How She Leads: Lynn Marmer, Kroger

How She Leads

How She Leads: Lynn Marmer, Kroger

How She Leads is a regular feature on GreenBiz spotlighting the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business. In this edition, Maya Albanese interviews Lynn Marmer, Group Vice President for Corporate Affairs at The Kroger Company.

Lynn is a member of the Kroger executive team and is responsible for a wide array of important initiatives, of which corporate sustainability is just one important component. She has been recognized for her outstanding female leadership by the Progressive Grocer Top Women, YWCA Career Women of Achievement, and the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Women of the Year Awards.

Kroger is one of the world’s largest retailers. More than 340,000 associates serve customers in 2,425 supermarkets and multi-department stores located in 31 states. The company operates two dozen banner names including Kroger, City Market, Dillons, Jay C, Food 4 Less, Fred Meyer, Fry's, King Soopers, QFC, Ralphs and Smith's. The company also operates 789 convenience stores, 337 fine jewelry stores, 1,109 supermarket fuel centers and 38 food processing plants in the U.S.

In 2011, Forbes recognized Kroger as the most generous company in America for its support of hunger relief and breast cancer awareness, as well as its support of the military and military families. It also supports more than 30,000 schools and grassroots organizations located it communities where their supermarkets are based. Kroger just released its 2012 Corporate Sustainability Report, which provides updates on its goals in social, environmental, and economic factors that affect sustainability.  

In this interview, Maya asks Lynn to tell us about what it’s like to be the first female officer working for social and environmental responsibility at one of the world’s largest grocery businesses.

MA: Can you share how you arrived at your current position with Kroger?

Lynn: Well, it is an interesting path. I was a teacher when I first got out of college, then I became a city planner and then a lawyer. In 1997, I came to Kroger in the legal department. After about six months there, I moved into my current role. Ten years ago, it became apparent that sustainability was not just a large social issue but also a large opportunity for corporations. That was about when we came up with a more focused strategy around sustainability.  

MA: How does your background align with what Kroger was seeking for this position?

LM: Both of my prior professions taught me to think about new ideas. The most important qualification for leading in this kind of role in a company is to be a curious person, a continuous learner and also someone who can connect well with technical experts. Although I’m not a technical expert myself, I can take their expertise and see the global picture of all of the areas of opportunity, who is going to embrace them and always keep them deeply connected to the business. 

MA: Was there an a-ha moment that led you to want to work for social and environmental change?

LM: It may sound old school, but Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring made a huge impact on me. There have also been a number of people who have influenced me as well.

MA: Do you have a family and has that had an impact on your career?

LM: I have a daughter who is 18 and I am always so impressed by how differently she sees the world. She is typical of her generation in that she looks at mine and does not admire our lifestyles. They think we are wasteful, that we’re out of balance and we work too much, and that we don’t devote enough of ourselves to the broader world. But she admires and respects me for how I’ve been able to engage my corporation in serious social issues. It is sobering and wonderful to be connected to a different generation through your children.

MA: You have received several awards recognizing your female leadership. Why are awards recognizing women in this field so important?

LM: The reality is that still less than five percent of executive positions in major companies in this country are held by women.  But if half of law school graduates are women, then we must still have a long way to go. In a field like sustainability, which is heavily science-based, it is especially important to emphasize women leaders and foster their development. I’ve been excited to see that many sustainability leaders at grocery and consumer packaged goods companies now tend to be women. It is important to have women leaders with a direct connection to the core business. While CSR and philanthropy can create reputaitons, as well as emotional connections between customers and associates, it is crucial that we have more women leaders in this field working on hard line business.

MA: Since your title does not contain “sustainability,” could you explain your role better as Group Vice President of “Corporate Affairs?”

LM: Corporate Affairs is somewhat of an old-fashioned term. I am a member of Kroger’s executive team and have a big basket at the company which covers corporate sustainability, external communications, social responsibility, media, government and community relations, consumer affairs, corporate contributions and the Kroger Foundation. It’s a connect-the-dots role. I find out what our customers care about and then find what we can do as a company to address it. It is the most wonderful job in the whole world!

MA: Is there a Sustainability Department at Kroger? If so, what is your relationship to it?

LM: I recently hired the role of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) with the total support of our CEO and all of our executive officers. We also have people embedded across the different business units who are devoted full-time to sustainability – in energy management, corporate brands, manufacturing, and transportation. Then, we have our Sustainability Roundtable, a group of 14 people at the corporate level. Sustainability people at our 17 different retail divisions report back to a contact at corporate to make sure we have a clear, aligned agenda across all 2,600 stores. We partner with our retail divisions and learn from each other.

MA: What are some ways that your team engages employees across the entire enterprise?

LM: Since we began our worker safety program, we have a great 70 percent reduction in accidents and a 30 percent reduction in energy usage. We are helping people understand how they can help. We used to try to teach people good bagging techniques, but then we just started telling them it how many bags they could each save from entering the environment and the process improved. These accomplishments are not just a result of technology; they’re a result of employees’ engagement.

About five years ago, we started the “Perishable Donation Program” that allows us to donate perishables to food banks. In the past, we had to just throw it all away, and our associates just hated that. Now we have donated 131 million meals worth of food.  Visually, it is “not retail-ready food,” like a bruised apple or overripe banana, but it is still safe food to eat. Corporate has shared this program with any retailer who has asked us, including Walmart. We believe that everybody ought to help solve the issue of hunger in our country.

MA: Could you provide a sustainability overview of the different retail divisions under the Kroger umbrella?

LM: When you look across the U.S., there are certainly areas that are much more focused on sustainability, like the coastal states, but you should never discount the fact that are high levels of interest in sustainability all over the U.S. For example, we see a lot of engagement in the college towns, like Lawrence, Kan. Our stores there are leaders in energy efficiency and technology innovation.

MA: Do you find that consumers are demanding different levels of transparency depending on the retail division? 

LM: We don’t have different strategies for different divisions. We did a study on the best opportunity areas across all divisions and energy was huge. Many of the biggest sustainability issues are in the backroom where the customers don’t even see them.

MA: There is such a fixation on grocery bags. Are the bags really one of the major points of impact?

LM: They’re what my friend calls “grocery store tumbleweed” – a visual symbol of grocery store waste. Yes, they have an impact. It is the highest impact? No. But since they’re a symbol, they are also a tool for easily engaging the customers and the associates in sustainability. We set out to save 1 billion plastic bags and we’ve accomplished it. We are teaching our baggers to put more items in each bag, encouraging customers to bring reusable bags and providing education on recycling. 

MA: What are some other hot button topics that grocery store companies face?

LM: We all focus on energy and the waste stream as well as transportation (it takes a lot of miles of moving products from the distribution centers and back), and water, which can be a big issue depending on what area of the country you’re in. Sustainable seafood and palm oil are the newer areas of focus for us and we think they are going to be even more important in the near future.

MA: The latest Kroger sustainability report does not have a “sustainable sourcing” section. What are you doing to ensure that high-impact commodities are being sourced ethically?

LM: This is an opportunity area. We don’t call it out in the report, because we are still in an exploratory stage.  The natural and organic foods market is growing at double digit numbers every year. Ten years ago, no one knew what cage-free eggs were and now they are demanded as the norm. We’ve done work around ethical sourcing, including carrying Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade Certified products, cage-free eggs, and sustainable seafood. We’ve eliminated a number of overfished species and have worked with the World Wildlife Federation to determine how we can change fishing policies, so that we don’t have to ban/boycott entire species of fish. Palm oil is another great example of where we need a new solution. We cannot boycott it, that’s not a long-term solution, but we also don’t have enough awareness about sustainable palm oil among the companies who should be buying it. 

MA: What programs does Kroger have that are specifically focused on women?

LM:  Kroger is a founding member of NEW (Network of Executive Women). This organization is doing outstanding work in attracting, retaining and developing women in the retail and consumer packaged goods (CPG) sectors. I’m also the executive sponsor of our women’s associate resource group—EDGE (Engage, Develop, Grow and Empower). I love it. I am inspired by these amazing, talented women. They are our future!

MA: What would you say is the biggest challenge you face right now in your work?

LM: There is always more to do than there are resources available. In a constantly changing field, you cannot allocate 100 percent of your resources -- you need to leave bandwidth for the surprises, new developments and the unanticipated.

MA: What are you most proud of accomplishing in your current role?

LM:  I am most proud of the enormous impact Kroger has had on feeding hungry people in our communities. In the past five years, Kroger associates have helped send food and funds equal to an astonishing 600 million meals.  

MA: What advice would you give young professionals who are interested in working on the sustainability of the grocery business?

LM:  The grocery business is full of opportunity right now.  It is a fast-changing environment where you can impact the everyday lives of people.  It is exciting and is open to your ideas, training, knowledge and talent.  Come join us!