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Mentoring, retaining talent, hot topics at Star Women conference

Photos: Peter McCusker

Women have long been the predominant shoppers at grocery stores. But they are becoming a force within grocery companies as well, causing certain issues to rise up. For instance, how do women working in the 24/7 grocery environment balance the demands of home life vs. work life. And how can they help attract even more women to the grocery industry?

These were among the topics discussed Tuesday at the Star Women in Grocery conference, hosted by Canadian Grocer. The conference comprised a panel of six female executives, all of whom are among the 16 winners of the magazine's 2012 Star Women in Grocery award.

The panelists were (photo above, from left): Krista Payne, director of operations at Sobeys; Jenny Longo, director of private brands at Longo's; Sylvia Colbert-Maier, Loblaw's senior director of learning and development for Ontario and Western Canada; Sarah O'Regan, account director at SC Johnson; Karen Kuwahara, president of Nestle Purina Petcare; and Stacey Kravitz, customer vice-president at Kraft.

The panel was moderated by Nancy Kwon, Canadian Grocer's managing and web editor, and drew an audience of some 250 people at Toronto's International Centre.

On the issue of work-life balance, all panelists agreed there is no easy answer to the problem since retail's hours are often chaotic. "You need to be there when you need to be there. Long hours are just part of the business," Colbert-Maier said.

Technology, however, has helped, allowing women to time-shift work schedules. Sometimes, Kuwahara noted, employees have to leave early to pick up their kids. But then they work later in the evening from home, talking to co-workers via e-mail.

Panelists said they sometimes have to make hard choices about their careers. But they said the best way to balance work and life is not to mix the two. "When I'm at home I'm at home. When I'm at work I'm dedicated to my work," Colbert-Maier said.

Several panelists described their own company's efforts to attract and retain more female talent. O'Regan said that when SC Johnson's recruits at universities, it sends senior staff out to the events and makes sure also that women executives are there so students can actually see themselves rising through the ranks of the company in the future.

O'Regan added that her company has a mentorship program in which each new female hire is paired with a more veteran woman employee.

Several panelists said they see one of their jobs as mentoring younger staff. "As a mentor I hope to share my mistakes along the way and act as an advocate for them," Kravitz said. "It's very important to have an advocate in the organization."

Grocers and CPG companies have, in fact, made strides hiring women. About 46 per cent of those going through Sobeys store manager training program are women, said Payne, and three women are currently in the meat cutter training program.

Senior Sobeys staff and store managers, meanwhile, focus on finding talent to rise up the ranks. "Sometimes these people get tapped on the shoulder and are told 'you can do this and we'll take the journey with you,' " Payne said.

Longo, meanwhile, said that 50 per cent of staff  and 40 per cent of management at Longo's is comprised of women "and we're seeing that increase as well."

A few companies have programs dedicated to helping staff after they are hired. For instance, Loblaw has set up Women@Loblaw, an online network that provides professional development support to women through mentoring and workshops. SC Johnson, meanwhile, has a robust gender diversity council that holds events and brings in speakers. The goal is to encourage networking, and men are also sent to these events, O'Regan said.

Despite some challenges, the panelists did point out that as women they bring expertise to grocery that men cannot–specifically their knowledge as shoppers. As Payne pointed out, a woman store manager brings a certain "flair" to merchandising. "Guys talk more about meat and potatoes."

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