Not all of the 27,000 employees are happy to be part of the grocery chain's 'family'

October 18, 1990|By David Conn

There's trouble -- right here in River City. Trouble with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for people.

Giant Food Inc. Chairman Israel Cohen says his people are his most valuable asset. And Giant in many ways does build a family feeling among its associates. But a family that mushrooms to 27,000 strong is bound to suffer growing pains.

A former mid-level manager who says he left the company partly because he didn't get an expected promotion talks about the "pep rallies" that started occurring: "They used to have seminars to build 'family' [feeling]. And that was because they were losing it. But it was eyewash. As the company grew so fast, it lost that feeling."

A stock clerk in a Baltimore County store complains that "everything is rigid" and you "get hollered at" if you're caught talking to other staffers. His mother, a cashier, was told menacingly by a supervisor that "she would be watched," he says.

Some upper-level officers say the climate can get very political at the top. One mentions having to look over his shoulder for knives in colleagues' hands. Three vice presidents, all below 65, retired in the last two months. But Giant says their departures were unrelated, and one of them -- Ron Cooke, in charge of store operations -- has decided to come back.

Even in Columbia's Store 203, less than a year old, manager Bill Marriott wrestles with the occasional personnel problem. A cashier complains that a supervisor ordered her to work late.

"Things have changed. [The cashiers] don't want to stay anymore," says Barbara Burk, a management assistant. "The lines are long and they don't care."

Giant also has had to respond to charges of racial and sexual discrimination. In 1984, it paid almost $250,000 to female bakery department workers as a consent decree for complaints about wage and promotion policies.

Last year, Giant successfully defended itself against a lawsuit alleging a racially motivated firing, but the case drew attention to the company's spotty record in hiring and promoting African Americans. And shareholder meetings in the last three years have turned into debates about the lack of minority representation on the board of directors and among the company's pharmacists.

Among the 23 top officers pictured in the 1990 annual report, there is one woman -- Odonna Mathews, consumer affairs

director -- and there are no blacks.

Mr. Olson says that Giant "recognized . . . that we had to be more aggressive in going out and recruiting," so it created the position of minority affairs manager, started prospecting at Howard and Morgan State universities, and began working with church groups and community organizations.

There is a minority mentor program for in-store personnel, and black and women's forums for networking.

There are 14 black store managers and 10 black pharmacists, Mr. Olson says, and many more black co-managers, assistant managers and retail trainees. Last month, the company appointed a new director, retired Army Gen. Roscoe Robinson Jr., who is black. "We've shifted gears and [become] a little more aggressive," Mr. Olson says.

Those moves, and a fair-employment agreement signed in 1987 with a coalition of predominantly African American organizations, have largely cleared the air between Giant and some of its detractors.

"Giant has done, in my opinion, above average in attempting to achieve those goals" laid out in the fair-employment pact, says George N. Buntin, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Baltimore branch.

"If I could get every corporation to perform as they have, this would be a much better country," he says. "There's no question in my mind about that."

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