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How Summerhill Market’s Luka Cuvalo Takes The Lead

Canadian Grocer catches up with the Ontario grocer's director of merchandising
luka cuvalo
Luka Cuvalo

It’s one thing to be managing a location of a grocery store chain—and quite another to be helping manage all the other store managers. But that’s the dual leadership role Luka Cuvalo plays at Summerhill Market, where he is store manager and operations lead for the Forest Hill store in Toronto and director of merchandising for all of Summerhill’s stores, which number five in Canada’s largest metropolis and one in Aurora, Ont., which opened last year.  

Cuvalo—who has worked two decades in the grocery sector—reveals the skills to being an effective manager of both employees and other senior leaders, the metric by which he measures success and the most significant merchandising initiative he has undertaken to date. 

You started with Summerhill Market as a store manager in 2019 and was promoted to director of merchandising in 2022. How did managing a store prepare you for your director position? 

There are so many critical skills I rely on that I developed and harnessed as a store manager: leadership skills, interpersonal skills, the ability to adapt or pivot, weighing all options to make effective business decisions, and to think critically. I went from leading a team of department managers and retail staff to leading other senior managers and leaders within the organization.  I am taking what I learned about operating a business, executing strategies and embodying the vision on the store level and applying it company-wide across multiple store locations and other facets of the business. I have grown to rely on the active listening, collaboration and communication skills that I acquired as a store manager to ensure that I can retain the buy-in from other leaders, build consensus and forge meaningful professional relationships, while fostering an environment that promotes diversity and inclusion. 

READ: Summerhill Market opens new location in Toronto's west end

What merchandising initiative that you spearheaded makes you particularly proud? 

A deep dive analysis of our grocery category across the company. This was one of my first initiatives in the director of merchandising role and I relied heavily on the data, collaborating with store managers and our supplier relationships to make this project a success.  With each store manager, I reviewed the specific needs of their location alongside the current movement of their grocery inventory. We identified products that were thriving, items that were not performing up to par, and where the gap was with innovation and current items that may be missing in the assortment. I presented the findings from the reports, provided recommendations and ultimately entrusted each store manager to feel empowered to do what was best for their stores.  After removing low performing SKUs, I worked side by side with the team to adjust the current line-up and applied their feedback when sourcing new products.  Our work collectively has reduced waste, increased sales within the grocery category, highlighted key opportunities for new products and ultimately gave our customers the channel to engage as the most important voice by providing valuable feedback.

How do you measure success? 

To measure my success with leading merchandising, a variety of factors are taken into consideration, including sales volume, sell-through rate, gross margin, product turnover and waste.  While these indicators all matter, customer satisfaction is the most important measurement to me personally. Keeping the customer satisfied is at the cornerstone of my role. I never feel good saying no to a customer. I always strive to find a solution to make sure that the store is well-stocked with items that the customers are looking for and we, in turn, can provide them with the optimal shopping experience. The magic happens on the sales floor and this is where you’ll find the information needed to be successful. If every customer is satisfied, then I can feel successful in my role.

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You talk about "empowering others through collaboration." What does that look like in practice?  

It’s centered around teamwork and communication. I always let my team know that we are one team and I rely on them. I foster open, honest and transparent communication to build trust and create a space where people feel safe to share their ideas, challenges and opinions in general.  It is about sharing the vision and setting clear objectives for the business as well as each person, so they can feel included and understand the importance of the role they play. Empowerment, collaboration, communication and trust are all important for sustaining a successful business, but it also creates opportunity to think outside of the box, have some fun and enjoy the people you work with.

READ: Four ways grocers can boost enthusiasm and dedication in their workforce

What do you do outside the office that helps you be a better leader at work? 

I have a beautiful family with a loving wife and three sons. I owe much of who I am at work to the person my family allows me to be outside of work. We live a very busy and full life. I face many challenges and am kept on my toes constantly. My family life has prepared me to be a better leader because I know the importance of setting a good example, providing clear direction, ensuring I follow through, and offering the support and guidance needed by and deserving of those around me. People at home rely on me similarly to the people at work. I strive to be the best version of myself for all of them and remember each day to show gratitude for the belief they have in me.

Canadian Grocer's How I Take The Lead series speaks to people from across the industry about how they take the lead on a specific project, initiative or aspect of their job. You’ll hear from grocery leaders about their passions, how they tackle challenges, what they’ve learned and what keeps them motivated. Have a pitch? Send it to digital editor Jillian Morgan

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