Mike Roberts started his produce career like many other industry veterans, working at a grocery store as a part-time job while going to college. Since then he’s held almost every role in the produce department: clerk, opener, closer, third man, assistant produce manager and produce manager. Roberts followed up those store-level positions with 17 years as a produce merchandiser.

When he moved into that role, his mentor Dennis Baker told him something important – that produce is all about people. At first, Roberts didn’t understand.

“I was a produce manager for a number of years and I thought it was all about the product, and so when I stepped into that merchandising role and (Dennis) said that to me, I was like, ‘Well no, I just got to go make them all look like my department.’ Well that’s not easy. You have to form relationships and you have to treat people fairly, and sometimes you have to be somewhat demanding, but that was one of the biggest moments I had, when he said it was all about people. I didn’t get it – I totally get it today.”

Going from being a produce manager to a produce merchandiser responsible for a couple dozen stores required some adjustment for Roberts.

“I learned very quickly that I can’t run 20 stores on my own, so I learned that the hard way a little bit. I did some leadership classes and I did a lot of stuff to try to improve myself, but the biggest thing I think I learned was that you’ve got to treat everybody fairly, but you don’t have to treat everybody the same. You have to find what they’re good at and then coach them on the things that they weren’t so good at. But you can’t just say one thing or send out one blanket email or make one blanket statement. You’ve got to deal with people individually, because not everybody’s the same.”

Roberts lists hiring good people, training them well and letting them work as keys to good management, but there’s another element he also deems essential.

“I don’t think that produce or your job should be your top priority in life. I think it should be your family and your faith, and the only reason I ever put your job as number three is because it helps pay for the other two. Personally I’d put fishing at number three, but it doesn’t make me any money … That’s one thing that I preach day in, day out. It’s one of the things that in every meeting that we have with our staff, that I really emphasize that your family and your faith come way before the lettuce. I can train somebody to come in and fill the lettuce if you need to go. If you’ve got something wrong with your kid or your wife or something you need to go to, take off. Let somebody know, but go. We’ll figure it out.

“That’s kind of where I’ve been able to really grow a really great, close-knit staff at the merchandiser and the category level and then even throughout our stores. Once you train four or five guys to have that, then it bleeds out to the other 90 that we have out there. It’s been a good model for us and it’s worked.”

One of Roberts’ initiatives since he started as director of produce operations about two years ago has been to visit all 91 stores in the span of each fiscal year. While he certainly takes note of how the department looks, he really visits stores for the people.

“I think your produce managers need that from you. Sometimes you need to see them on their level instead of at a meeting or something like that. You need to be where they feel comfortable. So I guess you can say at the end of the day just leading people is the thing I look forward to the most.

“I really just go to just see how the produce manager’s doing. I want to see what he knows, what he doesn’t know. I want to see if the merchandisers are doing their job with him and how well we trained this person, so I’ll visit with them and their staff, and then also the store manager when I’m there.”

Roberts, a recent member of the Packer 25, has been involved in the broader industry for years, from the Southeast Produce Council to the Produce Marketing Association. He completed the National Grocers Association Executive Leadership Program at Cornell University, and one of his favorite programs is Produce for Kids. In addition to helping feed children more nutritious foods, Produce for Kids strengthens relationships between vendors and retailers, Roberts said.

“I always joke that sometimes it’s selfish because I want to sell more produce so I can actually retire one day, but really I just like to feed kids. I think it’s a really great program.”


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