Southerners are familiar with the name Publix. The supermarket chain is more than a thousand stores strong, with something in the neighborhood of 150,000 employees. They embrace a family friendly attitude from top to bottom in their business model, and prize superior customer service above price. It’s a formula that works, and has worked amazingly well for more than 80 years.
The Publix chain of supermarkets wasn’t founded by a consortium of monied elitists or a multi-national corporation based in Europe. It started as a single store in 1930, founded by an independent grocer who made the bold decision to open up his shop next door to a chain store.
That store placement wasn’t accidental, either. The man who developed the idea of Publix supermarkets and implemented it so flawlessly had been the store manager at that chain market, until he was insulted by upper management so badly that he decided to compete with them rather than continue to work for them and be diminished as an unappreciated employee.
That disgruntled store manager was named George Jenkins, and he knew something that his former employer apparently didn’t — people shop where they feel they’re appreciated, and employees feel loyalty to a company that believes loyalty is a two-way street. Those simple paradigms of business led George Jenkins and his little start-up company on a journey that has been on a rocket-powered upward trajectory for generations.
Now it might seem crazy to open up your undercapitalized, small time, mom and pop shop right next door to a chain store that has resources and pricing advantages that you just can’t match. It wasn’t, though. George Jenkins not only survived in that first Publix store, he thrived. He worked hard, paid close attention to his customers, and grew the business at every opportunity.
The chain store went bust, by the way. They closed down the shop that George went into competition with, done in by the exceptional quality of service that customers could avail themselves of just one door away.
How is it, you may ask, that George Jenkins, a simple grocery store manager, could develop a business model that would succeed in good times and in bad? What made his method of designing and running a store so successful when others who had greater potential squandered their opportunities and failed in the long run? Well, to be honest, the full answer to that question is a long one that requires multiple Powerpoint presentations, an executive summary printed on high quality paper in full color, a minimum of three consulting firms, and a catered lunch to fully explain it. The short answer is close to accurate though: He bagged groceries.
Seriously! George Jenkins bagged groceries for his customers. Not just in the beginning when he was a hard-working, highly ambitious 23 year old running a small shop and trying to make a good impression during the depths of the Great Depression, either. George was still bagging groceries as a means of market research when he was well into middle age, even though he was the big man at a company that was growing by leaps and bounds.
A share of Publix stock purchased in 1958 was worth $2.50. By 1969 that share was worth $44. Yeah, that’s success no matter how you slice it.
That’s a critical feature in the success of Publix, too. George believed that not only should the customer feel as if they matter, so should the employees. Because of that belief, the issuance of Publix stock became a feature of employment at the company. Today, Publix is the largest employee-owned company in the United States, with sales in the neighborhood of $27 billion. And the only way you can get a share of Publix stock is to work there.
Yep, that bag boy and the kid behind the deli counter are looking pretty good, financially.
Now contrast that story with any start-up in the aviation industry today. The Great Depression was worse than our current conditions are. There is no big national chain looming over most of us, intimidating us and trying to steal our precious customers. And there is no reason we can’t incentivize working at our companies with a perk that would make every pilot, mechanic, and manager in the industry at least consider sending their resume our way.
Sure, it’s a tough road when you get into business. That’s especially true when you get into a niche business like aviation, where most of the population doesn’t see themselves playing a role or even caring about us for the most part. But we matter, and we know it. So let me encourage you to take a page from George Jenkins’ book, or Bill Gates’ or any one of a hundred success stories in businesses that came out of nowhere to lead their respective industries.
We can reinvent our industry. We can build a clientèle that will fill our schedules and order books for generations, and we can encourage an employee base that will be happy at work for a long, long time. All we need to do is know we can do it, set our minds to finding success in the market, and put ourselves out there to start bagging groceries and talking to our customers every day.
If a 23-year-old kid with a high-school education could figure this out, we can too. Let’s make it happen.
Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to FlightMonkeys.com. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.
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