Ira Kress has worked for Giant Food for 36 years, but he’s quick to tell you that longevity doesn’t necessarily indicate stability.
“I love what I do. And I love this company. But I won’t tell you that I've worked for the same company for 36 years. I technically have. But for those who know Giant over the course of the last 36 years, we’ve really changed who we are as an organization and as a business model,” the newly named president of Ahold Delhaize’s Landover, Md.-based brand, said in an interview with WGB.
Kress’ career with Giant—which dates to a part-time cashiering job when he was in college and prepping for a job in law enforcement—began while the company was still run by its family founders under visionary Israel Cohen, who built a profitable and innovative market dominator in the Washington, D.C., area. When that group relinquished control to Ahold USA in 1998, a new era began, only to encounter a period of austerity due its new parent’s 1992 accounting scandal and a subsequent integration with its sister chain Stop & Shop that many in the trade felt robbed Giant of its character. The banner in this period saw its historic power erode amid lots of new competition and leadership that in Kress’ candid estimation, was competent but not “genuine.”
Things began to change for the better, Kress said, upon the appointment of Gordon Reid as Giant president in 2013 and Ahold’s merger with Delhaize two years later. The latter event reestablished local control of the Giant brand as Reid secured new investment and began the process of bringing new momentum to Giant. When Reid departed for Stop & Shop a year ago, Kress—a veteran of the company’s human resources and operations departments—was appointed interim president. Last week, Kress was given the president title formally.
Kress is taking the reins at what looks to be the dawn of another new era, if not for Giant then the industry as a whole: navigating a destabilized post-COVID world. And like other assignments in his career—that part-time cashier job turned into a management training program, 10 years in operations, 20 in human resources and labor relations, then a switch back to operations before assuming the interim president role a year ago—he’s taking it in stride.
Being president “was not a role I either anticipated or had my sights set on,” he confesses. “I was very comfortable as the SVP of operations. I had huge connections with the business and the leadership team setting the strategy for Giant Food at the time with our operating committee. In one sense, there was a lot to learn—and there has been a lot—just as I have been learning every day of my career, and I truly enjoy that. But in another sense, I was very comfortable with the strategy because I was part of helping to develop it with Gordon and with [Chief Merchandising Officer] Tonya Herring, and with several others on the leadership team.”
The Past Matters
Several times during the course of the interview, Kress notes the importance of looking back to understand where the business is today—and looking at today as a means to forecast to where the business will be in the months ahead.
For these reasons, he said he took on the new role with the understanding he was to continue to build on the momentum of his predecessor.
“When I stepped into the job day one … my intent was not to keep the business afloat, it was not to keep it from going off the rails. My job was to continue to move the business forward, and do so with the tremendous leadership team and store teams and associates that we have,” he said. “To just sit there and make sure the boat doesn’t rock? They could have put anybody in that role. I really wanted to move the business forward. And I'm very, very fortunate to say that we’ve been able to do that. We didn’t change the strategy, what we did was continue to implement it and enhance it every week with the help of 18,000 associates.”
To just sit there and make sure the boat doesn’t rock? They could have put anybody in that role. I really wanted to move the business forward. And I'm very, very fortunate to say that we’ve been able to do that.
Kress describes a culture at Giant that is “very much different than it was” in 2013, when Reid arrived. Back then, he said, “our stores were subpar and our controls within those stores were subpar, and we already were a very high cost business. We’re one of the very few union operators in the marketplace. So if you have a high costs, you don’t run good stores and you’re not really, really focused on the details, then there’s no way you're going to be able to produce a level of success that allows you to improve. That’s effectively the wheel that we’ve started to spin now.
“Collectively, we were able to build a culture that is today much different than it was, really focused on caring for our communities and in one another,” he added. “And managing through a level of respect vs. fear and intimidation.”
This momentum has proven vital as Kress and Giant confronted the disruption and danger of operating as an essential business while the ongoing COVID-19 crisis shut down much of the economy.
“What I’ve learned the most during this crisis is that what we’ve done in the past really matters,” he said. “It matters with our associates. And it matters with our customers. Had we not done the work we had to build a level of loyalty with our customers, we wouldn’t have made it this far. And if we hadn’t done what we’ve done over the last several years to gain the trust and respect and commitment of our associates, they wouldn’t show up to work. But they’re showing up for Giant, and they’re also showing up in large part because of the customers and communities that they serve. Nobody was mandated to go to work. In fact, we made it easier for folks to take off.”
As the crisis evolved, Kress described making “thousands of decisions” to make Giant safer for its customers and associates amid shifting safety recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and evolving federal, state and local regulations—and weaving them into Giant’s strategy.
“Every single one of those decisions was made first and foremost with, how do we best keep our associates and customers safe? Candidly, the only way to keep everybody safe would have been closing the doors: Everybody stay home, and we’re out of it. But how do we continue to keep both our customers and destination safe and do what we do best, which is serve our communities when they need us most?”
At Giant these decisions included implementing enhanced sanitation and cleaning procedures, installing plexiglass barriers at checkout, limiting store capacity and hours of operation and procuring face coverings for workers—and asking customers to the same. It also asked shoppers to limit purchases on some items that saw high demand or supply issues.
“Not every decision we took was received positively,” Kress noted. “Candidly, the opposite was true. Virtually every decision that we made was the best of bad decisions. Requiring customers to wear face masks, even when the states had, was met by applause and by boos.”
Giant stores have signage clearly communicating safety policy—and in many cases, greeters will remind shoppers of mask policy as they enter—but the company has been careful to keep employees “out of harm’s way” when it comes to enforcement. In the same way, cashiers are not being tasked to enforce item purchase limits, Kress explained.
“We’ve been as open and upfront and genuine about these decisions as we possibly can and making sure that we’re constantly communicating to everyone not only what we’re doing but why we’re doing [it],” he said. “There’s also a level of empathy along with that, because we recognize that everything we do hasn’t been perfect.”
The Tale of the Tape
While the restrictions that have come along with the pandemic have proven a boon to sales—and a burden on costs—for food stores, Kress said he’s judging Giant’s performance by more than near-term financial measures.
“It’s important to be better than the other guys, always. But I wouldn’t say that I would measure that by sales. We’re getting our fair share. But for me, the way to measure if we’re better than the competition and winning, is what happens week in, week out. And what happens in the customer and associate comments that I receive, and what happens a month and two months and six months from now.
“But for me, this crisis hasn’t been ‘go after every dollar in sales.’ It truly has been continuing in your strategy, and drive your business. You know, we say we make ‘Great Food Easy.’ We’ve been leaning on the ‘easy’ part of that, maybe more than the ‘great food’ part of that because we’ve gotten rid of our hot bar operations and some of the prepared food business. We say, ‘The little things are Giant.’ And we’ve really leaned in on that, because every interaction and moment and little decision we make matters.”
This crisis hasn’t been ‘go after every dollar in sales.’ It truly has been continuing in your strategy, and drive your business.
Kress acknowledged that Giant, with 163 stores in the wealthy greater Washington area, has a formidable competitive set. “You can shop anywhere you want around here in a 5-mile radius. You have Walmart, Target, BJ's, Costco, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Wegmans—you name it—and you don't have to drive far, but I need you to choose me. Why? Because you trust me and I delivered the best experience. And my hope is, they remember that six months from now. That’s where the tale of the tape is.”
To continue Giant’s strategy, Kress said the company would continue to expand omnichannel behind its rebranded delivery experience—now known as Giant Delivers—and expansion of stores offering click-and-collect. Another challenge is determining how to best express its "Great Food Easy" positioning in a post-COVID world.
“How would we best serve our customers as they may be staying in more and cooking more? It may not be prepared foods, but it may be meal solutions that we’re not providing today. So we have teams today looking at that very subject. Now, we don’t know what we don’t know, but we certainly have enough to see some form of some of these things on the horizon. So for me, it’s, it's about really having an integrated omnichannel merchandising business so that ultimately we can deliver what he or she wants, whenever, wherever and however they want it works and where and how she wants it. And that has shifted in COVID, and it will continue to remain shifted in some degree.”