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Retailers

1-on-1 With Wakefern COO Joe Sheridan

WGB’s July Endcap guest discusses playing to win at every aisle and checkout
Wakefern COO Joe Sheridan
Illustration by Olivier Balez

Joe Sheridan is president and COO of Keasbey, N.J.-based Wakefern Food Corp., the largest retailer-owned cooperative in the United States.

Welcome to Endcap, Joe! Let’s begin with a question about your vast industry experience. Excluding your current role, which of your former roles do you have a special fondness for and why?

I’ve spent my entire career at Wakefern, but my life changed in 1980 when I became a category manager in our grocery division. That promotion really fueled my fire for this business. It was also the same year that I got married and graduated from college by taking night courses, so it was a defining period of my life in so many important ways. That role was the first time I began working hand in hand with members of our cooperative—and it’s when my love of competition really took off. I just fell in love with the culture of Wakefern and really started to understand and appreciate that our members were passionately committed to their family businesses. They were playing to win. Almost 40 years later, as I work with the younger generations of the same families, those lessons I learned in that role remain among the most important.

An observer was recently quoted as calling you a “maestro” because you make being the leader of the largest retailer-owned cooperative in the nation and the largest private employer in the state of New Jersey look easy. But we all know your job is anything but easy. Which of your personality traits do you feel has served you best in your role, and why?

I treat everyone in my life—both at work and at home—with respect, and I always try to communicate with honesty and clarity. I’ve found that these three qualities—respect, honesty and clarity—are the foundation of all great relationships, and that’s how you build mutual trust. And where there is mutual trust, there is a clear path to achieving great things.

Wakefern is made up of more than 50 different “families” who independently own and operate 354 stores flying the ShopRite, Price Rite Marketplace, The Fresh Grocer and Dearborn Market banners. But as we know, families can be complicated, so how do you make the diversity in ranks of your co-op’s member families work so well?

Family dynamics absolutely lend a unique dimension to our business, and they’ve certainly led to some spirited discussions here at Wakefern! Many of our members are second-, third- and fourth-generation supermarket operators with strong opinions, which help shape the decisions we make and which ultimately make us all better. Our members are entrepreneurs who are running their own family companies, and they really want to win. They hate to lose. We are here to help them win and all of us working together makes for that unstoppable formula for success.

Wakefern is actively testing artificial intelligence and next-generation learnings to enhance the retail experience. What do you find most fascinating about the experiments thus far?

Over the next five years, we will see advances in AI and next-generation learning that will completely change the shopping experience and transform the landscape of retail. AI is a game changer that affects everything, from stocking shelves to floor cleaning. For example, it allows us to precisely track inventory and ensure that we have the right product in the right store at the right time. This makes product sourcing more efficient and also reduces waste.

At the same time, we are also investing in next-generation learning and personalized training for retail associates to help them leverage these advances and provide the human connection, which is so important. And that combination of AI and a merchant’s gut feel for the business is where the magic will happen and how we are going to win against the tech giants.

You were quoted as saying, “We are a company that has a soul and a culture that gives back.” What are the elements that best describe Wakefern’s soul?

We are a company with a genuine soul, and giving back is a defining aspect of our unique culture at Wakefern. We have third- and fourth-generation grocers who live and work in the neighborhoods their supermarkets serve. And the 50 independently owned family businesses that make up our cooperative support causes important to their friends, neighbors and customers. For some, that means reaching out to help our veterans; for others, it means donating to diabetes research or serving on the board of a hospital.

And it is only natural that we are all committed to tackling hunger. More than 40 million Americans don’t know when, where or how they’ll be getting their next meal. For 20 years, our ShopRite Partners in Caring initiative has reached out to help. We have donated nearly $50 million to soup kitchens, food pantries, homeless shelters and other charities that are on the front lines of the fight against hunger.

One of the best parts of my job at Wakefern is leading that charge to pay it forward. And it’s easy to do here at Wakefern because we have associates who are engaged, committed and paying it forward themselves. In June, for example, hundreds of Wakefern associates and their families volunteered at the Special Olympics New Jersey Summer Games. Every year, it’s such a great event where we spend a weekend cooking meals for the athletes and families at the games.

Lightning Round

What is your least favorite business jargon term?

I have two: “Paradigm shift” and “Think outside the box.”

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Dean Janeway, our former COO, once told me, “Listen to what others are saying. It may seem trivial to you, but it’s important to them.”

Which words or phrases do you most overuse at the moment?

“Inflection point.”

What’s your favorite book of all time, and why?

“The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand. It’s the first book I read that focused on the philosophy of the individual.

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