Forty years ago at age 28, Paul Speranza Jr. accepted a job he never applied for.
In the years since then, he has been legal counsel, point person and, most importantly, an extended family member to five generations of Wegmans.
On April 1, Speranza—Wegmans Food Markets Inc.’s vice chairman, general counsel and secretary—is retiring.
“One thing that’s truly unique is being able, from an adviser’s perspective, to actually get to know five separate generations of the Wegmans family, and it’s been just wonderful,” he said. “They’re all very fine people.”
Speranza was responsible for legal, tax, government relations, labor rela-tions and other managerial functions, the company said. With Speranza’s retirement, Steve Van Arsdale, senior vice president of legal, will take over the legal team at Wegmans. Arsdale has been with Wegmans for many years, officials say.
The 88-store grocery retailer celebrated its 100th anniversary this year and employs more than 45,000 people, including nearly 14,000 in Rochester. Last year, annual sales were $7.9 billion.
CEO Danny Wegman says he will not soon forget the type of leader he found in Speranza.
“My dad is the one who first introduced me to Paul and he said to me, ‘Danny, I’d like you to meet someone who I think is going to have an absolutely key role in our company,’” Wegman recalled. “I was impressed with him then and as I’ve gotten to be his friend over the years he goes far beyond that. You lead in many ways, and Paul was great at leading by example. Just by what he did and the way he did it—wow, I wish I were half as good.
“He is a spectacular man,” Wegman added, “so I’m really going to miss him; there’s no question about it.”
Speranza is a native of Rochester. His father owned Goodman Plaza Barber Shop, where Speranza began working as a teenager, earning his barber’s license.
“Paul’s background is very humble and he always respected his dad who was a barber, so Paul will say from time to time, ‘If I ever had to, I could cut hair,’” Wegman said. “Despite being as bright as he is and as tenacious as he is, he also understands people and is an everyday person, which has made him an awful lot of fun.”
Speranza attended Syracuse University on a full scholarship, graduating in 1969 with a degree in accounting. He earned his law degree from the University of San Francisco in 1971 and went on to earn a master of laws in taxation from New York University in 1972.
He graduated early on both his college and law school tracks.
“Paul is a self-driven success,” said Dennis Richardson, president and CEO of Hillside Family of Agencies and longtime friend of Speranza. “He set out as a young person to achieve success and he did accomplish that by virtue of his personal determination. Along the way he made sure that he held onto a set of values that had to do with believing in the importance of family and believing in the importance of the community in which he served.”
Working as a partner in a law firm that did business with Wegmans, Speranza formed a friendship with then CEO Robert Wegman.
In 1976, Wegman offered him a chance to start the legal department at Wegmans as the company’s general counsel and secretary, an offer that Speranza says was a real opportunity for such a young person.
“Wegmans has been an absolutely wonderful experience,” Speranza said. “Working first with Bob Wegman, he was my friend (and) mentor and at 28 years old he asked me to come to work at Wegmans and start the legal department—that just blew me away.
“Basically, he gave me that opportunity before perhaps I deserved it, but you had to be able to work your hardest never to let him down. It was a wonderful experience with him.”
The leadership of both Bob and Danny Wegman has had a large impact on Speranza, he says.
“For the last 10 years after Bob passed away, I worked for Danny Wegman and he’s absolutely delightful,” Speranza said. “He’s very insightful, very inspiring, very encouraging and also fun to work with. And I think that’s important—Danny has shown you can work hard, you can get great results, and you can still have fun doing it.
Added Speranza: “Forty years later, I never looked back.”
Throughout his tenure at Wegmans, Speranza has worked on many different aspects of the company—just as if he were in private practice at a law firm, he said.
“I think from a professional perspective, I really didn’t know much about grocery stores, but as Wegmans got larger I had a full thriving practice,” he said. “When you’ve got thousands of employees (coupled with) lots of different lines of businesses, it was just like being in private practice.”
Speranza won the Corning Award for Excellence in 2009 from the Business Council of New York State, an honor reserved for a New Yorker who has “demonstrated an outstanding level of accomplishment and a deep sustaining commitment to the people of New York,” according to the organization.
Speranza shared the award with other leaders including Robert Wegman, officials said.
In his role at Wegmans and outside of it, Speranza devoted considerable time to serving the community in a variety of ways—a passion that he will continue to pursue in retirement, he said.
Among the organizations he has served are:
- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he was vice chairman in 2006-07 and chairman of the board in 2007-08;
- the Business Council, where he is vice chairman of finance, treasurer and a board member;
- the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council committee on health care, of which he was the chairman, and he also served as co-chairman of the education and workforce committee;
- the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, where he has served on the board of directors and executive committee while also chairing its Health Care Planning Team.
“Paul has been successful because he is incredibly bright and he cares deeply about people,” said Robert Duffy, CEO and president of the Rochester Chamber. “He is the consummate gentleman. He’s just so kind and so polite and respectful to everybody, but he has very strong views and has a very powerful presence. His loyalty to the Wegmans family and his loyalty to our community are unparalleled.
“(He is) a wonderful human being, a class act, and one of the all-time great business leaders in the Rochester region,” Duffy added.
Working at Wegmans for four decades has allowed Speranza to witness the company’s tremendous growth. The success it has achieved has been wonderful and also surprising in some ways, he said.
“Danny had promised that we were on a great trajectory and we would be successful, but in my wildest dreams I never thought we’d be as successful as we have been, because of all the people coming together doing all these great things,” he said. “That goes back to the team and Danny as our inspirational leader—he is just a visionary.”
People will always be the reason Wegmans thrives, Speranza said. The company knows how to treat its employees and they know how to treat customers.
“People come from around the world and they look at the beautiful stores we have and the great product and so on and they try to emulate it and most don’t do very well,” he said. “Our magic is our people and that makes it so different.
“It’s very simple: If you put your employees first and really mean it, your employees will take care of your customers and give them incredible service. If that happens, the bottom line just takes care of itself. I’m very proud of Wegmans. We do everything as a team.”
Speranza has made a large impact throughout Rochester, local leaders say. And he has always stayed true to his values.
“He’s a wonderful asset for our community and I’m hopeful that he will continue to find ways to contribute,” Richardson said. “He’s a very impressive man and I have a great deal of respect for both what he’s accomplished and who he is. Besides being a very talented professional, he’s a very fine gentleman.”
Speranza now plans to spend time with his wife of 46 years, Cheryl, their two daughters—Sarah Speranza and Martha Speranza—and their families.
“I’d like to spend more time with my wife Cheryl—we’ve been married almost 47 years. She’s my high school sweetheart, she’s my best friend, my confidant, my soulmate and my top adviser and, quite frankly, I could not have accomplished any of this without her,” he said.
Looking forward with optimism is Speranza’s outlook on life. He is ready to continue to serve the community in any way he can.
“I always look forward, I never look back,” he said. “I’m excited about this next phase.”
Retiree or not, Speranza is keen to help Rochester reach its fullest potential.
“I know an awful lot of the people and organizations in Rochester and I’d like to be able to continue doing my charitable and civic work as long as I’m physically and mentally able to,” he said.
“The people in Rochester have been very kind and very gracious and have allowed me to be a part of what happens in Rochester and I really thank them for that,” he added.
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