For Kroger manufacturing, it takes a village

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For Kroger manufacturing, it takes a village

By Lawrence Aylward - 02/26/2018
Erin Sharp (right) confers with a Kroger plant employee.

I tell Erin Sharp that I would be like a lost dog in a big city if I had to oversee just one of The Kroger Co.’s manufacturing plants. Sharp, Kroger’s group vice president of manufacturing, oversees 36 of the supermarket chain’s 38 plants around the country, which make dairy, bakery and other food products for the Cincinnati-based retailer’s Our Brands products.

I ask Sharp, who has been in her role at Kroger for more than six years, how she does it. I mean, 36 plants!

In answering the question, others might wax about what they learned over the years to get where they are now — positions of vast responsibility. And, considering their authority, I would welcome that. But Sharp answers the question in five words, speaking softly and humbly.

“I have a good team,” she says.

I don’t doubt that for a second, but a good team begins with good leadership, and a key to being a good leader is realizing it’s not about you.

I spent about 90 minutes talking with Sharp recently when at Kroger’s headquarters to interview her and others for this our recent cover story on Kroger being our 2018 Retailer of the Year. Sharp didn’t talk much about herself, but she talked at length about the plants’ employees, whom she calls “associates.” Sharp empowers them to take charge, even when it comes to suggesting new ideas for Kroger’s Our Brands products.

A few years ago, Sharp challenged the associates at a Kroger dairy plant in Winchester, Ky., which makes Kroger’s no-fat, high-protein CARBmaster yogurt, to come up with an idea for a new product to be made on an idle line in the plant. A team of associates got together, studied their options and came up with an idea to manufacture CARBmaster smoothies. The associates presented their idea to Gil Phipps, Kroger’s vice president of Our Brands. Phipps liked it. Soon, the idle line was making the CARBmaster smoothies.

“The product idea was all plant-driven,” Sharp says.

Sharp wants plant associates to know how vital they are to Kroger’s success, from innovation to quality to food safety.

“They know that if our customers are not buying the products we manufacture, then we won’t need our plants,” she says.

Her statement is not meant as a message to associates that they better do their jobs or else. It’s about letting them know how important they are to the process.

Sharp visits about one plant a week. I ask her if she has a favorite plant that she likes to visit, and her response is a mixture of shriek and laughter.

“I can’t answer that,” she says with wide eyes and an I -can’t-believe-you-asked-me that grin. “That’s like asking me who my favorite child is!”

Sharp didn’t answer the question … but she did. It’s about the team, after all.

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