Job Spotlight: Richard McGough, district director with Winn-Dixie

Richard McGough didn't start out thinking he would make the grocery business a lifelong career. In fact, he started out wanting to be a teacher and a coach.

But some words from a church youth minister -- who happened to work for Winn-Dixie -- and from his retired U.S. Navy father and ROTC instructor -- who let him know teacher's pay had its limits -- convinced him the supermarket world might be a solid future.

So the Florida native took a job as a shelf stocker with Winn-Dixie in Titusville, Fla. Forty years later, McGough, 56, has done it all in the grocery business, and now is district director over 14 stores, including a half dozen in the Columbus market. He lives in Auburn, Ala., with his territory also stretching south to the Alabama communities of Dothan and Enterprise.

McGough was in Columbus last week getting the 6770 Veterans Parkway Winn-Dixie ready for its open-house debut to the shopping public following a major remodeling. He took a break to discuss his job, the path he has taken, the remodeled store, and just what it takes to be a top-notch store manager.

This interview has been edited a bit for length and clarity, with an expanded version at www.ledger-enquirer.com.

Your first job with Winn-Dixie was stocking goods, then work in the produce department. Did you think this would be your career calling?

I just kept hanging around and kept getting moved up, and the next thing you know 20 years had gone by. So it just kind of happened for me. It wasn't something I grew up wanting to be. I think it happens to a lot of people because people (the public) don't understand our business. They think of a grocery store and they walk in and see what they see. But they don't know what it takes to get it there. It takes a lot of effort. It takes a lot of leadership. I'm not saying I'm one, but there are a lot of great leaders in our business.

How has your career progressed? You must have done a little bit of everything?

I cut meat for a couple of years. I was a dairy manager. I was a produce manager. There was a step you had to take -- 40 years ago -- that you had to go through each one and be successful. Plus, if you're going to go back and coach, teach and train the group that you have in your store, you need to know what you're talking about. Otherwise, how are you going to help them?

When and where was your first store manager job?

1984. It was in Florida, Indian Harbor Beach.

Were you nervous as the new captain of the ship?

I wasn't nervous until I got asked a question that I didn't know the answer to. Prior to that, I was pretty confident, because when you're an assistant you do a lot of the same things that you do as a store director. But I would say within a month I was extremely comfortable and then they moved me to a different one.

Let's discuss this store's renovation. You've taken it up a few notches?

There have been improvements throughout. The biggest change was the deli department. I don't know if you saw it -- prime rib, salmon, we have beef brisket that's delicious, rotisserie turkey and then a rotisserie piece of pork. Not necessarily all the same day, but generally there's always prime rib. There's always a minimum of three (meat) items.

Everything's already cooked?

It's cooked. The deal in our business is we've been talking about chef-prepared food. You see it on labels and stuff. What we figured out was if you want chef-prepared food, you've got to hire chefs. We hired two here. Both of ours have restaurant experience.

What difference does that make?

You have cooks and you have chefs. There's a difference. Chefs have recipes, they're a little more creative. If you go to good restaurant, you have a chef. If you go to a fast-food restaurant, you have a cook.

Why was this store improved at this time? Obviously, its a commercial hub now with Columbus Park Crossing and the city's growth.

Traffic would be the biggest thing I would tell you. The opportunity to create and gain more sales is more (likely) to happen here than it would be if we went to an area without as many homes.

Jerry Arnette is the store manager, or director, here. What is a typical store manager's life like on a day-to-day basis?

When you come in the store, you immediately walk the store. We basically ask for four store walks, but generally that's not even close to how many times you have to do it because opportunities come up throughout the day. You can't fix what you don't see, and if you don't know you have a problem, it's not going to get corrected.

So it's not sitting behind a desk much of the day?

Very, very little.

What are a manager's other duties?

Coaching and training your people, motivating, developing talent. Those are the things that I really push hard, because I feel like we're not in the grocery business, we're in the people business. We just happen to sell groceries. People are what gets things done. Jerry can't do it all. I can't do it all. We could try and we would fail.

So developing talent to me is very important. I had somebody develop me; a lot of mentorship. A store manager has a team underneath him of MODs -- managers on duty -- and there's an assistant manager, a fresh area manager, a center store manager, and his job is to get them to develop their team. So communication is one of the keys. I would say that very successful store managers have great, detailed communication.

How much interaction does a store manager have with the public. Is it constant, or primarily when an issue or problem arises?

It should be constant. If they're on the floor, they see them (customers).

Are there common problems managers field, such as customers saying something didn't meet their expectations?

I would say if you have what they want, they're happy. If you don't have what they want, they're not happy. I like to see engagement with the customers. And sometimes when you're behind and get real busy, that can be an opportunity. Other than that, this store does very well with the service levels.

With the renovation, what are the expectations. Is there more pressure on Jerry to ... ?

Do better. (smiles) I won't treat him any differently than I did before, because that's the way I feel about every store, is that we should make the store better every day. One of the questions I like to ask (staff) is what did you do today to make your store better? What one thing did you do today? And if you (ask them) that often enough, they have an answer for you: "Let me show you." Everybody needs to understand that we're here to run a business. It gets back to that leadership thing. What does the Army say? It's not just a job, it's an adventure. OK, we can say that real well.

No two days are alike?

No. You receive deliveries some days and other days you don't. So on delivery days it's getting the freight that you're shipped on the shelves so it's there for the customer. Then the days that you don't get shipments, that might be a day you do more cleaning.

You wouldn't believe how often we have to clean. What you see out there doesn't just happen. Nobody realizes there are people here at nights scrubbing floors and putting wax down. There's people cleaning shelves. There are people throwing groceries and getting them on the shelves. It takes a lot to make a store look like this one does.

You've got a new deli, salad and food bars. Is part of the manager's job to sample the food occasionally to make sure it's fresh and tasty?

We do that. You don't see too many thin grocery people. (laughs)

The food bars must pass restaurant-type health inspections?

Safe food is very important to us. You've got to keep it at a certain temperature ... We have to pass them. The state comes out. We actually have our own, what we call, fresh check. There's someone that goes around and does audits and makes sure that temperatures, dates and all of the processes that we have in place are done in every store.

Why do you have so much prepared food available in the store? This area of Columbus is loaded with restaurants.

There are a lot of restaurants in this area. What we found with these (food bars) -- because I did do one just like this in Birmingham -- what you find is it becomes meal solutions. Our industry has talked about meal solutions probably the last 10 years. And we need to basically turn the dining room lights on, meaning they don't need to go out to eat to get a good meal.

But I'll go back to what I said earlier. You can only eat so much fried chicken or roasted chicken and that's what most grocery chains have. You get tired of it, so you want some variety. We've given them that ability because you can go over and get a piece of prime rib and then go to that salad bar and get two sides and it's $7.99. You can get beef brisket and two sides; you can get the rotisserie turkey and two sides, salmon and two sides. And if you don't like the sides that are showing there, you can just look behind you (at a self-help bar). But those bars were set up for quick and easy.

One of the things we like to talk about a lot in this particular company is work backwards to the customer. Think like a customer. Think: What would they like? We're in a world that runs real fast. You could go over to that barbecue bar. You pick your own thing. Whatever's on that bar: $6.99 a pound. You can put as much meat in there and a little bit of salad, or you can put a lot of salad and hardly any meat. In fact, you don't have to put meat in there. If you just want to go over there and you want beans (you can do that). ... there was a customer here yesterday that I guess they were having a party, and they asked for one of the big containers and they love our beans. There's a story behind that one.

A special recipe?

Those beans were created in Orlando, Fla., when I was there. There was a barbecue restaurant that served them that was just phenomenal. Everybody talked about their beans and when they had a party they would go to that restaurant and get big tubs of beans. I can tell you that (my family) did. Then you put it in a pot, throw bacon on it, and act like you cooked it. Everybody thinks you're a great chef, right?

But we (at Winn-Dixie) wanted to get as close to that (recipe) as possible and we had a company making it for us, and it went back and forth, I think, six times and they finally got what they wanted. And at that time every region was separate. We were all part of the same company, but our RVP, regional vice president, he ran that region completely, and if he wanted to (roll out a new product), he could do it. And our sales went up so much on (the beans) that the company said: What are y'all doing? They wanted to know what was causing it.

My RVP at the time, it was his baby. You know how that goes? "We're going to sell it all! We're going to sell a bunch!" (laughs) And he sent it to us, so we had no choice: Sell it or smell it, because it was going to go bad if we didn't. And we were sampling it (to customers) like crazy. We ended up selling so much the company wanted to know what we were doing; they came and did a visit. They sampled it and said, no wonder, and then the whole company got it.

Discuss the competition and the dynamics in Columbus.

If you look at probably any business, everybody goes to the competition. We all go to other stores and we look and say: That's a good idea. Because I'm a district director I go to 14 stores and if I see a great display, I take a picture and flip it to the team and I say I want to see this everywhere. But for a lot of years it was more about us chasing (other grocery chains) and now they chase us because they're doing a lot of things we're doing -- such as the displays up front with value in them.

How often do you get out to your stores?

It depends on the week. I try to go to the ones that need me the most, those with younger store managers, newer store managers, stores with more opportunities that I can help them with.

Anything else you would like to touch on?

I would probably say the most rewarding thing for me in 40 years is the people side of it. There's one young man who comes to mind. His dad had just died and his dad was his idol; they played softball together. It happened on his way back from a ball game. But (after his dad's death) he was hanging out with the wrong people, and I was able to get him out of that and also get him promoted. And he is still with the company today and he still calls me occasionally. I could tell you a bunch of stories of people who, when they see you, you can just see (the gratitude) in their face. Not that I need that. But it's very rewarding to know that you were able to help someone become a store director.

You become their mentor?

Yes, but it's more than that. It's actually giving them the information they need and telling them what it takes. I start on them early. If I see a young man up front and he's a bagger, (I say) "Hey, what are you going to school for? Let me just tell you my story." And I've turned some around and they've ended up staying with us, because it's great to get good people.

You plant the seeds and see if they grow?

Yeah, and you know what, it's amazing how many of them you talk to (about a career), they'll say, "I don't really know yet." (I'll say) "Have you ever thought about this business?" and they say, "No, not really." But I'm honest with them, I tell them some of the down sides. We work a lot of hours, and at times like this (store renovation) you work a lot of hours. But you do get used to it.

And holidays, when everybody else is off, we're working because we're open, and that's just part of it. But we can make up for it at other times. It's not like we don't give them days off.

But Christmas week is a big week. Thanksgiving week is the biggest week of the year. It's an eating holiday and it's all about food. That's good for us (as a company). But it's not good if you need time off.

So I tell them all of these things. But I also tell them, hey, I've been here 40 years and I'm still smiling.