When reflecting on his 21-year career as president and CEO of Rosauers Supermarkets, Jeff Philipps says he is most proud of creating a company culture that fosters personal relationships with employees and encourages giving back to the community.
Philipps began his career in the grocery industry more than 49 years ago, starting as a service clerk at Buttrey Food & Drug in Montana and later rising through the ranks at various companies to become president and CEO of Spokane-based Rosauers Supermarkets in 2000.
Under Philipps’ leadership, Rosauers expanded into six new markets, implemented online grocery shopping and grew sales to nearly $600 million. The company operates 22 stores in four states and employs more than 2,300 people.
After leading the grocery chain’s expansion for more than two decades, Philipps retired as CEO of the company earlier this month. He is succeeded by Cliff Rigsbee, a grocery industry veteran who most recently served as CEO and chief marketing officer of Hawaiian Springs Co.
“There’s never a perfect time to retire. I absolutely loved every minute of my Rosauers career – the strategic part, the execution part, the people part, the community part,” Philipps said. “But my wife and I have other dreams we want to pursue, and all of that takes time. While we’re still healthy and energetic, we decided, ‘let’s get started.’ ”
From grocery clerk to chief executive
Philipps’ introduction to the grocery industry came in 1972 when he was 16. He got a job as a service clerk – then known as a box boy – at Buttrey Food & Drug in Great Falls. His duties were bagging groceries for customers and sorting glass soda bottles for return to bottling companies.
“It started off just as a high school job,” Philipps said. “But, even then, I had this drive to sort of be the best at what I couldn’t do, and I think that was instilled by the work ethic my parents modeled for me.”
Philipps continued working for Buttrey Food & Drug while attending Carroll College in Helena. At age 20, he was promoted to grocery manager.
“I had this intention of becoming a banker. But just before graduation, the position of assistant store manager came open and the store manager encouraged me to apply,” Philipps said. “Even though I was reluctant to do that, because I thought my career was really in banking, I decided to give it a chance and to my surprise, I got the job. That’s sort of how it all got started.”
Philipps graduated from Carroll College in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, business and economics. He remained with Buttrey Food & Drug and was promoted to various roles within the company, working in the operations, advertising, accounting and business marketing departments.
Philipps left Buttrey Food & Drug in 1994 as the company prepared for acquisition.
“I took on some roles at other grocery companies in Salt Lake City, Anchorage, Alaska and Minneapolis, Minnesota that added to my executive leadership experience,” he said.
Philipps joined Anchorage, Alaska-based Carr-Gottstein Foods in 1996 as chief operating officer and remained with the company for more than three years. In 1999, he was hired as vice president of marketing for Minneapolis-based Rainbow Foods, a division of Fleming Foods.
“I’ve learned through those experiences that when you create a culture of trust and you take care of your employees, the success part follows,” Philipps said.
In 2000, Philipps was living in Minneapolis when he received a call from Greg Tarr, then president and CEO of URM Stores Inc., which had just purchased Rosauers Supermarkets.
“After an interview in Spokane, he offered me the job of president and CEO. You talk about a dream come true for a young guy at 45. I thought it was an offer that honestly would change my life forever and that of my family as well,” Philipps said. “We were really excited about moving to Spokane and as an extra bonus, we were closer to family in Montana, because both my wife and I grew up in Montana.”
A changing industry
Technology has significantly changed the grocery industry since Philipps began his career nearly 50 years ago, he said.
Those changes ushered in simplification – or even elimination – of manual tasks.
“When I started back in 1972, prices were actually stamped or labeled on products for cashiers to punch into a cash register. There were no scanners or technology that could tell you what kind of produce was being purchased. Butchers actually cut meat from processed animals,” he said. “It was so much different than it is today. The business has changed a tremendous amount with technology that helps in decision-making, nutrition information, and, certainly, more direct means of communicating with customers and employees.”
There was also a significant shift in how customers shop for groceries. They are now able to place orders online for grocery delivery that, in some cities, is completed by driverless vehicles. One of the more notable changes in the grocery industry was introduction of self-checkout stands in stores, Philipps said.
Philipps predicts more changes to come in the industry to further improve customers’ shopping experience.
Keys to success
Focusing on people, building relationships as well as operating with integrity and transparency are keys to success for leading a company, Philipps believes.
“I think your strength is always in the people that you work with and if you take care of them, they determine your ultimate success,” he said.
Philipps says Rosauers demonstrated its culture of valuing employees in December 2008, when the roof of its Five Mile store collapsed under heavy snowfall.
That night, Rosauers’ executive staff decided to pay wages and benefits of all 120 employees who suddenly were out-of-work, until the store could reopen.
“People talk about culture all the time. They talk about a family environment and commitment. Rarely does a company get a chance to prove that in a very tangible and personal way,” Philipps said. “It is the thing I will remember forever because it was an instant that allowed us as a leadership team to prove in a very tangible way what that culture of family was all about.”
Philipps faced perhaps the most challenging time for Rosauers when the pandemic took hold in the state last year. The grocery chain was forced to adapt quickly with sanitation and social-distancing protocols while navigating changing federal and statewide mandates, he said.
“Throughout the whole pandemic, we’ve communicated the changes and provided all of the extra safety precautions, financial support, critical assistance and benefits for our employees to just keep them safe and healthy, recognizing that they have been incredibly dedicated to the company,” he said.
“Those employees have been unbelievable in their commitment to being at work – at significant risk to them – to serve their neighbors and communities at the same level of service they did before the pandemic,” Philipps added. “I’m so proud of our employees and how they stepped up during the pandemic to really take on that mission of serving their communities and neighbors.”
Making a difference
Rosauers supports several nonprofit organizations in the region, some of which include Second Harvest, Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery, Spokane County United Way and SNAP. It also participates in community sponsorships for schools, churches and civic groups.
Philipps served as board chair in 2012 and 2013 for Greater Spokane Incorporated, the region’s economic development agency and chamber of commerce.
Philipps was also chair of a group that oversaw Mission 2030, an initiative to expand medical school education and research in Spokane as well as attract new health and life sciences companies to the area. Mission 2030 has since morphed into Life Sciences Spokane, which continues to recruit health care-related companies and startups to Spokane.
“Giving back and being community-involved has always been important to me,” Philipps said.
‘A people business’
While the grocery business can be challenging, it’s also stimulating, Philipps said.
“It’s a challenging business. It’s a people business, so there’s always people challenges,” he said. “But I can honestly say that I have enjoyed every single moment of my career … I think about the relationships that we have with our suppliers and all the other community members that we interact with over the course of our business. It’s those personal relationships with people that really help drive success and drive a company’s business forward.”
Now that Philipps has retired, he’s looking forward to traveling with his wife, Kathie, and spending more time with family and friends.
“While our mission is definitely relaxation, I plan to continue to serve on the boards that I’m involved with, and work with our church and other community nonprofits,” Philipps said. “There’s just always plenty to keep somebody busy.”