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Safeway training program helps veterans transition into management roles

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After nearly five years in the Air Force, Monica Linzmeyer packed up her uniforms and put them in the attic. These days, she wears slacks and dress shirts to her job as a Safeway store manager in Gaithersburg.

Linzmeyer, 29, is one of about 150 former military officers who have completed Safeway’s 41-week Junior Military Officers training program for former lieutenants and captains. Veterans receive a crash course in topics such as finance and union relations, as well as on-the-job training. At the end of the program, graduates are placed in store manager or warehouse superintendent positions throughout the country.

“We’re looking at these people to become division presidents, marketing vice presidents, executive vice presidents,” said Greg Ten Eyck, a spokesman for the Pleasanton, Calif.-based chain of grocery stores. “It’s a great leadership pool that was previously untapped.”

Although companies such as General Electric have had veteran-training programs for years, it’s a new model for the grocery industry, where the vast majority of store managers have worked their way up the ranks over 10, 20 or 30 years.

“Most division presidents started out bagging groceries,” Ten Eyck said. “That’s the traditional career path — bagging groceries, then checker, then department manager, et cetera.”

Russ Jackson, senior vice president of human resources for Safeway, says he came up with the idea for the program while thumbing through an issue of Fortune magazine in 2010.

“There had pictures of military people in fatigues, and then pictures of the same people in civilian clothes,” he said. “All of a sudden, it just crystallized for me that there needs to be a bridge between the two.”

He pitched the idea to Safeway executives. Within three months, Jackson had devised a curriculum, sifted through applicants and selected five veterans to begin the first round of the program.

Adding more programs

“Normally, we put store managers through leadership training,” Jackson said. “This program flipped it — we didn’t care if you had retail experience or not, we just wanted you to have substantial leadership experience.”

Employees hired through the program are paid a signing bonus of about $10,000 and a base salary that starts at roughly $75,000 per year.

The initiative has been so successful, Jackson says, that Safeway has created two additional programs: one for noncommissioned officers such as corporals and sergeants, and another for all military veterans.

Safeway has hired 1,200 former members of the military this year, with plans to bring in at least 1,000 more in 2013. The company has hired a former military recruiter and Army captain to help pinpoint new participants.

“We’ve had to find our way into this space,” Jackson said. “When they leave the military, do they think they’ll go work for a very large grocery chain? Probably not, but we’re hoping to change that.”

For Linzmeyer, a former Air Force launch officer who worked with ballistic missiles, the transition to managing a grocery store has been a change of pace.

“It’s like you’re managing seven different businesses under one roof,” Linzmeyer said. “You’re constantly multi-tasking. In the military, you’d have a checklist, you’d go to a briefing every single morning and you knew exactly what was going on every day. Here, you never know what’s going to get thrown at you.”

Aside from a part-time stint at a coffee stand, Linzmeyer didn’t have any prior retail experience. In college, she’d studied criminology and had gotten a master’s in management, with a concentration in health care.

But, Linzmeyer said she’s getting the hang of things. In the nine months she’s managed the store, she has hired nearly one-third of its 103 employees. Sales are also up.

“I came into this program brand-new,” she said. “They had to teach me everything from scratch.”

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