With 28 years in the industry and a new role that has him ruling the produce roost over the expanse of 87 Harps Food stores, Mike Roberts is sitting high as we ramp up in 2018. Check out the industry veteran’s blueprint for future growth.
"Some people say work smarter, not harder. I’m of the school of thought to work smarter...and harder,” Mike Roberts, the new Director of Produce Operations for Harps Food Stores, tells me as we catch-up across the geography of two time zones, both of us still with coffee in-hand. Harps, the Springdale, Arkansas-based retailer has experienced rapid growth in recent years, now spanning across its home state of Arkansas, as well as Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas—with plans to further evolve the company’s go-to-market strategy in the coming years.
But first, before Mike shares the inner workings of the fresh-forward company—some words of advice...
“Growth is a great thing, but the foundation needs to be there. And by foundation, I mean the people. Build relationships and partnerships; they will serve you well, both professionally and personally, and you will gain lifelong friends and earn more for yourself and your company,” Mike explains. He pauses, then lets out a light-hearted laugh. “And, pick up the phone! Texts, emails, Twitter, etc. are all great ways to communicate, but it’s good to have a personal relationship with those that you do business with. And most of all, stay loyal to the people and organizations that have been loyal and have invested in you.”
Mike has seen the produce landscape change during his 28 years in the industry, and a large swath of that experience has been with Harps. Currently with 87 stores, Harps has an aggressive growth plan that includes adding stores in new markets in 2018 and revamping its fresh philosophy to further engage the consumer and differentiate itself from the competition with values guided by quality, service, and freshness at competitive prices.
“Whether that is showcasing fresh produce front-and-center, or promoting no solution/no sodium-added fresh beef, pork, and chicken, we hang our hat on our company’s name and commitment,” he says. “With customized cakes, Martha Harp fried chicken, famous Martha Harp rolls, the Harps name signifies quality. Combining that image with employee-owned service, Harps has become one of the grocery industry’s most recognized independent chains and is a national success story for grocery companies competing against other national chains.”
As we speak, Mike always returns to his emphasis on quality—how the company strives to have the best quality produce at the best possible price, while also bringing consumers a wide variety of fruit and vegetable offerings. With produce that is triple inspected from the farm to the warehouse, and then again at the store—you can be sure that no stone goes unturned for this Produce Director. In addition to having an executive produce team with their noses to the grindstone, Harps also prides itself on having top-notch produce managers with a repertoire of knowledge to help support store guests and elevate the program.
When I pose the question of how produce fits into the overall Harps’ format, Mike tells me that it truly defines and supports the stores, while responding to the evolving demographics for the company’s geographic footprint.
“Hometown Fresh is our vision and part of our logo, so having fresh produce available to our customers is very important and is a big part of our format. Our plans are to showcase produce even more in our stores,” he notes. “Our current projects and new construction have blueprints that feature produce as the first department you encounter when you walk into the store. Fresh produce is more than just a welcoming invitation to step through the doors; it is our first opportunity to share our promise of the authentic, quality shopping experience ahead.”
And Harps aspires to maintain that authenticity at all levels of the business, from the displays to the team members and the vendors. While the company traditionally works with wholesale distributors to stock its produce shelves, Mike tells me that supplier relationships are still incredibly important to building the best program possible.
“Harps is always looking to grow our relationships with quality organizations and growers,” he shares. “We really believe in partnerships and believe they are the best way to conduct business. Harps works very hard at growing them. Partnerships are a two-way street, and we don’t ever look to make a quick and easy, one-time deal that only benefits us. We value our relationships with our partners and know that we both have to be successful for each other to succeed.”
As Mike settles more and more into his role, he is also prepping the team for even more dynamic work: Harps’ game plan as we look to 2018. Next year’s program includes more stores, new markets, and, of course, more sales.
“We have had a pretty aggressive growth over the past 10 years and we aren’t slowing down any,” Mike smiles. “We also have a new banner that we are putting in some areas. The 10BOX banner is a cost-plus format, and it has been very successful at the seven locations we currently have. This format helps us compete with others that concentrate on price. The difference is—we won’t sacrifice quality, and that gives us an edge.”
With a vision of growth running through the veins of Harps’ progressive program, Mike can’t help but take a lot onto his own plate—and he does so willingly. As he tells me, the responsibilities he assumes carry great weight and reward, but for him, the true satisfaction comes from the relationships he has built, and it is an entire company of them.
“I think the biggest misconception about my position is that it’s all about massive deals, big meetings, and top-secret matters,” Mike says. “The truth is, it’s all about the associates. People make companies work, not just the products. Sure there are truckload deals, contracts, and planning meetings, but the majority of the time I spend with our merchandisers is spent talking about our produce managers and staff—who needs help; who’s doing great; who’s the next superstar assistant or clerk that we can promote; what can we do to make their jobs a little less stressful or more efficient? At the end of the day, the most important part of my job is to inspire, lead, and educate our great staff of produce professionals. And that is probably not in any manual or what people think of when they think of being a Produce Director.”
"At the end of the day, the most important part of my job is to inspire, lead, and educate our great staff of produce professionals. And that is probably not in any manual or what people think of when they think of being a Produce Director."
-Mike Roberts, Director of Produce Operations
On Mike’s path to success, he has also met some amazing mentors who have helped him steer his course and who continue to inspire him to this day. Dennis Baker, Harps’ Former Produce Director, is one of them.
“Dennis was the biggest influencer in my career and really helped me develop the people skills that I use to this day. Dennis promoted me to merchandiser 17 years ago when he became Director,” Mike tells me. “He was a former store manager so we always joked that I taught him produce and he taught me people. His leadership and friendship over the years was invaluable to helping me achieve the position I am in today.”
Another one of those individuals who has impacted Mike and his career is Glenn Brock, who is Harps’ dedicated AWG Specialist and who has also been a very big influence on Mike.
“Glenn was the merchandiser for the store in which I was originally hired. He helped, trained, and guided me through that period, until the warehouse where he was working at the time, and that was serving my current store, ended their partnership,” Mike reflects. “I didn’t see Glenn for several years, but to my luck, when I was promoted to merchandiser with Harps, Glenn got hired at AWG Springfield at the same time. It was quite neat to walk into a meeting with our new AWG guy and see an old friend! That was 17 years ago, and I cannot say how thankful I am for all that Glenn has taught me in every aspect of this great industry. We are still working together today, and Glenn is a great friend.”
So, what is the Harps story? Well, it all started with Founders, husband and wife, Harvard and Floy Harp and $500 in cash that Harvard had saved while working in the citrus industry in California. Enter the first Harps store in 1930. This first location became Harps Cash Grocery and was located in Springdale, Arkansas. Over the next 34 years they remodeled, expanded, and moved to bigger buildings as the business continued to grow. By the early 1950s, Harvard and Floy’s oldest son, Don, had joined them in the business and in 1964 Harps became a small chain when the second store opened in North Springdale.
In 1995, the company purchased Don’s stock, and at the same time purchased a ten-store chain. This transaction significantly increased the leverage of Harps, and the company focused on driving down the debt.
Then in 2001, Harps leveraged a buyout with the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), purchasing outstanding stock from the family and management. After spending the next four years reducing debt, Harps began rapid growth through acquisition and new store construction.
“Since becoming employee-owned, employees have seen amazing growth in their stock,” Mike states. “Employees who have been with Harps since 2001 have built significant values in Harps for retirement. Harps is the largest employee-owned company headquartered in Arkansas and the 30th largest in the United States.”
As for Mike, he actually came on board as part of an acquisition that Harps made in 1995.
“I could tell almost instantly that it was the type of company I wanted to stay with. Before that I worked for a small chain based out of Bentonville, Arkansas, called Phillips Food Stores under the Food 4 Less banner. The company ended up being bought by Walmart and then slowly sold off to other retailers,” he says. “Luckily for me, the last store I was at was purchased by Harps!”
Mike jokingly says this was only supposed to be his part time job to get him through college. But, when he started as a clerk in 1989, he instantly liked the atmosphere of working with people, customers, and making the produce department look presentable. It didn’t take long before Mike was a setup guy, coming in early to make the department ready for business each day. Then it just got better with the hustle and bustle of the holidays, the summertime business, the change of seasons, training new associates, helping customers, and interacting with local suppliers.
“My first responsibility when I was 19 was to order greens three times a week from a local supplier. His name was Fish, or that’s what we called him, and he delivered our greens in a pick-up truck and a trailer and became a main supplier,” he laughs. “And yes, we ended up going fishing a few times. I was hooked! My passion for the industry has just gotten stronger over the years as have the amazing friendships I have gained from it.”
At the end of the day, Mike reflects back on some words to live by from his father.
“It’s simple, really. Always ask yourself the question my father asked me, ‘Is it the right thing to do?’ He taught me to be self-aware at a young age and most of the people I have looked up to over the years have re-iterated that sentiment. As one of them put it once, ‘If you wouldn’t want to see it on the front page of the paper tomorrow it’s probably not the right thing to do,’” Mike laughs.
While Mike is wary of the front page limelight himself, he is more than happy to see his company there—fresh and focused.