THE TAKEAWAY: True grit — Mark Panzer, SVP pharmacy, health and wellness, Albertson’s


After four decades in retailing, Panzer has been lucky enough to have a number of great mentors in business, but the Albertson’s healthcare chief tells DSN some of the most important lessons he ever learned came as a young cowhand on his grandmother’s Santa Fe ranch.

You began your career at American Stores some 40 years ago — what did those early years teach you, and how would you say they helped shape your attitude about life, business and leadership? I was lucky. I started when I was 15, and I’ve been in the industry for a long time, but the biggest thing I’ve learned is you’ve got to be flexible. You’ve got to be willing to try new things; you’ve got to be willing to be pushed out of your comfort zone, because that’s what happens to you in your career.

And you have to be a sponge. It could be your boss, but it could also be your admin; it could be somebody in a different department, but you have to be a sponge and you’ve got to learn everything you can from everybody you come into contact with.

And the other thing I’ve learned is that people will put their faith in you when you’re honest, you’re upfront, and you’re direct — it doesn’t matter whether it’s members of your team, peers that you work with or whether it’s internal or external. People want to be able to trust that when they talk to you, they’re getting a true picture of what you want, where you’re headed or what you want to do. They don’t want to have to guess or read between the lines.


Who was your most important mentor growing up, and what was the most important thing you learned from them? My mother and my stepdad ran a plumbing business that they operated out of our home. The front of our house was the shop, the garage is where all the equipment was kept and the back of the house is where the five of us lived — my mother and stepdad, my brother, my sister and I.

What I learned from them is that when you own your own business, all the time you put in, all the effort you put in is either going to make the business a success or a failure. When you have your name on the business, quality matters because what you produce or how you treat your customers is going to reflect back on your name. For Hank and Missy, it was all about quality; it was all about taking care of the customer, and it didn’t matter if that call came in at 2 a.m., you answered the phone, you got up out of bed, and if someone’s pipes were frozen, you went out on the job. Because that customer could be a customer again in six months: they could have a bathroom that needs remodeling or they could have a factory that needs new steam lines.

And then my grandmother was just a huge influence. I spent every summer from the time I was 3 [years old] to 16 years old in Santa Fe, N.M., on a horse ranch. You got up at 6 a.m. and cleaned corrals; you went to the restaurant and waited tables from 10:30 a.m. to about 2 p.m. Then you went back and cleaned corrals again at 6 p.m., and then you went and did the dinner shift, waiting tables and cleaning up.

I learned from her that it didn’t matter if it was mending fences or figuring out how to take care of horses or running a restaurant, you learn real quick that you can do anything. All you had to do was put a little thinking to it, figure out the problem, figure out a solution and then try it out by trial and error. Sometimes you’re not going to have the right solution the first time, but you’ve got to think it through; what else could I have done? How else can I do it differently? She used to tell me all the time when I was a kid, ‘There’s nothing you can’t do. Don’t let somebody tell you that you can’t do something. Don’t let people put reins on you or put roadblocks in front of you. Go around them, go over them, go through them, but don’t let people put constraints on what you think you can do.

Your grandmother sounds like a tough customer. She was way ahead of her time. She owned a small neighborhood newspaper in Chicago called The Independence, and she did a lot of work for the Democratic Party with [former Chicago mayor] Richard Daley and [aldermen] Charlie Weber and [Mathias] “Paddy” Bauler; she did a lot of their PR. She was self-taught in journalism, she worked for the [Chicago] Tribune for a while, and then one day while traveling from Chicago to San Francisco, she got off the train in Santa Fe and said, ‘This must be the place.’ About a week and a half later she got back on the train to Chicago, packed all her stuff and moved to New Mexico in 1951 and started raising quarter horses. She knew nothing about horses or ranching; she grew up in Des Moines, in the city. So she started a ranch about 17 miles outside of Santa Fe, N.M., — and that’s where I learned about horses and riding and everything else.

So she ran the ranch, and I guess the restaurants were separate businesses? Actually, the restaurant was right out in front of the ranch on the highway. It was called The Bobcat Bite; my mother and grandmother started it in 1953. My grandmother had been there two years, and she wanted my mom to go into business on her own, so there was an old gunsmith’s shop that used to be out in front of her ranch — it was a trading post/gunsmith — and they transformed it into the restaurant. My mom ran The Bobcat Bite for about three years, and then my great-uncle and aunt [took it over] for about 20 years. It was featured in Gourmet magazine, “Best burgers in America.”

What’s the best advice you ever got, and who gave it to you? Skip the easy path. The right path to take just might be the toughest one, but don’t ever take the easy way out. That came from a guy named Matt Miles. I worked with him at American Stores in the stores (I was his liquor clerk), and then I worked for him again in new store planning at American Stores. Then we worked together again at American Stores [when] I was the SVP for merchandising and marketing, and when I moved to Rite Aid about four years later, Matt came over and worked at Rite Aid. … So our paths crossed many times, and I still talk to Matt probably once a month. He still remembers me as that 18-year-old kid who was his liquor clerk.

When you’re not at work, what’s your favorite thing to do? I’ve got the attention span of a gnat, so I don’t have one favorite thing; I like to spread it around. I love to hang out with my kids and do stuff with my family. I love to go skiing. But I think my favorite thing is spending time with my kids and my wife.

Where do you find inspiration in life? I think you find inspiration by watching things that you do come to fruition, or watching people who you worked with become better and move on and, in some cases, become more successful than you are. It comes from watching your kids grow up; watching them go from, ‘Hey dad, you’re the dumbest person in the world,’ to ‘Hey dad, some of that stuff you told me wasn’t all bad after all.’

That’s where I get inspiration from; you go through stages of life, and you learn at every stage. You learn with your kids; you learn with your peers; you learn with the people you work with; you’ve got to just kind of soak it all up. That is where you find inspiration.

If you could be anywhere right now, doing anything, what would it be? That’s a tough one. Now that it’s winter, I guess if I

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