retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The other day we ran an email from an MNB reader who was responding to a an op-ed piece in the Iowa Capital Dispatch that we cited that suggested that Hy-Vee's election efforts may have gone too far when Chairman-CEO-President Randy Edeker did a video for employees promoting a political point of view.

The email got down in the weeds on some issues, but in general was highly critical of Edeker's management style, which was described as being more autocratic than previous Hy-Vee leaders, leading to a less decentralized culture at odds with the Hy-Vee tradition.

I responded this way:

What distresses me the most about this email is the suggestion that Hy-Vee, traditionally the model of decentralized management, may now have a culture in which there is "authoritarian leadership" that "has stifled originality and the right to dissent."

I guess my message would be that if this is inaccurate, Hy-Vee at the very least has a perception problem … because I don't think this email is coming from someone who could be described as a disgruntled employee.

This prompted a long phone conversation between me and Donna Tweeten, Hy-Vee's EVP/Chief of Staff/Chief Marketing Officer … and I think it would be fair to say that she was not pleased with MNB or me.  I urged her to send me an email challenging both the style and substance of what was posted on MNB, and promised her that I would feature it prominently on the site.

Here is her email.  (I will respond on the other side.)

Kevin,

If the reader who submitted the email about Hy-Vee CEO Randy Edeker knew anything about the “story” that was published in the Iowa Capitol Dispatch, they would know that first of all Kathie Obradovich is the editor of that online blog, not the writer of this hit piece on Hy-Vee and our CEO. Do some more digging and you’ll realize that the writer of the piece is a journalist who was recently fired from the Cedar Rapids Gazette…who also is trying to sell a book that she just published. You don’t think she had a personal agenda with anything she wrote about the company, do you?

Not once did it cross your mind that perhaps she was trying to self-promote herself by taking a swing at one of Iowa’s largest employers? Did you even call us to check on any of this before running an email from a disgruntled individual or perhaps previous employee? The answer is no.

With your influence on the retail industry, Randy and all of Hy-Vee’s employees are owed an apology for the false statements you published that simply are not true. What’s even worse about the email you ran was that it was sent to you by an individual who doesn’t even understand DIR fees. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are trying to fix DIR fees, because skyrocketing DIR fees are what’s shutting down pharmacies at an absurd rate across our country. Small pharmacies can’t afford the fees and now neither can large corporations. They are costing retailers millions and millions of dollars and all that does is raise prices on the end user, which is the consumer. And finally to address this anonymous person who feels the need to criticize us for talking about the election last week, I would hope every company would be doing that – analyzing the impacts every candidate’s policies have on their company and their employees. Not once did we tell any of our employees who to vote for – the referenced “quote” in the article even flat out states that. But according your anonymous source, I guess we are all supposed to keep our mouths shut and never have the ability to discuss the future. Shame on this person for submitting such an uneducated piece to your “gossip column”.

And worse yet, we are appalled that you think it’s OK to run an email from a “source” before even understanding the back story to any of this. All it would have taken was a phone call. Instead, now we have to reach out to you to correct false statements. An opinion is one thing … running a submission to essentially hurt a retailer by spreading rumors is another.

I will respond here by saying to you what I said to Donna on the phone.

I actually wrestled with whether or not to run the original email.  I'm not really comfortable with attacks that might be seen as personal - unless I am the one who is making them.  (I can't and don't want to hide behind anonymity.)

That said, as I told Donna, the reason I finally decided to run it is that this is not the first conversation I've had in which Hy-Vee has been described to me as having undergone a culture change in recent years … and it was only because I'd heard this from a number of people that I thought it was worth putting it out there.

I'm sure there are lots of folks who think I was wrong to do so.  Maybe a few people thought I was right.

(I did some checking, by the way, and it is true at the author of the original piece that sparked all this conversation, Lyz Lenz, was fired by the Cedar Rapids Gazette.  Lenz was a columnist, paid to express her opinions, and apparently she ran afoul of some folks who found her opinions to be divisive rather than illuminating.  I've had that experience.  Best I can tell, there also were folks who liked her work.  I've had that experience, too.  As for her book, she does have one that came out a few months ago:  "Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women."  If she's using a piece about Hy-Vee's politics to sell this book, I'm not getting the connection.)

But here's the thing.  Over the weekend, I received another email from an MNB reader.

I have spent many years with Hy-Vee and was there before Randy became CEO.  Hy-Vee was exactly as your stated impression of them was;  the model of decentralized management that was filled with talented associates that were original thinkers that were comfortable voicing their opinions on business matters not fearing any kind of retribution.  I was truly a great company and a great place to be associated with.

But then things started to change.  It wasn’t long before talent started leaving the company.  Truly talented staff found that they could work for companies that really did appreciate their talents and did not have to put up with the changes that were being implemented company wide.  The ones that stay and try to improve things from within face discrimination, humiliation, and retribution.  The company culture has been totally converted to the very thing your reader stated; stifling originality and dissent and fearing demotion or discharge if challenging the new status quo.  Centralized control has totally usurped the old way of autonomy.

Hy-Vee no longer enjoys the financial equity they once did.  It’s not surprising that the current CEO finds areas to point his finger at that are not the real problem.  The problem lays with him and the many errant decisions he has made that are simply bad decisions.  But, with no one willing to speak up these decisions and programs go forward many destined for failure.

Hy-Vee’s long history of greatness has been severely mitigated.  There is always hope for the future, but from my perspective it is in the distant future for Hy-Vee.  I love the comment that no one was willing to tell the emperor that he has no clothes.  So appropriate.

As a courtesy, I sent the text of this email to Donna, who responded as follows:

I understand that you feel compelled to print this new email you recently received.  I’m assuming the author is anonymous.  Yes?  Of course they are.  Which is unfortunate.  Don’t understand how one would allow someone with no specific examples to have their anonymous opinion put in print. I do understand and can appreciate the printing of an anonymous letter IF they provide examples with detail or specifics that can be fact checked and/or proven.

Spouting out assumptions and accusations without specifics and without providing the opportunity for fact-checking, and yet still getting your say in print  continues to be a head scratcher for me.  Maybe I’m old school, but I had journalism professors that taught a different standard.  The printing of statements behind an anonymous author was fair — but best to get the author to provide the reporter/editor/publisher with enough information to provide legitimate concern to the grievance.  If not, your publication turns into a gossip rag.  Right now it seems like Morning News Beat is becoming Glassdoor with these types of emails reviewing the CEO of an organization.  

Freedom of speech behind a curtain or while wearing a mask is concerning to me.  Always has been. 

To be fair, the reason some folks ask for anonymity is because they are concerned about retribution - that's not a comment about Hy-Vee specifically, but rather in general.

I understand, however, that if you are on the receiving end of anonymous criticism, that is cold comfort.  I don't think this makes MNB a "gossip rag."  I do think MNB always has been a place where, from time to time, unpopular positions can be aired and frank conversations can be conducted.

I've always respected Hy-Vee and the culture for which it is known.  I made this point at the start of this discussion - that it would be a shame if Hy-Vee has undergone a culture shift, and ifit has not, then it certainly has an internal perception problem.

That remains my position, and I think it is fair.

But I get that not everyone agrees with me.

Donna is not the only person from Hy-Vee to object to the characterization of the company and MNB's role in putting it out there.

Frank Woodward, Senior Vice President of Hy-Vee's Western Region, wrote:

I know the people who read your newsletter are leaders in this industry. They understand the hard work, determination and nuance it takes to be successful in retail. Being a leader is hard - and speaking from personal experience - being a leader liked by everyone is impossible. Regarding the piece about Hy-Vee and Randy Edeker – I’ve known Randy for many years and he is a CEO who is trying to do what’s best for our company and our employees. A disgruntled employee (or former employee) combined with what was a contentious election cycle do not lend themselves to your blog attacking a leader in the industry. In addition, outside the personal attacks, the commenter leaves a lot to be desired in their account of DIR fees, politicians and the relationship between them. I know your commentary is “analysis with attitude,” but this posting crossed a line. I have great respect for the company I work for, and our leadership has always been top-notch. I hope you will highlight the good work that we do in your future newsletters.

Larry Ballard, who does Hy-Vee's Customer Communications, wrote:

In this current political season, something has rang true over and over. CEOs have a really tough job – and they have to be uniquely suited to help organizations grow and find success. Looking at Hy-Vee’s performance from the time Randy Edeker began until now, you may hardly recognize the company. The growth, innovation and overall brand image has been transformed into a sleek and modern retail experience. If I didn’t work for the company, I’d be much more interested in hearing how Randy was able to do what he’s done in what is considered a retail ice age, rather than hear about a disgruntled employee’s break room gripes.

And Tonia Petterson, a Hy-Vee store manager, wrote:

Wow.  Didn’t know your newsletter had turned into a gossip column. That, in essence, is how I felt reading the submitted piece about Randy Edeker and our company. As you pointed out, it seems to me that someone has a bone to pick with Mr. Edeker but not the stomach to do so in person. A shame really, because my experience with the company is quite the opposite of what was shared – an innovative, company that is leading the industry in many ways. That type of success comes with change, but I think in retail, it’s better to experience that now than face extinction by inaction.

I will say again what I told Donna.  I am happy to run any email that expresses an opinion about Hy-Vee's culture.  That's what I am here for, and I am willing to be the instrument of my own skewering.