If you live in the region, chances are this woman has fed you.

She's Judith A. Spires, president of Acme Markets Inc., and on March 12, the checkout-girl-turned-bigwig will receive the Paradigm Award, an annual tribute to a female chief executive in the region that's given out by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.

Spires, 55, has spent 30 years in the grocery business. The Cherry Hill native and daughter of an Acme truck driver was 16 when she took a part-time job at Acme to earn money for college.

She oversees 16,000 Acme employees in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Her company, owned by Supervalu Inc., is the region's sales leader.

We had a chat with Spires on Friday at the Paoli Acme.

Question: Have you stopped to wonder how it is that people in this area came to start calling this supermarket . . .

Answer: Acme in three syllables?

Q: . . . The ACK-uh-me

A: Exactly.

Q: What's that about? Do you correct people?

A: No. We love it.

Q: Where did it come from?

A: You know, Acme started here, and we have a wonderful local accent. It's our Philadelphia accent.

Q: It's a Greek word!

A: A Greek word for excellence.

Q: Let's go back to the Road Runner. All those explosives were "Acme" products.

A: But they weren't called ACK-uh-me products. [She smiles.] It's our wonderful customer base who lovingly refer to it as that. And we treasure that.

Q: In the food business, competition is tough. Chains react to what's successful in a competing store and adopt it. What sets Acme apart?

A: We're the market leader, so we're in your neighborhood. We're just around the corner from everybody's house. Convenience is very high on a customer's list. . . . The Acme brand has such a breadth of hometown belief and trust. They trust us at Acme.

Q: Talk about people's grocery buying habits.

A: In the last 20 years, there was an upswing in meals away from home. [But now] . . . in the month of December, 5 percent of meals were eaten away from home, and that went down to 2.5 percent in the Philadelphia market. You can see what effect the economy is having.

Q: What did you study in college?

A: Special education. Because at that time, women could be teachers and nurses. Actually, I went into college to be a linguist at the United Nations. It seemed pretty good, to work in New York City, live in New York City, like Marlo Thomas in [the old sitcom] That Girl. . . . I started taking French in fifth grade. . . . And still, when I exercise, I do it all in French so that I keep my language going and thinking.

Q: You do what in French when you exercise?

A: Think. When I run, everything I'm thinking I say in French, so I keep my French up." [She says this with a hearty laugh.]

Q: How did you go from that to business?

A: I'd started working at Acme in high school to get money to go to college.

Q: As a cashier?

A: Right. Then, when I went to college, I stayed with them. And I absolutely fell in love with the retail business. And I knew that that's where I belonged. I didn't see any women in it. There weren't any women executives. But I knew that someday I was going to be an executive with Acme Markets, when I was in college.

Q: Was there a seminal moment when you had this epiphany?

A: What I realized was that I loved to go to work. It was never work to me. It was the positive reinforcement that you could immediately get from satisfying customers. Having your store look fabulous. Taking care of customers better than anybody else can. That daily reinforcement just turned me on to be there more, to do more.

Q: You are a runner.

A: I do three miles every morning. I've been doing it for 10 years and I love it. I get up at 5:15.

Q: Why did you start running?

A: I want to live past 100. I love life. I have so many things in life that I still want to accomplish.

Q: Talk about your experience as a woman in business.

A: I grew up in a family where there wasn't a division of, boys could do this, girls could do that. So I didn't have any preconceived notions that there were barriers to break. What I knew was, if you worked hard and you got a good education, you could be anything you wanted to be. That's how I was raised. . . . Deliver the results. Go for it. Look for more responsibility. Produce. Raise your hand. There's no reason why you can't do it.

Q: You're a can-do optimist. What's your advice to people struggling with the economy?

A: I firmly believe that when a door is closed, a window opens. You have to be out there. You have to say, so what else can I do? What are my other opportunities? . . . I've lived through recessions, I've lived through some trials and tribulations in my life. But nothing's the end of the world. I firmly believe we weren't put on this earth to be miserable.

Judith A. Spires

Age, birthplace: 55, Cherry Hill

Occupation: President, Acme Markets

Hometown: Center City

Education: Bachelor's degree in special education; M.B.A., La Salle University. Graduate of Cornell University food-executive program.

Personal: Husband, Bob, benefits plan director. Son, 23, in college. She's the middle child of five siblings. Her father drove a truck.

Hobbies: Loves to cook.

Upbringing: "When we were raised, it was not if you go to college, it was when you go to college."


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