Gietzen Is Team Player

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Jeff Gietzen has a really strong grasp of the concept of “team.”

He sees his role as vice chair and CEO of D&W Food Centers as a team role, pointing out that it has taken all the members of the team to make D&W what it is and it will take all the members of the team to make D&W what it’s going to be.

“What I’ve been able to do is because of what we’ve been able to do,” he says.

It seems “Team D&W” isn’t just an empty company slogan.

Gietzen’s history with D&W dates back to 1976. His first job was bagging groceries while a student at Grand Rapids Community College. He toyed with the idea of a career in dentistry, but decided instead to transfer to Western Michigan University to pursue a business degree.

He continued working at D&W in a variety of retail store positions throughout college, and when a full-time store manager position opened up, his father encouraged him to apply for it because D&W “seemed like a good company that was growing.”

“I thought I’d stay with D&W while finishing school and for as long as it made sense. About a year or so later, one of my better decisions was to marry the boss’s daughter,” he joked.

He said the marriage wasn’t a guarantee of future opportunities in senior management, but having come from what he describes as “a great family with a great work ethic,” he was convinced that if he worked hard the opportunities would come. And they did.

In 1980 he moved up to the D&W corporate office and into the scanning information technology area. Up to that point, the company had yet to introduce scanning registers.

“I come more from the analytical processing side of the mind, so it was really a good fit,” Gietzen recalled.

He spent about four years helping D&W get established in the retail automation side of the business. In the mid-1980s, he took on the job of vice president of operations and two years later moved into sales and merchandising.

In 1990 Gietzen was promoted to president and chief operating officer. In 1994, he was promoted to the position of vice chairman, president and CEO. In the spring of 2000, he assumed the position of vice chair and CEO.

Like Gietzen, a significant number of D&W executives in director-level management or above worked their way up the corporate ladder from entry-level retail positions, said Doug Blease, president and COO, adding that that base of experience greatly benefits decision making.

Gietzen credits much of D&W’s success to “the great company values” established in the early 1970s by Bob Woodrick, son of D&W founder Roy Woodrick. The senior Woodrick started the business in 1943 with partner Sid DeVries. Today, the company operates 26 retail stores and employs about 3,700 “associates.”

The D&W corporate philosophy, Gietzen said, speaks “very clearly about meeting the needs of customers, associates and the community. Bob really breathed the personality into what we today would call our culture. He likes people, he respects people and wants people to respect each other.”

People are what keep Gietzen coming back day after day. He enjoys the people with whom he works, as well as the challenges of the job.

The company has not only full-time management people but part-time associates who have been with the company for 20 to 25 years. He attributes that longevity to the company’s belief “in the care of and concern for people.”

“It’s great to see customers who enjoy D&W and not just because of the food,” Gietzen said. “We get a lot of credit for great training but it’s really our associates at the retail level who help reinforce the right way to take care of a customer.”

In the 1990s, Gietzen became more involved in the business from a leadership standpoint. He’s particularly proud of the team the company has built, which he said is comprised of people who have different skills but similar values.

He’s also proud of the distinct D&W personality the team has created and nurtured over the years. The opening of the Walker store in 1980 was a defining moment and a real departure for the company in that it set a new look and feel for D&W. It was a lot more upscale. Prior to that, the stores were nice but they didn’t make the statement that they do now, Gietzen observed.

“I think we’ve done a very nice job of bringing that look and feel forward where the personality and identity is even more pronounced than it was.

“We’ve also done a pretty good job of staying current and avant-garde. We try to be out there anticipating customers’ needs and putting some programs in place before customers even know they want them. We’ve kept that entrepreneurial spirit alive even as we’ve gotten bigger.”

Strategizing is a significant part of his current role. He gathers information and insight from industry contacts and trade associations and serves as “a conduit of information” for the D&W team, he said. His responsibilities include ensuring that shareholders’ interests in the business are properly managed, and making sure the business stays stable and financially healthy.

“One of the things we want to do is continue improve our overall performance not just financially, but in terms of customer service and associate satisfaction,” he said.

To that end, the company announced last month its plan to expand in two directions. In a diversification strategy designed to capture a piece of the “price-valued” consumer market, the company will build six Save-A-Lot stores in West Michigan and operate them as a separate entity and new division of D&W.

D&W stores will continue to target the more affluent customer, while the Save-A-Lots will cater to the more price-conscious customer.

The company will open its first Save-A-Lot in St. Joseph this month and four additional stores in Muskegon, Jenison, Grand Haven and Allendale before the end of this year. The Beckwith D&W also will be converted and reopened as a Save-A-Lot in October, though the free-standing D&W pharmacy will remain at that location.

Next year, the company will open six to 10 additional Save-A-Lot stores in markets yet to be announced.

“It’s safe to say we will include West Michigan,” Blease noted. “We’re also looking outside our current market so it’s not impossible that we’ll move a little further east with the Save-A-Lots if the opportunities are there.”

The company’s long-term goal is to maintain “great positioning” in West Michigan and keep an eye open for future opportunities that might arise down the road in other Michigan markets, Blease added.

Under Gietzen’s leadership over the last 10 years, the company has enhanced its community involvement, Blease pointed out.

“Jeff and the team have grown that commitment, and one of our very important thumbprints of success is giving back to the communities in which we do business. I think we’re a healthier company today on many fronts than we were 10 years ago.”

Gietzen currently serves on seven boards and committees and says whenever and whatever he gets involved in, it’s for a purpose: it either ties back to D&W, or promotes some key D&W value such as social justice or diversity, or it ties back to his family.

“Our success is really based on how well the community supports us, so we have a direct obligation to support the community.”   

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