Inside Track: Meeting people never gets stale
Grocery career has taken SpartanNash VP down many aisles.
Walking through the Breton Village D&W Fresh Market, Brian Haaraoja smiled and greeted every passing customer.
The habit is natural for Haaraoja, who started in the grocery business in 1979 at 16 years old as a bagger at the Chicago-area Jewel Food Stores and now is the vice president of fresh merchandising at SpartanNash Co. Haaraoja’s career has taken him across the country and throughout departments, but the people he interacts with remain his favorite aspect of the job.
“The consistent (aspect) of my career is the people — the customers in and out of the store and the opportunity to work with a team and mentor and develop them,” he said. “You can have a job anywhere, but the people you work with and interact with and the environment in which you do that is the difference.”
Today, Haaraoja said grocery store entry-level jobs aren’t hard to come by, as companies continue to enter the industry and give consumers more places to buy their necessities and specialty items. During Haaraoja’s early days in the business, with communities generally relying on one store, jobs bagging groceries were hard to come by for a teenager.
Luckily for Haaraoja, his father was a driver for Jewel Food Stores and was able to help his son land his first job.
“Back in the day, it wasn’t an easy job to get,” Haaraoja said. “I talk to interns or students looking at possible careers, and there are a lot opportunities in the supermarket businesses. It takes hard work and sacrifices, and you have to position yourself, but it’s a great industry.”
The food retail industry was all he knew, but Haaraoja went to Elmhurst College to wrestle before realizing a transfer to Western Michigan University and its food management program was in the cards.
At the time, Jewel Food Stores was a large supporter of the WMU program, which regularly graduated certified students in category management. Following his transfer to WMU, he finished with a bachelor of science in food distribution and went back to Chicago, where he worked for Jewel, first as store director, then supervisor and product manager. Eventually, he ran the delis for a district of stores before ascending to his final position with Jewel, category manager for meat.
His position was going to be transferred to Salt Lake City, a move Haaraoja was hesitant about, so instead, he accepted the same position with Shaw’s Supermarkets in Massachusetts.
The move was difficult, Haaraoja said, as Chicagoland was all he knew and his first daughter was 6 months old. His grandparents were upset with the move, but it’s a decision Haaraoja credits for launching his career.
“When you grow up in the same environment and company, you only know what you know,” he said. “You think you’re pretty good and think you know what you’re doing and that you’re highly thought of, but that first job change shows you a lot. In my generation, people stayed at a company forever, so I thought I’d work there forever.
“That change was a door opener and a confidence builder that said the skill set I developed is transferable to other companies and that I was appreciated.”
Haaraoja said the lateral career move was where he saw his career didn’t have a dead end and he could continue to climb. Within four years of the switch, he became Shaw’s vice president of meat and seafood.
Following a year in charge of meat and seafood, Haaraoja moved to Maryland to run the meat department at the grocery chain Giant Food. In his time with Giant Food, he also ran the deli, bakery and special projects.
His time came to an end with Giant Food when the company was forced to divest many assets, and Haaraoja found his next jump in 2004, joining Spartan Stores as vice president of fresh merchandising, which encompasses meat, seafood, floral, deli, bakery and produce.
“Spartan was struggling, but they were looking to rebuild,” he said. “It’s been a great journey going from a small company in West Michigan to now being in 44 states.”
Prior to the Spartan Stores merger with Nash Finch, Haaraoja ran fresh for two and a half years, then he ran center store — all of the products in the middle of the store — before heading to Flint to help open an office as vice president of eastern division following the acquisition of VG’s Grocery and Pharmacy in 2008.
Haaraoja returned to West Michigan as vice president of fresh merchandising in 2013, the position he still holds today. Following the merger with Nash Finch, Haaraoja’s job became exponentially more complicated, going from 350 customers to more than 1,500 customers in 44 states and from a team of 75 to a team of 205.
Rather than the one warehouse in Walker, SpartanNash now has warehouses Haaraoja must manage in Omaha, Nebraska; Fargo and Minot, North Dakota; St. Cloud, Minnesota; Lumberton, North Carolina; and Lima, Ohio.
“When you look at the way we’ve changed, I’m really proud of the ability to grow like we have,” he said. “We’ve had acquisitions, we’ve had the merger. We’ve developed all these retail formats, and to maintain them it’s a different mindset for each once.
“We think differently about managing a D&W than we do managing a Family Fare.”
As he’s been in the retail food industry for nearly 40 years, Haaraoja has seen the consumer trends change in retail while trying to figure out how to best market products throughout store footprints. The most challenging change has been the addition of retail stores, followed by the growing trend of eating out at restaurants.
Haaraoja said the trend of consumers coming to the store and looking for “clean labels” and healthier choices, along with ready-to-cook options, are the areas where SpartanNash is trying to capitalize, especially with recent D&W remodels at Breton Village and Grand Haven.
Stores such as Trader Joe’s and Fresh Thyme have taken specialty stores to a new level, while club stores — led by Meijer Inc. and taken further by Sam’s Club and Costco — have diversified traditional stores. Haaraoja looked back at his time stocking the shelves, when he stocked laundry detergents and paper towels by the pallet load nightly.
“Everyone is looking for the edge and opportunity,” Haaraoja said. “How do we get some of that business back?”
Walking the recently remodeled Breton Village D&W, Haaraoja’s passion for people, and the products they consume, clearly is evident. His desire to help consumers get the products they want most is the aspect of the job that keeps him driven.
“I love driving the sales, making the plans to bring the products to market,” he said. “I need to have that passion, that drive to help talk to the people who make the programs possible, because if you don’t, they have a harder time bringing it to life.
“The ability to come up with the details, develop and implement the ideas and to see how it does. Those are the things that get me excited about the business.”