Editor’s note: Wegmans Food Markets Inc. CEO Colleen Wegman last month gave the keynote address to the St. John Fisher College Class of 2017. Her speech, lightly edited for the different audience, is below.
Thank you for the incredible honor of being part of this special celebration. What an exciting milestone in life, to be graduating from this admired institution… As I planned for what I’d share with you today, I thought about lessons I’ve learned from our family business, and hopefully some of what I’ve learned in my journey can be useful to you as you make choices in your own life.
I tried to boil it down to a few key ideals and principles.
The first is most important, and something my grandfather instilled in our family, and in our company.
When he was a young boy, growing up in Catholic school, he was taught that there was only one thing important in life, and that was to get to heaven. He asked the nun, well, how do you get to heaven?
The nun replied: Always help others. If you do that, you’re on your way!
That became his guiding principle, and also became our favorite quote from my grandfather. In fact, helping others has become both our family mission and our company mission. My hope every day is that we are making a difference by helping others.
And, I know, that this ideal is not foreign to any of you.
The second principle stems from following your heart, and doing what you believe is right, every day. If you can, do what you love. It will always bring out the best in you. It sometimes takes some trial and error to get there; however, if you pursue being great at something you love, you have the best chance for happiness, and therefore success.
What’s fun for us, being a family company, is that the things we believe in for our family, help us run a successful business as well. And I’ll share just a couple stories as examples.
The first story is from when I was your age. I attended college in Colorado, where there was a significant presence of a culture of health—all facets of health, environmental, social and physical. I became immersed in all of it and formed a belief about the role that food can play in each one of these areas. My dad challenged me at the time to bring that philosophy back to Wegmans and share it with our customers.
I believed there was a benefit to bringing more natural foods into our stores. This was when our Nature’s Marketplace department, and Wegmans food-you-feel-good-about brand, was born.
My dad’s advice to me at the time was, lead with your heart, do what you believe is right, and things will work out. The culture of our company continues to be: begin with a belief and a passion for something, apply high standards, and then take measured risk to bring it to fruition.
I must admit, we had many questions about whether a natural foods department would work 25 years ago. However, these products and philosophies are playing a significant role at Wegmans today, and are a key part of our mission to help people live healthier, better lives through food.
The third principle is to listen, and to take action on what you learn. I was coming in with a passion and a belief about the way things should be. However, I had a lot to learn about the way things actually got done at Wegmans. I had to listen and learn from everyone around me. Jack DePeters, our senior vice president of operations, and the chair-elect of St. John Fisher, called it “using your resources.” He taught me that it’s not important to have all the answers yourself. However, it is important to involve others to come up with the best answers, and it becomes more enjoyable for everyone along the way.
The fourth example, is back to following your heart, and doing what you believe is right. Even when it may not look so good short term, it usually pays off in the long run.
With our mission of helping people live healthier, better lives, we felt uncomfortable selling cigarettes as we did so profitably many years ago now. In the year 2008, when you were just becoming teenagers, we decided to eliminate them from our mix and put all our effort into smoking cessation programs for our people. The short-term impact to profit was significant, however, the long-term loyalty impact from both our people, and our customers, ended up being even more significant.
The last example I’ll share is from 2001, when my father was asked to give a talk similar to this, and he wanted to talk about what was most important to our company.
This was the first time he documented the values that define who we are at Wegmans. We believe this is one of the most important things we have done to achieve the award of being the best place to work in America.
Writing down what we believed in, and what we wanted to focus on, allowed us to get even better at executing on them. We believe this applies to anything you want to accomplish in life. Write down what is most important to you, and write a plan to achieve it, and you will have a much better chance of actually making it happen.
We believe this is important for two reasons: it allows you to share it, and it helps you to accomplish it, because it becomes what you think about more often.
With the mission at St. John Fisher of goodness, discipline, and knowledge, you have been focused and trained in these areas to strengthen what you already believed in when you chose to pursue a degree from St. John Fisher. As you face challenges in life, remember your own guiding principles. We believe if you lead with your heart, continue to do what you believe is right, every day, it will lead you to great places.
Caring is the first value for us—as goodness is for you. High standards is second for us, and happens to embody your other two, discipline and knowledge.
You all have had a meaningful experience already in life. I’d encourage you to define your own personal values and be cognizant of them in your journey of life. No matter what you do, think of your degree as a tool to help you and to help others. What we have found to be true at Wegmans is that the more we help others, the more we actually help ourselves.
We hope for you, as commencement suggests, that you will go forward today, and make a difference— whether its big or small—we all have what it takes to do this—especially now with your degree.
So, how will you make a difference? With your experiences, I bet you already do! I’m looking out at a bright future with all of you, and we’ll look forward to watching how you shape it!
Thank you for having me here today. Congratulations!
Colleen Wegman is president and CEO of Wegmans Food Markets Inc.
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