An Interview with Eric Boeding, Manger of Perishables at Hy-Vee
By Lisa Peters and Jay Turpen, Creighton University MBA students

Beginning in 1995, the Better Business Bureau of Nebraska, South Dakota, and southwest Iowa has chosen recipients for its BBB Integrity Award “whose business practices and related activities exemplify the BBB’s mission and principles, which include honesty, commitment and accountability” (http://nebraska.bbb.org). The purpose of the Integrity Award is to recognize businesses who go above and beyond in demonstrating ethical business practices while serving their customers and surrounding communities.

Hy-Vee Food Stores (headquartered in West Des Moines, Iowa) was selected as one of the 2004 BBB Integrity Award Winners for its demonstrated excellence in customer and community service. Hy-Vee is a private, employee owned grocery store chain that began in 1930, when founders Charles Hyde and David Vredenburg opened their first store in Beaconsfield, Iowa. Now, 78 years later, Hy-Vee employees more than 55,000 individuals and is best known by its slogan, “A Helpful Smile in Every Aisle.” Hy-Vee is one of the top 30 supermarket chains in the nation, with more than 225 retail stores in seven Midwestern states and over $6.2 billion in sales.

In an effort to find out what sets Hy-Vee Food Stores, the only chain grocery stores to receive the prestigious BBB Integrity Award since the award’s inception, apart from its competitors, we sat down with Mr. Eric Boeding, Manager of Pershiables of the Hy-Vee at 51st and Center, in Omaha, Nebraska.

Eric Boeding’s Journey at Hy-Vee

Eric began working at Hy-Vee at age 15, while attending high school in Burlington, Iowa. He had already learned what it meant to have a Midwest work ethic while working on a farm growing up, and continued to apply the principles he learned on the family farm to his work at Hy-Vee. This dedication and commitment is apparent still today. Hy-Vee is only interested in giving employees leadership positions in the company if the employee looks to continue and advance their career at Hy-Vee– they do not accept complacency.

Eric falls right in line with the kind of employee the company desires to have in leadership positions, as evidenced by his assent through the company. After learning the ropes at the Burlington location where Eric began his career, he took all the things he had learned to the store in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After gaining even more experience in Cedar Rap ids, Eric was promoted to a full time Shift Manager position at the Hy-Vee in Davenport, Iowa. Eric received another promotion and was moved to the West Des Moines Hy-Vee. From here, he was promoted to the position he occupies now in Omaha. As Manager of Perishables, Eric is required to ensure that Hy-Vee’s products satisfy a number of regulatory standards. His job also demands the usual managerial duties as well, and often he is faced with situations in which he must make a decision or help an employee make a decision that is ethically right. Eric continues to work hard at Hy-Vee and is currently striving for the next position on the ladder, becoming a Store Director.

Ethical Situation #1: Relatively Easy to Handle

When asked to describe an ethical situation at Hy-Vee that was relatively easy to handle, Eric recounted a situation involving code dating food. He explained that the food prepared by Hy-Vee in their kitchens or food counters is subject to shelf life expiration date guidelines supplied by governing regulatory bodies. In Eric’s experience, he has encountered employees who have at tempted to either give the prepared food an expiration longer than allowed or as food is approaches its expiration, changing the date on the food to make it appear fresher than it was. Employees do this to prevent waste, (once the food expires, it must be thrown away) and increase sales numbers. While these actions may seem to save Hy-Vee money by reducing waste, Eric explained that following the legal and safety standards is more important to Hy-Vee than simply focusing on the bottom figure. He went on to describe Hy-Vee’s overarching “unwritten” ethical rule as one in which employees and managers must continually ask them selves, “Is it right? Are we doing the right thing?” Doing the right thing, Eric explained, means more than just what

Is required by the law. Doing the right thing focuses on being fair—fair to your customers, fair to your coworkers, and fair to your organization. In situations where code dating is involved, Eric cites this as a relatively easy ethical situation to handle because as he says, it simply is not the right thing to do.

Ethical Situation #2: Hard to Handle

In describing an ethical situation he has encountered while in his current position at Hy-Vee, Eric described an incident that had happened the prior day. As a Thanksgiving promotion, Hy-Vee had offered a free turkey with the purchase of a certain kind of ham. A customer who had taken advantage of the good deal called later in the evening on Thanksgiving to allege something was wrong with the turkey and as a result, she and her entire family were “deathly” ill. Eric was informed of the situation the next morning and as a result, had to determine how best to resolve the situation. The old adage, “the customer is always right,” is somewhat trouble some at times like this. As Eric pointed out, not only is there the question of

how the turkey was prepared, after leaving Hy-Vee, before being served, but providing a remedy is a tough quandary. The customer wanted her money back, but the turkey itself was free. Replacing the turkey was also somewhat of a stumbling point because doing so would result in a customer getting two free turkeys. With what secondhand information Eric had, he was waiting until the customer came in to speak to him before resolving the situation.

The reason situations like this are hard ethical decisions is because the store must be careful it does not fall prey to customers who are simply looking to take advantage of Hy-Vee’s excellent customer service by attributing fault to the store where the link between the product and the harm is too attenuated. At the same time, Hy-Vee must weigh the important role customers play and where customers have truly been harmed by a product or have not received their money’s worth, the store wants to ensure the situation is corrected to the customer’s satisfaction.

Hy-Vee’s 14 Fundamentals

While talking to Eric about the ethical culture at Hy-Vee and how ethics are infused into the organization, he high lighted Hy-Vee’s commitment to what Hy-Vee calls its “Fundamentals”. He explained that all managers are given a small card (the size of a business card) listing the 14 values that are fundamental to the business. Hy-Vee’s Fundamentals include: Honesty, Integrity, Friendliness, Caring, Sincerity, Respect, Ethics, Morals, Dedication, Sharing, Fairness, Manners, Dignity and Ownership.

Eric went on to explain that at many meetings, the Fundamentals are covered and Hy-Vee executives and man

agers are constantly probing to find out how these values are being carried out. In all aspects of Hy-Vee’s business, everything relates back to the 14 Fundamentals. Eric described the importance of the Fundamentals by matter of factly stating that without the customers, Hy-Vee cannot survive and it is the guiding Fundamentals that ensure Hy-Vee never forgets who is at the center of their mission.

Eric reiterated several times the importance that is placed on the Fundamentals by everyone in the organization, from the top to bottom, and made sure it was clear that Hy-Vee does not merely pay lip service to these ideals, but truly does carry them out in planning and practice. Together, the 14 Fundamentals shape how Hy-Vee carries out its mission of “making lives easier, healthier, happier.