CINCINNATI - When the Kroger Co. announced plans to hire 14,000 new employees last month, they didn’t mention it would happen all at once.
But CEO Rodney McMullen revealed Wednesday that Kroger has already hired 11,436 new employees since hosting its 35-state job fair May 14, including 829 in Cincinnati. The one-day event produced 116,000 new job applications.
“People understand you can make a career out of it,” McMullen said in a 40-minute interview at the Kroger Marketplace store in Oakley. “If you like people and you like food, it’s a wonderful place to be.”
The hiring blitz brings total Kroger employment to more than 440,000 at roughly 3,700 stores nationwide and 22,000 locally. The company added 78,000 jobs in the last eight years.
In the wide-ranging interview, McMullen addressed topics ranging from Amazon’s growth in the Tri-State to Kroger’s evolving relationship with Procter & Gamble. He also offered some advice for those new hires. If they want to advance like he did – from a stockroom clerk to CEO over 36 years – the key character traits are “the love of people” and "helping people grow," he said.
“I always make sure they're a little uncomfortable,” McMullen said. “Almost everybody I've ever met can do a lot more than they realize and helping somebody build that confidence helps them understand that they can actually do a lot more than they thought they could. I was fortunate to have a boss early in my career that did that.”
That boss was Bill Sinkula, Kroger’s former chief financial officer, who sent a 28-year-old McMullen to a Kroger board meeting to explain how the company could thwart a hostile takeover attempt in the 1980s.
“Knowing what I know today, I didn’t do that good a job,” McMullen said. “But he saw what I could become versus what I was. The board did as well.”
As the top executive for Cincinnati's biggest company, McMullen manages a $110 billion enterprise that's growing at a rapid clip, thanks to acquisitions and a data-driven marketing strategy that builds customer loyalty and predictably grows revenue and profits. But there are competitive threats, including the U.S. expansion of the German grocery chain, Lidl, and encroachment into the grocery space by Amazon.
McMullen addressed these and other topics with WCPO. Here are excerpts:
WCPO: There are at least four companies running home-delivery services for groceries in Cincinnati now. When will Kroger add that option here?
McMullen: We’ve done home delivery in Colorado for a long time. It is very complicated and difficult to do. Right now, we’re focused on making sure that we have ClickList scaled for the potential, based on what customers are telling us. There are a couple of other tests we’re doing on delivery. But we don’t have a timeline to bring it to Cincinnati.
WCPO: Have you tried Amazon’s home delivery product?
McMullen: It would be hard to find a competitor that I haven’t tried.
WCPO: You want to critique it?
McMullen: I focus a lot more energy on learning from competitors than saying what they do wrong. I’m much more focused on what we can learn from it.
WCPO: Wal-Mart, Amazon or Lidl: Who is the bigger threat?
McMullen: We focus all our energy on what does the customer want and how are we delivering against what the customer wants. I mean, we get feedback every single day on how we did taking care of customers.
You look at every competitor and learn from them. But I don’t look at Publix, Wegman, the hundred restaurants that opened up last week or Amazon or Wal-Mart. I don’t put them in different buckets because each one of them have something they’re doing for a customer that’s unique. I worry about everybody.
WCPO: As Kroger expands its private-label brands to household products, it’s becoming more of a rival to Procter & Gamble Co. How do you do that without straining your business relationship with P&G?
McMullen: We’re much more focused on expanding the market rather than how do I get somebody to move from your product to my product. So far, what we’ve been able to do is expand the category. That’s been true for the last ten years.
WCPO: You also compete for talent with P&G. Is there ever a time when the business partnership gets uncomfortable?
McMullen: Not since I’ve been in a position of knowing. (Former P&G CEO) A.G. Lafley and I had an incredible relationship. If both of us were in town and had some time, we would meet up at lunch and walk a Kroger store. He’s an incredible executive and a great human being. He did a lot to help me learn. But we also can help P&G learn and give them insights.