The secret sauce: How Publix finds and keeps top talent

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The secret sauce: How Publix finds and keeps top talent

By David Salazar - 12/12/2019

Dain Rusk, Publix’s vice president of pharmacy, often is the first to point out in a room with his colleagues that he’s the odd man out, simply because he joined Publix from another company. The 89-year-old grocery chain has a reputation for being a place where employees can start as baggers and end up as CEO — the career path that Publix’s current chief executive took to his present role — and where a lot of promotions come from within.

A key ingredient to what the company — DSN's 2019 Pharmacy Innovator of the Year — calls its “secret sauce” are its dedicated associates. Publix is successful in attracting and retaining talent because it is privately owned, largely by its employees, who are given stock eligibility after a certain amount of time with the chain. 

“We’re unique as a chain pharmacy that has an independent mentality because our associates own the company,” Rusk said. “Oftentimes, you hear the phrase ‘Think like a customer, act like an owner.’ We actually can live that every day because of our employee ownership.”

As a result, employees are inclined to provide a higher level of service. “When you think like a customer and act like an owner, you tend to give an experience that’s much more differentiated than elsewhere,” Rusk added. “And most customers will recognize this difference and leave feeling very satisfied with our concierge service, and we see it often.”

It may not be surprising, then, that among many job-seeking pharmacists, Publix is an employer of choice in the seven states it serves. Stacy Burke, Publix’s senior manager of central pharmacy, has been with the company for more than 17 years. Burke, who started as a front-line pharmacist and worked his way to supervisor, can attest to the appeal among prospective employees. “I recruited in Georgia for 10 years,” he said. “Whenever we would post an opening, we would receive dozens of resumes.”

Rusk said one of the main attractors of talent is the fact that Publix has many opportunities for advancement, as well as everyday opportunities to do the job that they were trained to do. “What pharmacists want to do is have the opportunity to live that dream that they thought they were getting when they went to pharmacy school, which is to be very clinical, to be extremely customer-oriented and customer-facing,” he said. “I think in a large portion of the industry, that’s not something that’s realistic.”

Publix also fosters talent once someone is part of the team. Kathy Leonard, Publix’s Miami pharmacy operations manager, is an example of how talent can be developed to create a longtime employee. Leonard started more than 28 years ago as a part-time cashier when she was in high school, and her manager placed her at the pharmacy counter, sparking her interest in the practice. She worked for Publix through college and pharmacy school, becoming an assistant pharmacy manager after graduation and ultimately ending up in her current role. 

“When I tell that story or I see other associates telling a similar story to other associates in our stores, I think it resonates with them where they can see the potential for upward progression,” Leonard said. “They can see ‘I don’t have to stay in a store, I can pursue other things’ like clinical opportunities or even a specialty role.”

Katie Petti, Publix’s director of central and specialty pharmacy, said that beyond the efforts the company makes to ensure there are clinical opportunities, “the leadership layers within our pharmacy department all have retail pharmacy experience, which fosters acceptance and buy-in from the pharmacy teams.” 

Toan Do, Publix’s director of retail pharmacy operations, said the company also is committed to listening to what its pharmacists have to say. “It is important that we’re out there visiting our stores, engaging with our associates and soliciting feedback,” he said. “We strive to never leave without asking, ‘What can we do better for you?’ I think creating an environment where associates feel they are being recognized, supported and heard is critical to our success.”

Do also said that the company is highly focused on succession planning to cultivate talented employees’ abilities. “We have developed an emerging leader program that really challenges and identifies our high potential associates so that we can mold them, develop them, provide them the confidence and the training to really be a successful leader for us in the future.”

The key to keeping this culture is finding people who connect with it, said Leonard, who visits pharmacy schools to talk about the company. 

“It sells itself,” she said. “My job is very easy when I speak with students because there’s so much to be proud of at Publix. And, I think when you own something, you take better care of it.” dsn

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