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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Looking out for others

When times get tough, making the easy decision isn’t always the right decision

Jeff Philipps is the CEO of Rosauers who made the decision to retain the jobs of the employees who worked in the Five Mile store when the roof came falling down. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Jeff Philipps is the CEO of Rosauers who made the decision to retain the jobs of the employees who worked in the Five Mile store when the roof came falling down. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

During the worst economy since the Great Depression, during the worst Spokane winter in decades, the roof fell in Dec. 29 at the Rosauers at Five Mile.

The practical thing to do, from a financial standpoint, would have been to lay off that store’s 120 employees during the four-month roof repair project. After all, companies throughout the Inland Northwest were shedding employees every day.

But Jeff Philipps, president and CEO of Rosauers Supermarkets, decided along with his management team not to do the practical thing, but to do the right thing for the well-being of their employees.

They relocated some of the employees to other stores and paid 90 percent of salaries, plus health benefits, for all 120 workers.

Philipps, 54, is serving as this year’s “Pacesetter” chair for the Spokane County United Way fund campaign, asking businesses to ask their employees to give early to the campaign – and increase their donations over last year.

One recent Friday, Philipps took a break from his busy schedule to reflect on how his childhood helped him make the job-saving decision. And how Rosauers employees are now “paying it forward” through extreme generosity to United Way.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

•I grew up in Montana, one of five children. When I was a sophomore in high school, my parents divorced. My mom raised five kids by herself.

•After my dad left, my mom got a call to come down to the bank, because the bank was going to repossess the house. My mom basically said, “You are not taking this house from me. I’ve got five kids, and we are a family in that house, and we’ll make the payments as much as we can, and that’s going to have to be good enough for you until I can pay it off.” She kept the house.

•My mom worked at a credit union, but she didn’t make a tremendous amount of money. We had to all help. At 16, I got a job at the grocery store. I also had a paper route. My sisters babysat. My older brother did his share.

•There were times when I would come home and there was no electricity. First of all, no kid should have to experience that. But sometimes life is like that. So you have to then figure out how to deal with it. In our case, our mom held that family unit together in such a way that everyone knew they had a role to play.

•My mom’s name is Mary Philipps. She lives in Great Falls. She is 79 years old and still goes great guns.

•The day of the roof collapse, I got a call from our chief operating officer. He said, “Boss” in this very flat tone. I said, “Mike, what’s wrong?” He said, “I’m on my way up to the Five Mile Store. The roof has collapsed. I’m not sure everyone got out.” You talk about a sinking feeling.

•Once we made sure everyone was OK and accounted for, our executive team came back to our office on Garland. We decided right away we were going to take care of our employees. We weren’t sure of the insurance piece. We weren’t sure about anything, but we made the decision.

•Everybody felt very strongly that the people at that store were the reason for our success. They’ve established relationships with our customers. For us to leave them sitting on the edge of the curb wasn’t even an option.

•Did Rosauers take a financial hit because of it? Oh yeah.

•When we made the announcement that we were going to cover people at 90 percent of their wage, that’s when we heard the other stories. People said, “My husband was just laid off three days ago.” Or “I’ve got some health issues, and I can’t tell you what the insurance coverage is going to mean.” It was an incredible meeting, emotionally charged. We came back here literally exhausted. It drains you of everything, but it was also a great feeling.

•Not every company is in a position to do what we did, but every company has the ability to be compassionate and treat people with dignity and respect. An employee said, “The money part was secondary. The fact that you cared enough to do it meant everything.”

•Why did I say yes to be a Pacesetter chair? There is so much need in our community. We have a fair amount of poverty, unemployment. We have a large number of students who never complete their high school educations. All of those things need to be attended to. If nobody does it, it just doesn’t get done.

•Is it counterintuitive to ask for more money in a recession? Oh yeah.

•When we had our United Way meeting here with our Rosauers store and corporate teams, I said, “Here’s the goal. We’re going to try to get a 15 percent increase over last year.” It was like “Are you kidding me? In this economy?”

•We ended up with a 41 percent increase over last year. I think our employees thought, “Hey, I was taken care of. Can I afford a couple of bucks a week to pay it forward for someone else?”

•All of us, regardless of job security or pay levels, know someone personally who is being affected by the recession. And while some people are unable to help United Way this year – because of their financial status or because their spouse has lost a job – that has been more than picked up by those who said, “I have a job. I can help. I will help.”

•Spokane is really noted for this. In tough times, we come together as a community and make it happen.

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