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Save-On-Foods – Rising Through The Ranks

Brenda Kirk, senior vice president of merchandising at Save-On-Foods and The Pattison Food Group, talks about glass ceilings, leadership and growth for women in grocery

Before she returned to Save-On-Foods’ headquarters in 2012, Brenda Kirk spent three decades moving between the Langley, B.C.-based company’s retail operations and office.

“When people ask me which I like better, I tell them I love both,” says Kirk, who was named senior vice president of merchandising last October after three years as vice president, merchandising, centre of store and drugstore. “By now, I’ve probably spent a little bit more time in the office and I’ve learned and grown so much from this experience. But working in the stores means working directly with customers and front-line team members, and stores have such a unique personality and culture—they’re so dynamic day-to-day, they’re such a family.”

While there’s no doubt that the dynamic, family-like culture at Save-On-Foods has supported and shaped Kirk’s career, one can easily make the case that Kirk has likewise been an influential force in the company— and in the industry—where she’s worked since she was 17 years old, when she was hired as a cashier in Nanaimo.

Kirk showed potential from the start and quickly forged a path to career advancement that, at the time, was considered atypical in the grocery business. Instead of working her way around and up the retail ranks, Kirk moved back and forth between stores to office and then back to store.

“Back then, if you were a woman, you’d be a deli clerk or a front-end cashier, and there was typically little to no path forward for you in the store,” Kirk recalls. “So I took a junior job in our head office just so I could learn more, then I went back to the store in a midmanagement role.”

She went back to head office and spent another six years in various roles, including merchandising, category management and pricing, before becoming store manager in the company’s Smart Market location—a fully automated concept store that featured electronic shelf labels, self-scanning and computerassisted ordering.

A history-making appointment

That appointment marked a milestone for Kirk and Save-On-Foods: for the first time in the company’s history, a woman held the role of store manager.

“One of the reasons I got that role was because, by then, I had amassed such a broad knowledge of the grocery business,” says Kirk. “But it was not the traditional path to go from head office to store, so some people were surprised, and perhaps disappointed, that I was given the job.”

That did not slow her down. From store manager, Kirk continued to move up the ranks at Save-On-Foods, taking on progressively senior roles that subsequently took her out of the store again and into management roles in head office. Her growing expertise did not go unnoticed in the industry, which gave her a number of leadership awards over the years.

Mike Ruff, president at PepsiCo Beverages Canada, says the accolades are well-deserved.

“She has such great breadth and depth of experience within the industry—she knows how to get things done, whether it’s in the stores or leveraging her many years partnering with manufacturers and suppliers at head office. She’s kind of seen it all.”

He adds that she has “natural curiosity about anything and everything to do with the grocery business. That makes it easy to talk and collaborate with her.”

A vastly different merchandising landscape

Today, Kirk leads a merchandising department that’s vastly different from the landscape she had explored and learned so well as a new and upcoming employee.

“When I first came to merchandising, it was very basic, focused primarily on the four Ps: price, promotion, product and placement,” she says. “It’s evolved dramatically over the years.”

She points to a number of factors that have driven big changes in merchandising: digital technology, data analytics and the ongoing integration of supply chain, merchandising, marketing and e-commerce.

“The other big thing is how the customer plays into this,” says Kirk. “In the past, you decided what you put in front of the customer based on your understanding of the path to purchase and what you want them to buy. Today, it’s so different because customers are on an ongoing digital journey. They have technology at their fingertips; they can research products and buy from anywhere.”

Today’s customers are in control of their shopping journey, says Kirk, “so that changes your thinking.”

Engaging with customers before they even walk into the store is key, she says. The wealth of data available to retailers enables them to understand how customers engage online with particular brands and how that influences their in-store purchases. This also helps with customer retention or re-acquisition efforts, allowing retailers to identify top customers or those who have not purchased for a while.

While this has opened up more opportunities to boost sales and cross-sales, grocers today also face more competition, says Kirk.

“Our competitors have changed dramatically,” she says. “Costco and Walmart are picking up share, so we really have to make sure we have strong positioning in the market, with a strong brand. This doesn’t necessarily mean trying to be cheapest but more about making sure the customer has a good experience, both in-store and online.”

Kirk says she continues to draw on her years of working in-store as she advances the company’s merchandising strategy, which is built on a customerfirst approach.

“The beauty of growing up in-store is that you never lose sight of the customer,” she says. “Even with all the customer data available to you, the customer will always be that person you’ve come to know in the store. But now there are so many ways of communicating with that customer, and the same customer might shop online and in store, or maybe decide to only shop online because of COVID. It’s a really interesting dynamic and it continues to change.”

A “huge role model” and promoter of women in leadership

Kirk’s efforts at Save-On-Foods go beyond merchandising. Jamie Nelson, executive vice president at Save-On-Foods and chief operating officer at parent company Pattison Food Group, says Kirk’s career trajectory has provided a template for success for fellow employees.

“She’s been a huge role model and is probably the best example in our company of someone who was so determined to succeed and get to the executive level,” he says. “She’s so driven—she’s always pushing to be better and to do things better—and she’s gained the respect of the entire organization.”

“They had a female leadership program and that became a catalyst for the program that we have today”

Brenda Kirk

Kirk has also been instrumental in advancing the company’s diversity and inclusion goals, especially where women are concerned. She has always been passionate about supporting women and helping them navigate their way through their careers. She helped champion the creation of a company program whose mandate would be to move more women into leadership roles at Save-On-Foods. The program began with a handful of committees and consultations with grocery industry veterans.

Save-On-Foods’ acquisition of several Safeway stores in 2014 gave the program an instant boost, recalls Kirk.

“They had a female leadership program and that became a catalyst for the program that we have today,” she says.

The program that Save-On-Foods called The Inspire Network started primarily with educational and networking activities focused on advancing more women up the ranks and evolved into growth and development of all promising talent. In its first year, Inspire had a strictly female membership but by the second year, men started joining as well.

Today, men account for 30 per cent of Inspire members. Getting everyone—not just women—on board has been critical to the program’s success, says Kirk.

The numbers certainly show progress. When Inspire launched, Save-On-Foods had eight female store managers. Today, the company counts 32 women in this role, representing about 17 per cent of all store managers, says Nelson.

An amazing journey in a great organization and industry

While she’s encouraged by the growing ranks of female managers, Kirk says there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“We’re growing faster than we’re moving women into leadership roles,” she says. “Right now, we are focused on middle management and ensuring we have women ready to make the move to this level and we are now sitting at over 50 per cent.”

To give up-and-coming employees a glimpse of career possibilities at Save-On-Foods and to get a sense of their leadership potential, Kirk and other senior executives personally take junior female managers to Toronto, where they visit stores, suppliers, perhaps do some strategic planning work and attend awards banquets for female leaders in the industry.

“It’s quite exciting for them, and for me,” says Kirk. “I’ve enjoyed such an amazing journey in such a great organization and industry. I hope to help others have a similar experience.”

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