Putting trust where others don't dare

Jeff Brown (center), CEO of Brown’s Super Stores Inc., with (from left) Tammy Wilson, Lashawna Reddy, Tyrone Page and William Banks, associates at his Parkside store on North 52d Street in Philadelphia.

They don't run many big supermarkets the way Jeff Brown runs his 10 ShopRites in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey.

And employees couldn't be happier about it.

Cashiers, clerks, and stock people, among the several thousand who keep things humming at the family-owned chain, have crowned Brown's Super Stores Inc. the top-rated large employer in the region this year.

A hands-off management style, along with the company's nationally acclaimed commitment to open stores in communities long-ago abandoned by the industry, are among the big reasons the Northeast Philadelphia native has earned high praise from workers.

Here is a sampling of praise from the survey commissioned by The Inquirer:

Employees are treated "with dignity and respect," wrote one worker.

"I am given autonomy to get the work done in the style that I prefer," wrote another.

"I have the freedom to run my store like I own it," said another.

"It gives associates the ability to think and create rather than just follow directions," another said.

"Management treats people with respect." And, this worker added, there are "always opportunities to advance."

The kudos come just weeks after Brown (who learned the ropes as a youngster in his father's supermarket at 40th and Girard) sat with first lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union Address in January.

Brown, 46, and his company have become entrepreneurial poster children for opening supermarkets in neighborhoods that many chains dismiss as too poor to sustain full-service grocery stores with fresh food.

Why the worker worship?

In a word: Trust.

In an industry where megamergers have concentrated supermarket decision-making into the hands of corporate chieftains in faraway headquarters, Brown's still runs things more like a small business.

The company trusts employees to make big decisions, allows them to make and learn from mistakes without retribution, and believes that - brace yourselves, Wharton gurus - too many managers can often muss things up.

"He really challenges the people within the departments and the department heads, our union members, to come up with ideas - to try things," said Wendell Young IV, who represents about 2,000 of Brown's workers at nine Pennsylvania stores as president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1776.

"In all the years we've been dealing with him, we've never had one case go to arbitration," said Young, who has known Brown since he opened his first store in 1989.

"I'll explain to you the economic model of my mind," Brown said as he explained that too many managers were costly and counterproductive at companies.

"They've made the ultimate mistake of permanently adding costs to a system that doesn't need it," he said. "They pay supervisors to supervise the department managers."

Another way his chain is different from much of the competition is how most of its new stores are in urban neighborhoods such as West Philadelphia and Southwest Philadelphia. Others shun those zip codes, saying the risks outweigh revenue potential.

He has made it work by collaborating with state officials through the Fresh Food Financing Initiative.

Even though profit margins in the supermarket business are extremely low, he said, even his urban stores were making money.

"With the city stores, I really seem to have a big impact on people's lives," he said, "on someone that doesn't often find people care about them."

Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com.