in the industry has done nothing to dull his zeal for produce.

If anything, Orf might be even more passionate.

“He does keep people excited about the business,” Stewart said. “It’s easy to take this business too seriously, and Mike keeps it fun and keeps it exciting, and that’s not easy to do over the course of a career as long as his … It’s kind of the way he’s always gone to market.

“He’s always been big and bold,” Stewart said. “You’d never know it by meeting him, but then you put him in an aisle and he just comes to life.”


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