Why grocer owner stays out of his employees' ways

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Why grocer owner stays out of his employees' ways

By Lawrence Aylward - 07/30/2019
Woodlands Market is known for its prepared foods.

Don Santa is the flip side of the get-in-your-face boss who thinks he can get the best out of his employees by getting them to despise him.

“I can’t think of one of them that I don’t love,” Santa, the founder and CEO of Woodlands Market, told me recently when discussing the Kentfield, Calif.-based independent grocer’s more than 300 employees. “That’s a good sign, right?”

Let’s put it this way: Santa could never be cast as one of the big cheeses in the next “Horrible Bosses” film.

Woodlands Market operates three specialty stores in northern California, including one in downtown San Francisco. I visited Santa recently at that location to talk about the independent grocer’s private brands, which Santa says are vital to the business, even though he operates only a few stores.

“Our commitment to private label has differentiated us,” Santa says, noting that Woodlands Market’s store brand market share is in the high single digits and growing. “We source through vendors that are typically local and of the highest quality.”

In addition to the San Francisco store, which opened in 2017, Woodlands Market operates two larger stores in Kentfield and Tiburon, Calif., which are staples in those communities.

Santa and I talked about many things prevalent to the grocer’s endurance. He began his business 32 years ago. Interestingly, his grandparents, who were Italian immigrants, opened an independent grocery store in 1910 in San Francisco and operated it for 65 years.

“I guess I recreated something that was apparently in my blood,” Santa says.

A willingness to believe in the abilities of others is also in Santa’s blood, and he thinks it has everything to do with the grocer’s fruition. After speaking to Santa for a few hours, I realized the key to Woodlands Market’s success has been Santa’s hands-off management style, which in turn affects everything the retailer does.

Santa lets his culinary-talented employees — from the resourceful chefs who create the prepared foods of which Woodlands Market is known to those in charge of finding the best private label suppliers — do their own things.

“My management style is to give [employees] a great deal of liberty and creative freedom,” Santa says.

We talk about differentiation in the private brands industry about as often as a meteorologist talks about the weather. It is the crucial element for private label distinction. But products will never differentiate without the people behind them.

Santa gets that, which is why he stays out of his people’s way and gives them the freedom to excel in their jobs.

“We are only as good as our people, and I’d say we have some of the best people in the business,” he says. “It’s as much about our people as our food.”

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