Mind Your Managers
The challenge of finding, developing and retaining good store managers can be made much easier if storeowners take the right steps.
Most pet professionals would likely give out the same three pieces of advice to anyone looking to adopt or buy a puppy: choose a puppy that is the right fit for your home, make sure it gets plenty of training so it learns what is expected of it, and give it a nutritious diet and a supportive environment to ensure it has a long, healthy life.
Pet specialty retailers can apply the same advice to hiring a good manager.
Just like ill-chosen and untrained puppies can wreak havoc on a home, bad managers can destroy a pet store. They can negatively impact profitability, staff morale, customer service and more. All of this adds up to one very costly mistake should a store choose the wrong person for a management job.
Fortunately, finding and retaining the right person for the position is a matter of following some basic advice: Find someone that’s a good fit for the business; train them so they have the skills they need to succeed; and create an environment in which employees can grow and become happy, long-term members of the team.
For most retailers, the process should begin by looking inward.
Small businesses are often plagued by high employee turnover, and it can be particularly disturbing to the business to lose managerial staff. But experts say retailers should understand that high manager turnover is often caused by one of two things. One, a retailer may have made a bad hire, in which case it is probably best to lose that manager and find someone better suited for the job.
The other, however, may be that the problem is internal. If good managers are leaving, then there is probably something wrong with the company’s culture, says Shep Hyken, a speaker and New York Times-bestselling author. Hyken works with companies and organizations that want to build loyal relationships with their customers and employees—or, as he calls them, “internal customers.”
No manager will be happy or successful in a store where their needs are not met and they are not respected. In order to build the supportive and positive internal culture that is essential for keeping good talent, Hyken endorses what he calls the “employee golden rule.”
“We know what the golden rule is—do unto others what you would want done to yourself—but the employee golden rule is to treat the people you work with the same way you want the customer treated, and maybe even better,” he says.
Dorothy Hunter, co-owner of Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium, a two-store chain in Washington, agrees. “If you respect your employees, your employees respect you, and they’re going to respect your customers—it all goes down the line,” she says.
When Hunter opened her second store, she decided to promote existing employee Beverly Lefevre to a managerial position. “We found someone with a passion for the pet industry, and she’s good with numbers,” says Hunter. “She also takes great pride in [her work].”
Lefevre says her current job is unlike other management positions she has had before. “Having my opinion valued and listened to was probably the newest thing to me because I had managed at other places before, and upper management just tells you what to do,” she says. “[At the other jobs,] you never have any projects where you actually have to make some of the decisions.”
When Lefevre first started with the Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium, Hunter encouraged her to dream big. Today, Hunter says Lefevre is now pushing her to dream even bigger, and together they hope to eventually turn the stores into a franchise.
The effects of having a manager who values her job and wants to see the company grow are reflected in the success of the company’s second store. Within two months, the location was making enough to turn a profit.
Providing a supportive company culture, however, is just one piece of the puzzle. The next step is choosing a manager who is a good fit for the company—someone who shares the business’ core values and principles.
The Right Fit
As with Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium, sometimes the best move can be hiring from within. That is the strategy Biff Picone and his wife employ when searching for managers for their 10-store Houston-based chain Natural Pawz.
“Our strategy—our vision—when we started seven-and-a-half years ago was to make a difference in pets’ lives, and we’re looking for passionate pet people who really want to care about pets [and who] understand the value of a good diet and good grooming,” says Picone. By promoting from within, he ensures the new manager understands that mission.
Still, Picone knows that not every passionate salesperson has what it takes to be a manager. So, Natural Pawz has developed a management pipeline. It all starts with the hiring process for sales associates. “When we put out an ad, we always ask candidates to tell us about their pets [in their application],” he says. “If they just send a resume with no response, they probably get looked at, but not very seriously.
“If they really talk about their pets—if I can feel the passion they have for their pets or how they care for them—that’ll get a second look.”
If applicants include a picture of their pet(s), they’ll probably get an interview, says Picone. “And if you bring your dog to the interview, you’re almost hired.”
Once they have a team that is passionate about pets, the owners of Natural Pawz look for employees who are proven self-starters. When the stores bring in a new product, they want employees who go out and do their own research and can coach others on the team. Those employees are promoted to the position of “team lead.”
Having the right training program inplace is essential
to retaining effective managers long term.
Team leads work with assistant managers. They are given an opportunity to try their hand at the various managerial duties on a month-to-month basis. “It gives what we recognize as a good employee the opportunity to be a leader for a month at a time and see if they like it,” Picone says.
“One of the things you never want to do is promote somebody and then find out they don’t want to be promoted, that it’s not comfortable, and they end up quitting,” he adds.
Picone says he has had a number of employees decide they preferred their previous jobs, and the team-lead system gives them a way to step back down without losing face. “We’ve even had one person who was promoted and said, ‘No, this isn’t really what I want.’ They took a demotion back to sales,” he says. “Then six months later they said, ‘Okay, I want to try it again. I’m ready to do it.’”
Promoting from within guarantees that a new manager will have an understanding of the company’s culture. Internal promotions do more than that, though. They have also been shown to boost overall employee morale—staff members come to understand that hard work is recognized and that they can have a future with the company.
Looking For Passion
Even with the best preparation, sometimes there just is not anyone inside the company ready for a management position, especially when a company is growing at a rapid pace.
At Red Bandanna, an independent pet store chain of 14 stores in Georgia, at least 95 percent of the company’s managers have come from established full-time or part-time staff, says regional director Eric Cuomo-Jones. Right now, however, the company is considering outside applicants for an opening it cannot fill internally.
“I’m looking for high-energy people that have a passion for people’s pets and a desire to make sure that their pets are eating the best food possible, the best treats possible, [and using] the best toys possible,” he says, noting that high-energy and enthusiasm cannot be taught. Once the company finds someone with the right attitude, Cuomo-Jones says he can teach the administrative responsibilities—in fact, Red Bandanna has a solid training program in place.
An area manager works with new managers at the store level, both during operation and after hours, as well as at the corporate office, teaching them how to coach and train part-time staff and perform administrative tasks, such as inventory control and ordering procedures. “Basically [we] teach them to run the store as if it was their own,” he says.
Once managers have received their initial training from the area manager, Cuomo-Jones works with them on an ongoing basis. As regional director, his role is to make sure they have all the tools and knowledge they need to be successful running the stores—that includes signage for special promotions as well as training on whatever is being featured. “I’ll come in through the stores and I’ll ask them about the item and then do some role-playing and coaching with them just to make sure they’re prepared,” he says.
Having the right training program in place is essential to retaining effective managers long term. Retailers need make the effort to set new managers up for success, says Los Angeles-based retail consultant Deborah Glovier.
She says that too often, once managers are hired, they are thrown into the store and told to run it, with little guidance or training—and even for an experienced manager, that just is not going to work. “They’re going to make mistakes in this process; they’re going to have questions in this process,” says Glovier. “Now they’ve been set up to fail because the staff is looking at them and it’s like, ‘You don’t know anything that’s going on.’”
Stephanie Kaplan, director of online education with the Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA), agrees. “That first week is incredibly crucial to their ultimate success or failure, both in terms of retailers being satisfied with their hires, as well as with the hires being satisfied with the jobs,” she says.
While big companies have formal on-boarding processes to get new managers up to speed, smaller retailers often just do not have the same resources—but the challenge is not insurmountable.
When the right person is hired and given what they need
to thrive, before long they become valued members of the
family that the retailer just couldn’t imagine living without.
Storeowners can sit down with managers to review the store’s strategic plan and help them understand the way things work and the reasons behind existing policies.
“If you understand the underlying logic [behind company policies and procedures], it’s so much easier to apply the policies and procedures and to help associates understand why things are done that way,” Kaplan explains. Further, when the manager hits a snag—a scenario for which there is no documented procedure—then a quick decision can be made on how to handle the situation in a way that is consistent with the store’s ultimate goals.
And what a storeowner may not be able to provide first-hand is available to independent pet stores through PIDA’s free online training program, Pet Store Pro (petstorepro.com).
Originally launched with training modules aimed at store associates, Pet Store Pro has been expanded to include seven manager-focused courses that are perfect for getting a new manager off to a good start. The courses cover topics like interviewing within the law, managing workplace conflict and understanding gross margins.
Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium opened its doors about the same time PIDA debuted Pet Store Pro and has used it ever since. Lefevre has taken many of the available courses and recommends the free training program. “I actually have a giant three-inch, three-ring binder that I keep all my tests in,” she says. “I go back and review them a lot—especially the manager courses, because there’s a lot of good information.”
Kaplan says the curriculum is focused on retail best practices, with many pet-specific examples, so employees using the program can understand how these concepts apply to their business. “The very best stores and storeowners I talk to have a deep-seated commitment to training across the board,” says Kaplan. “They recognize the value of investing in their people and they understand the return on that investment.”
That kind of investment—combined with consideration for manager input, a good culture and a decent salary—is what helps make managers feel valued, ensuring they stick around for a long time to come. Just like a puppy, when the right person is hired and given what they need to thrive, before long they become valued members of the family that the retailer just couldn’t imagine living without.