David and Tom Gardner recently interviewed
TMF: Mr. Gutierrez, you mentioned the misguided previous assumption in the industry that at some point along the way an "evil empire" would emerge and dominate the food industry. While that hasn't happened, certainly Wal-Mart
Gutierrez: First of all, I will be the first to tell you I have no clue as to what is going to happen in 15 years. We try to keep our planning and our planning horizons out about three years. We do our very, very best to serve each customer the best we can. In fact, our founder started this policy back in the early 1900s. It is called The Square Deal Policy. Everyone gets the same; it is proportionate but you get the same proportion as your size. Obviously, some of the retailers are extremely large and the larger they are, the more they impact our business, the more they can help us grow, and the more attention we pay. But we are all over our top customers. I would like to think that we are not giving any one of them special favors or anything like that.
TMF: It does look to be a dangerous business to be in now -- regional or national supermarkets up against Wal-Mart.
Gutierrez: Yeah, you know what I think is happening is a lot of people are looking for the right strategy. Some have found it; some have done a good job and have differentiated themselves. Others are still in the process of finding their own niche. I think we will see more of that and will see more of that shaking out. But many supermarkets have found their own positioning and have been successful at it.
TMF: You were born in Cuba. Your father owned a pineapple plantation. What did your dad's experience teach you about business?
Gutierrez: Well, a couple of things. One, is my father is a very pragmatic businessman. I think that is probably characteristic of other Cubans I have met. So things like staying away from very abstract metrics. We focus on very simple things like cash flow. So it is a very pragmatic way of doing business.
The other thing, of course, is you go through an experience like that where you lose everything your family owns, you don't take things for granted, you know? At any point in time, I know that things can go wrong, so I tend to worry a little bit more than most people.
TMF: We had General Mills'
Gutierrez: Interesting. I am not sure we have one. I am just kidding. This is such a competitive business that you always have products you look back at and wonder what you were thinking. We launched a product towards the end of, actually right in the middle of the oat bran craze, which was called S.W. Graham. It had nothing to do with oat bran, and consumers were looking for oat bran and anything that had oat bran sold -- and this was all about graham and the goodness of graham. That probably lasted six weeks on the shelf.
TMF: What was the "S.W." part?
Gutierrez: S.W. was the name of the person, the initials of the person who invented graham.
TMF: Aha. Let's talk about your philosophy of leadership, but I would like to phrase it this way: What makes for a poor leader? What are the qualities of a poor leader that could mislead us into thinking that they are in fact a great leader?
Gutierrez: Good question. I think that the subject of ego is probably one of the most interesting ones when you get into the area of leadership. Sometimes ego and bravado are mistaken with leadership and conviction and will and things like that. I think that ego -- leaders with very, very, very large egos -- can be somewhat dangerous because you never really know if they are working for themselves or they are working for the company.
I think that what people want to see is a leader who is working for something bigger than just his or her career; that there is a bigger mission. That there is a bigger sense of team and a bigger sense of accomplishment than just the leader trying to get ahead. I will tell you, people see through that very quickly.
Tomorrow: Reality TV and the Keebler Elves.