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Jack DePeters reflects on life with Wegmans

Jack DePeters reflects on life with Wegmans

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When Jack DePeters retires from Wegmans, he says his only goal is to spend time with his family.  Perhaps that’s because he has spent the majority of his life doing a job he loved.

Wegmans announced last week that DePeters, senior vice president of store operations, will retire Dec. 31.  During his 52 years, DePeters rose from cleaning store bathrooms to become the highest-ranking non-Wegman executive in the family-owned company, a position he’s held for the last 20 years.

Jack DePeters, left, talks with the late Bob Wegman in 2005 at a party recognizing Wegmans as the No. 1 place to work in the country. (Courtesy Wegmans)
Jack DePeters, left, talks with the late Bob Wegman in 2005 at a party recognizing Wegmans as the No. 1 place to work in the country. (Courtesy Wegmans)

DePeters, 69, began his career at Wegmans by cleaning the bakery at the former Midtown Plaza Wegmans when he was 16 years old.

“I did such a good job at that, they let me clean the bathrooms, and the meat room,” he said with a laugh. Wegmans had just 15 stores when DePeters started working with the company. Later this month, Wegmans will open its 101st store – the first in the New York City area – in Brooklyn.

As an Aquinas High School student and later at St. John Fisher College, DePeters juggled his studies with working about 35 hours a week. (That work load wouldn’t be allowed with today’s laws on employing minors.) DePeters says despite his work schedule, he did OK in school, but hopes no one checks his grades. Whatever they were, they didn’t prevent the late Katherine Keough, then president of Fisher, from recruiting him as a college trustee.

Early in DePeters’ time at Midtown, a conversation with a very tall man in an elegant trench coat started him thinking his part-time job might lead to something more. The man asked the teen-aged DePeters about his work, and DePeters described how he was putting sale tags on shelved merchandise that was being marked down. Later, when the store manager rushed up to ask about what had transpired, DePeters found out that he had been talking with Bob Wegman, the company’s CEO.

“This set me on my path,” DePeters said in a recent interview. “That got me excited to stay with Wegmans. I’ve always been interested in the work people do. I thought every day would be fun, and you know what, it has been.”

Midtown was a happening place back in the 1960s, DePeters recalled, and Wegmans always seemed to have a new challenge for him, allowing him flexibility to try out many positions within the stores where he worked.

He moved from working in the stores to the merchandising and corporate side of the business in 1982. Little did DePeters know that 30 years after his first encounter with Bob Wegman, he’d become his frequent companion on Saturday mornings, driving the CEO on his weekly rounds inspecting stores.

“Bob instilled in me high standards to take care of our people. Bob taught me to learn to be a good listener,” DePeters said. “You go out and see the trials and the hard work our people do. Then you come back and introduce programs to help us grow.”

That ability to listen to customers has been really helpful, as the company grew to 100 stores in seven states, with new tastes and preferences encountered in each region.

“Upstate New York is not the same as Virginia or Raleigh,” DePeters said. “We had to open a great channel of communication.” As a result, Maryland customers introduced Wegmans executives to Peruvian chicken and crab cakes made with crab caught in Maryland waters, both now fixtures across the chain’s prepared-food bars.

DePeters said his own father provided the example of a strong work ethic, which he followed by working six days a week ever since he began working full-time at Wegmans. Orphaned as a child, DePeters’ father chose the location of the first home he owned because it was on a bus line that allowed him to get to work. Despite coming from modest means, he paid for his three children to attend college.

DePeters speaks with similar reverence of Bob Wegman, who was clearly a mentor. “Bob used his resources to help people to do their job. You can’t do everything yourself; you’ve got to rely on those who can” carry out the company’s work, he said.

Wegmans' Jack DePeters (Courtesy Wegmans)
Jack DePeters (Courtesy Wegmans)

DePeters took those lessons to heart. Early in his years at the corporate office, one of Bob Wegman’s Saturday store visits focused on the men’s rest room. He asked DePeters to examine the rest room. DePeters said he expected to find a mess that had prompted Wegman’s request, but all appeared to be in order. Until Wegman pointed out that there was no place for a man to hang up an overcoat while he used the facilities.

The lesson for an up-and-coming company leader? “Many people look, you see.” DePeters’ first memo to his subordinates was to order coat hooks installed in the rest rooms and he’s kept his eye on details like that ever since.

“I always hope every day I’m making him proud,” DePeters said of Wegman, who died in 2006.

Those early lessons were formative for DePeters’ accomplishments on the job, including the “Ask Jack” program in which any employee could ask a question or make a suggestion and DePeters would publish the response – 16,000 of them over the years – on the company intranet.

“I wound up becoming the pupil.  Before I could tell people the answer to their questions, I had to go and do research,” DePeters said. Some of the Ask Jack conversations led to major improvements. For instance, he said, in an attempt to improve safety, Wegmans introduced new cut-proof gloves for deli workers. But the gloves were so cumbersome that the workers couldn’t do much while wearing them. The deli staff at the Eastway Wegmans had more than a few thoughts about how awful they were. As a result of DePeters talking it over with them, Wegmans came up with a proprietary design for a more work-friendly glove that’s still cut-proof.

A store deli was also pivotal to a lesson DePeters experienced in the value of both giving and receiving from employees. The deli departments had been struggling to enact an idea Bob Wegman had on how to attractively display pre-cut meats. The Rochester stores had recently started pre-cutting some of the popular cold cuts to speed up service, but “nobody liked it laying there in piles,” DePeters said. None of the employees could quite grasp the concept Wegman was trying express on how to make it look appealing.

At the same time, a Wegmans’ employee named Bess had been living without power in her trailer for six months as a result of her daughter’s financial troubles. The issue only came to DePeters’ attention because a co-worker had stopped by Bess’ trailer to visit, but left, thinking no one was home because there were no lights on.  “We got the power turned back on for Bess,” DePeters said, using a company fund he administers to provide emergency assistance to employees.

The grateful Bess also happened to be the part-time deli employee who finally figured out how to stand up slices of cold cuts in “florets.” Her manager summoned DePeters and Wegman to see whether her handiwork was what Wegman envisioned.

When Wegman saw the deli case, “He threw his arms up and said ‘Jack, you figured out what I wanted!’” DePeters identified the real meat architect, and the not-quite-5-foot woman started blubbering to the 6-foot-5 CEO about how he had helped her in her time of need. His reply: “Bess, we’re even.”

It’s no wonder then that DePeters often quotes Wegman’s motto of “Never think of yourself; Always help others.”

DePeters considers Wegmans’ earning Fortune magazine’s No. 1 spot on its “Best Companies to Work For” list in 2005 one of his proudest moments. The honor inspired him to create a bubble chart illustrating for employees the paths they could take to rise through the company as he did. He also created Wegmans Leadership University, a training program that helps store managers and others learn how to foster talent and encourage others cooperatively. About 500 employees have taken the training so far.

Past and present Wegmans CEOs are household names in Rochester and virtually every Wegmans customer is familiar with their faces, but DePeters has the unusual vantage point of really knowing them. He was even Colleen Wegman’s boss before she became his boss and CEO.

“Their dedication has made me feel I’ve been part of the family, from Bob to Danny to Colleen,” DePeters said.

“Danny (Wegman) taught me to lead with my heart and always do the right thing.” He called the former CEO and current chairman a visionary who knows what consumers want even before they do. “His ability to see what’s coming down the road is uncanny.”

He also attributed to Wegman making sure the company is driven by its values, even insisting new hires are a good match for the company values, and not just have the best qualifications and experience.

As for the current CEO, “Colleen’s drive for continual improvement is phenomenal,” he said. She reminds employees of the stores’ philosophy “to do something that no one else is doing and offer choice they don’t have today and they’ll (the customers) reward you for that.”

Danny Wegman recently said of DePeters, “Counting the number of people and employees Jack has impacted throughout his professional career and through his community efforts would be an impossible feat. Our family is grateful for all that he has contributed to our company and our community.”

DePeters is reluctant to accept too much credit, noting that anything he accomplished is owed in part to the support of his wife, Donna, a retired teacher. The couple lives in Irondequoit, where they reared two daughters. The elder, Sarah DePeters, followed her father and is a vice president at Wegmans. The younger, Laura McDonagh, followed her mother into teaching. McDonagh is also the mother of DePeters’ three grandchildren.

Both Jack and Donna DePeters have given to the community by serving a number of boards and giving their time and treasure to charitable causes.
“I’m blessed,” DePeters said of his family and his career. “I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity…I just love what I’ve done.”

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