Kroger Houston president addresses possible looming food shortage

The grocery business is tough enough without hurricanes, a pandemic, labor disputes, supply chain constraints, inflation and whatever else may come next in the morning news. Laura Gump has worked through it all in a highly competitive business.

Gump was recently named president of the Houston Division for The Kroger Co., the largest supermarket chain in the U.S. with more than 2,700 stores and upwards of $ 137 billion in annual revenue. She is the first Hispanic female president in the Cincinnati-based chain’s 139-year history.

Gump began her career as a store management trainee for San Antonio-based HEB in 1989 and worked her way up through the ranks. She has bagged groceries, stocked shelves, gathered shopping carts and even sliced ​​meats as she learned store operations. She left HEB to work for Lowes in 2018, and, after her non-compete clause expired in 2020, she left Lowes and joined HE-B’s chief regional competitor, Kroger.

Her career has taken her all over Texas, including stints in Abilene, Corpus Christi, El Paso, Ennis, Houston and Victoria, learning how to provide food products for the state’s various regions and ethnicities in good times and bad.

Title: President of the Houston division for The Kroger Co.

Duties: Oversees 108 stores in Greater Houston, Bryan-College Station, Beaumont, and Lake Charles, LA.

Hometown: El Paso

Education: Bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at El Paso; masters degree from Our Lady of the Lake University; additional studies at Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program and Cornell University.

Former retail experience: HEB, Lowes.

First job in grocery business: Store management trainee.

Organizations: President of Women’s Edge, a group that mentors and promotes women in leadership at Kroger, board member of Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Houston; past board member of Teach for America, a group that confronts educational inequities ..

Gump recently spoke with the Houston Chronicle about her long career and challenges in the region’s grocery business. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Can you tell us about your upbringing?

A: I was born and raised in El Paso. My parents are Mexican immigrants. I tell people I am living the American Dream. My first language was Spanish, and I had a traditional Hispanic upbringing. I grew up watching my parents, working really hard, and learning to sell stuff. My father was a welder. My mother started a clothing store. Obviously, I am a first-generation Latina. I’m super proud. I love to represent and pay it forward to other people of color who can see me and also dream of achieving the same.

Q: What drew you to the grocery business?

A: I’m a grocery girl. It’s in my DNA. I have this heart for people and passion for results. And by the way, the week I joined Kroger was the week Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana. It was baptism by fire because my onboarding turned into an emergency response for our communities, which is another value that I have, the ability to work through tough times.

Q: When you joined Kroger in August 2020, you signed on with HE-B’s top competitor. What was that like?

A: I always say retail is a contact sport. It’s not personal, it’s business. HEB is a phenomenal grocer, but so is Kroger. They’re two really great companies. I grew up at HEB. I cut my teeth there. I learned a lot there. And I’m grateful for that. But I’m leading this team and we’re going to win. This is one of the most competitive cities in the entire nation, but we’re going to continue gaining market share in Houston like we’ve been these past couple years.

Q: What is your strategy?

A: We keep our eye on the competition and they keep their eye on us. Kroger, being the largest traditional grocer in the nation, we’re going to continue to use our scale to our advantage here in Houston. We’re not going to play defense, we’re going to play offense. That’s really how we take care of competition. We’re going to be the best Kroger we can be. We’re going to be the freshest, the fullest and the friendliest. We’ve got to win loyalty one customer at a time.

Q: What about HEB?

A: You don’t want one grocer in Houston. The customers win when there’s competition because we’re all fighting to be better for that customer.

Q: How is inflation reshaping your customer’s shopping habits?

A: Customers have this genuine economic concern right now. It limits their willingness to pay premium prices at restaurants, so that’s a huge advantage for all grocers.

Q: So, what’s bad for the restaurant is good for the grocer?

A: We’re social animals, so we’re always going to go to restaurants. But, coming out of COVID, people are still eating at home more. COVID taught folks to cook at home, and to try new things. And food-at-home trends continue to be super strong.

Q: And they’re buying more groceries?

A: Customers are making fewer trips to the store, but despite inflation, they are trading up in quality and bigger pack size. Natural and organic have taken off. Customers want to eat healthy.

Q: How difficult was it for your associates to come to work during Covid?

A: Everybody is exhaling coming out of what we’ve gone through over the past couple of years. I think it’s changed all of us. We’re not going to be the same. Our employees expect us to be different leaders with more compassion. And our store associates were heroic in managing the public. We asked that they not get into confrontations [with customers over mask mandates]. So, we had very few examples of things that got out of hand.

Q: How have you fared managing stores amid a labor shortage?

A: Especially coming out of Christmas, there was a labor shortage. People were calling in sick after that second spike in variants. But we’ve been super blessed in that we’ve been able to keep our teams. We’re always hiring. So, with the labor shortage, the impact hasn’t been so much internally as it has been just getting products on the shelves. Our suppliers, the supply-chain part of it, that’s where the challenge is.

Q: How has Kroger dealt with these supply-chain issues?

A: Kroger has always navigated through difficult supply chain environments in the past, especially during the early stages of the pandemic. But through our sheer scale and through our innovations, we have a track record of being able to deliver products to our customers in a super challenging environment. Our scale allows us to work with vendors in a big way. Against our competitors, that’s an advantage. We have an entire nation to pull from.

Q: Sometimes people see empty shelves and wonder if there’s a looming food shortage. Is there?

A: It’s not that there’s a shortage of products. There’s no shortage of food. There’s plenty of food out there, the challenge is getting it on the shelves. What we’ve done is work with our suppliers nationally and leveraged our fair share, so we are able to take care of Houstonians.

Q: In Houston, Kroger and UFCW have been in contract negotiations for longer than anticipated, and the parties have only recently reached a tentative agreement. Any comments on the dispute?

A: Our objective is always to negotiate contracts that respect our employees and our customers. We have to balance wage increases and keep health care affordable for our associates. The health care piece was the pinching point. We have to take care of associates, especially during COVID. They needed health care that was very sound.

Q: What are Kroger’s expansion plans for Texas?

A: Kroger continues to innovate and grow our share in Greater Houston and Texas alike. As part of our expanding fulfillment network and a continuation of Kroger’s successful entry into cities like Orlando and Tampa without physical stores, we’re entering Austin and San Antonio later this year through a delivery-only model, bringing innovation and modern e-commerce to more customers.

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