Investing in Retention

Understanding that its staff is its biggest asset, Mud Bay goes above and beyond to make sure that every employee feels valued.


The old adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link is one that is not lost on the team at Mud Bay. Understanding the vital role that its employees play in the success of the 33-store (and growing) pet specialty retail chain, Mud Bay’s executives are committed to investing in its staff to ensure that every link in the company’s chain makes a solid contribution to the strength of the whole.

“In my 30-plus years in business, I have always believed that people are the most important asset of a company,” says Tracy Yamane, Mud Bay’s chief operating officer. “They are the ones on the front lines making a difference by building relationships with our customers. We may be a retailer, but our business is about relationships, and that includes the company’s relationship with the staff. If they feel good about the organization and understand that we are doing everything we can to make this a long-term career for them, it pays dividends twofold. It provides for long-term retention for the company, and that fosters long-term relationships—in some cases 15 to 20 or more years—with our customers.”

Joining the company in 2011 and tasked with strengthening store operations and company culture, Yamane has a unique insight into the day-to-day work life of Mud Bay’s store employees, as she spends several hours each week interacting with store staff in stores, at new store builds and relocations and during community events. However, her mindset regarding the chain’s employees is shared by the entire executive team, which found common inspiration in The Good Jobs Strategy, a book written in 2014 by MIT retail operations professor Zeynep Ton.

“The Good Jobs Strategy helped us align all of the different things we were trying to do to build a culture [among our employees],” says Yamane. “We believed in ideas like you have to pay people more, you have to create a career for them, you have to allow them to have ownership in the business, and The Good Jobs Strategy kind of brought it all together. It gave us a roadmap for all of the things we were moving toward anyway, and it gave us a common language that allowed us to move forward faster.”

There are many facets to how Mud Bay invests in its staff, but it all begins with new-employee training. Aptly named “The First Year’s Journey,” the company is expanding its training program to incorporate book learning, video instruction, in-store training and regular testing to reinforce each lesson over the span of an employee’s first year on the job. “We teach so many things, and there is so much knowledge that everyone has to hold onto, it can’t be done in 30 days or in a quarter; it’s a constantly evolving process that will go from day one all the way to day 365,” says Yamane.

Mud Bay’s training program is not limited to new employees. In addition to providing training on new products as they are added to store shelves—particularly in the food category—employees take part in an ongoing program that is envisioned to include three to five topics per month.

As a result, each Mud Bay store is staffed with employees that are armed with the customer service skills and knowledge base necessary for forging customer relationships based on trust. “We pride ourselves on our product knowledge,” says Sonja Birkel, central district manager. “And our employees focus on having solution-based conversations with customers.”

Mud Bay’s training regimen also extends to managers, who have become particularly important as the chain has experienced significant growth over the past several years. Given the fact that the company plans on adding at least five to seven store management positions each year for the foreseeable future, it must be able to produce a steady stream of good candidates to take on those posts—and eventually move even further up through the organization. As Marisa Wulff, co-CEO and vice president of store development, notes, “The future leaders of Mud Bay are working in our stores.”

Providing sound training is just one element in Mud Bay’s strategy for creating good jobs for its employees. The company is also fostering employee retention through other initiatives, many of which are driven—either directly or indirectly—by “The Twenty.” This group is made up of a mix of staff from all levels of the organization, and many of the positions are filled by personnel elected by their peers. The Twenty meets quarterly to discuss and decide on a wide range of big-picture issues, from strategic vision and Mud Bay leadership to annual planning and bonus programs.

One example of the many ways in which Mud Bay is trying to improve working conditions for its employees is by increasing the ratio of full-time to part-time positions. “While many businesses are cutting hours, we are looking to raise hours by creating more full-time jobs,” says Yamane.

While full-time positions comprised just over fifty percent of Mud Bay’s store staff three and a half years ago, Yamane reports that currently more 80 percent of store employees are full-time. To achieve these significant results, Mud Bay has gotten creative, even developing a floater program that enables employees to work in multiple stores in order to increase their total Mud Bay hours to full-time levels.

Another area in which Mud Bay is bucking the prevailing trend among many businesses is by lowering the threshold at which it offers medical benefits to employees. Instead of requiring its staff to work 35 to 40 hours per week in order to qualify for medical insurance, Mud Bay begins offering it to employees who work just 30 hours per week. Of course, this approach may cost more in the short term, but Yamane says that it will pay off in the long run, as retaining happy, well-trained staff is more effective than having to replace employees who leave Mud Bay to seek better benefits somewhere else.

The final piece of Mud Bay’s employee retention strategy revolves around fueling a sense of empowerment among its staff. Staff empowerment at Mud Bay takes many forms, from creating an elected strategic planning team to building category expert teams made up mostly of store staff to asking the entire company to take a hand in defining leadership at Mud Bay. The company has also built an intranet website, where they report results, share news, celebrate each other’s successes and voice opinions on a wide range of topics.

“Giving everyone a voice is a huge part of what drives our success,” says Al Puntillo, Mud Bay’s chief merchandising officer, noting that this level of empowerment is key to keeping a neighborhood feel in the burgeoning chain. “Many of our customers think that they are shopping with a single-store retailer,” he says. “We like that.”

To Yamane, all of these initiatives add up to create the element that has been most important to Mud Bay’s success. “You have to have a strong culture,” she says. “Everyone has to see the big picture.”

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