Skogens share lessons, success with UW-Green Bay

Dave and Mark Skogen feature storyNote: An edited version of these interviews was published in the May 2015 print edition of the Inside UW-Green Bay magazine.

Father and son Dave and Mark Skogen have piloted the growth of Festival foods from humble beginnings to 20 stores with more than 5,000 employees today. Dave took over the business from his father, Paul, and transformed what was a small chain of IGA stores in the 1970s and ‘80s into Festival Foods in 1990. Mark became President and CEO in 2006, and through his leadership, Festival Foods has grown into an industry leader. Dave, now Chairman of the Board, was named “Wisconsin Grocer of the Year” in 2005, and he and his wife, Barb, were named Outstanding Philanthropists in 2007 by the Association of Fundraising Professionals – Upper Mississippi Valley Chapter. Dave published a book in 2013, Boomerang! Leadership Principles that Bring the Customer Back. He was the keynote speaker at UW-Green Bay’s Business Week dinner this spring. Mark serves as a member of the UW-Green Bay Foundation Board and also serves on boards for the Green Bay Packers, Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and Boys and Girls Club of Green Bay. He is a devoted Phoenix fan and active member of the Phoenix Fund.

What does servant leadership mean to you?

MARK: My definition of servant leadership is removing barriers and obstacles for those whom you lead. Helping others to be the best they can be in life, work, family, etc. Give those you lead the resources they need to win. It’s not just a “work thing” either. Leadership in family life is very important, as well. Giving your kids what they need — not always what they want — is an act of leadership. They want to stay up until 2 a.m., want to eat junk food, want to watch TV for three hours… but what they need is good rest, good nutrition, and good study skills.

DAVE: Plain and simple — putting others’ needs (not wants) before mine.

What have you learned from each other?

MARK: There are many things I could list here so I’ll just name a few. I have learned to do whatever it takes to make the guest happy. There is rarely a step my Dad won’t take to satisfy a guest. I have learned to be passionate about the business. My Dad gives 100 percent when it comes to thinking about what can make us better and what changes should happen to raise our game to the next level. The commitment that he has shown to our company is second to none. I have also learned a lot about giving back in our communities. My Grandpa valued community involvement when he started the business and my Dad has championed it to this day. I have never known another way to operate than to be involved and give back wherever we can.

DAVE: When businesses are passed on through generations, a lot of times you hear that the next generation doesn’t have the same qualities that the previous generation had. The business changes, and not for the better. Through passing on the business to Mark, I have learned that your own children can be as good, or better, than their parents. Mark took what we built and he continues to make it better than what it was.

Festival Foods is known for its response to community needs and opportunities to give back. What is your personal philosophy on philanthropy?

MARK: Community involvement is one of our five values at Festival. We have the support of our guests and we feel its right to give that support back out to the community. We want to be more than a grocery store; we want to make an impact in the cities where we do business. The old corner grocery store in the 1940s had an importance that was greater than just selling groceries. Even though the stores are bigger today we want to still be the place a community can count on for giving.

DAVE: Giving isn’t a choice, it’s an obligation. We are born takers — babies and children take. Only when we are taught to give do we learn to give. The only choice we have is: Will we give to our capacity; or as little as we can?

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome that has perhaps led to the greatest opportunity?

MARK: The transition from the small Skogen’s IGA grocery store format to the Festival Foods format in 1989 was not an easy transition. We went from 25,000 square feet stores to 60,000 square feet. It’s a different kind of operation that we had to learn on the fly. This bold move to a larger format store was the catalyst to our growth. We would not be where we are today had we stuck with the smaller, conventional format store we were operating prior to 1989.

DAVE: For 35 years of our existence we were a small store operator. In 1990, we decided the Big Box model was going to be our future niche. There was a huge learning curve, but it ended up being a nearly seamless transition.

What are the qualities of a great employee?

MARK: A great associate has a bounce in their step and an energy level that is ready to take on any challenge the day may bring. We always say we hire great attitudes and we will train the skills.

DAVE: In two words, Character (our moral maturity) and Humility (which comes from a Greek word that means “close to the ground”).

What about a great leader? How do you identify the future leaders in your company?

MARK: A great leader can rally the hearts and minds of associates around a goal that is identified as being good for all concerned. The leader needs to be a good listener and good at organizing priorities. In retail there are so many moving parts that prioritizing goals can be harder than you may think. A great leader cannot be afraid of holding others accountable. If fear of making an associate “mad” can’t be overcome, the leader will ultimately fail.

DAVE: Humble, honest, forgiving, fearless, kind… more of a plow horse than a show horse.

To what do you owe your success?

MARK: I believe I owe my success to my parents, who set the great foundation in which I grew up. I recognized the amazing career opportunity they provided me without being told I had to get into the business. I would say that the support they gave me for being involved in sports was also important. Basketball in particular taught me so much about drive, determination and the desire to win. On the court I learned how to work hard and find ways to be successful with a team full of different personalities.

DAVE: Focus, passion and luck. If you don’t attribute luck, you’re giving yourself too much credit.

How do you start your day?

MARK: After my cup of coffee I start the day with a run, several games of racquetball, or a workout with a personal trainer. I enjoy getting my exercise in first thing in the morning so that when my day is done I can relax and not feel tempted by excuses to not workout.

DAVE: The daily God Calling Devotional Journal and a healthy XS Energy Drink.

Some would say brand loyalty is dead? Do you agree?

MARK: There are so many more choices for shoppers today. I don’t believe there is zero possibility to earn brand loyalty… you may just have to work harder for it. If you listen to guests to understand what they need, stay on top of trends in your industry, and maintain a strong dedication to customer service, why would a guest not return? We know there are choices and that guests may check out other retailers, but we believe that if we maintain focus on what we do best our guests will come back.
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AVE: Brand loyalty dead? Disagree! I believe those who feel differently aren’t in the trenches enough with their antenna up. When you build relationships, you’re building loyalty.

How do you consistently engage the consumer?

MARK: Engagement starts with “ten tiling,” which is greeting any guest within ten floor tiles. Any guest within ten floor tiles of an associate should get a hello, goodbye, how are you, or can I help you find something today. This is basic stuff and an easy way to break the ice with a guest. From there the door is open to deeper conversations about product or anything else a guest may need from us that day.

DAVE: With patience and energy. You need to be in good shape to continually engage guests. You can’t do it behind a desk.

Name three characteristics that describe the other, and three characteristics that describe yourself.

MARK: Three adjectives I would use to describe my Dad are passionate, change-agent and innovative. As for me, I believe I am driven, generous, and compassionate.

DAVE: For Mark, I would say intelligent, risk-taker and passionate. For myself, passionate, focused, humble.

How do you handle conflict?

MARK: I believe the best way to handle conflict is to meet it head on. So often what may be viewed as a negative situation isn’t so bad once you ask some questions and share your feelings with others. There is always room for improvement when it comes to this approach, but I do believe asking questions to find the root of the conflict gets you to resolution much quicker.

DAVE: Carefully! Be open and honest with people – no sugar coating. Have faith that both parties will prevail in the end.

What has been your biggest challenge in keeping your company nimble and responding to the needs of consumers?

MARK: Empowerment. We have always used the word in the past but it’s just a word until others believe they are empowered to make decisions. This year, and the years forward, we will be focusing more and more on showing the team that it is OK to make decisions on their own. If mistakes are made along the way we will support the decision maker and use it as an opportunity to coach on how their next decision can be even better. I despise the sluggishness of bureaucracy and will do what it takes to keep things moving quickly in our business.

DAVE: Coaching our teammates on the importance of change. To go from good to great, we must continually change. We need to look at who we can be, not who we are. Old paradigm: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. New paradigm: continuous improvement.

Is there a reason you are so successful in Wisconsin? Will we see Festival expand to other parts of the Midwest?

MARK: We have been successful because of a culture that puts people first. We feel we must find the best teammates and take care of them in a way that they won’t be taken care of elsewhere. If our associates feel good about how they are treated they will, in turn, take care of our guests. Sure, we need to have good products, clean stores and competitive prices, but our base for success is our associates. I wouldn’t say we won’t ever have a store in another state but controlled growth has always been important to us. We still have opportunities in Wisconsin and until we’ve exhausted our opportunities here that is where we will maintain our focus.

DAVE: We diligently study the markets we serve, and we’re reasonably patient to not get ahead of ourselves. (We’re not just throwing darts at cities!) If my father had built his first store in Minnesota, I think we’d find the same success in Minnesota. Will we see Festival expand in the Midwest? Probably not in my time. There are still plenty of opportunities in Wisconsin.

What is one thing most people wouldn’t know about your father (son)?

MARK: I think it may be how passionate he has been about sports his entire life. He has told the story a few times about how as a younger man he thought he wanted to have a career as a coach. He realized that while his dream of coaching a baseball team wasn’t going to happen, he had an opportunity to coach in retail grocery. He and I both realize that while grocery isn’t a sport as most people would define it, you are still coaching every day. His passion for coaching has served him well in the retail grocery world.

DAVE: Growing up, Mark was introverted. Upon graduating from college, he was headed to Marshfield to run one of our grocery stores. It was as if overnight he became an extrovert. He chose to do the hard work of changing to develop himself in order to lead.

How would you end this statement? “If I had to do this all over again, I would…”

MARK: Change very little. We can all name little things that we would like to have play out differently over time, but we also learn a lot from things that don’t go well. I had a great childhood. I enjoyed and benefited from a sports background. I was thrown into the fire at a young age to lead two failing grocery stores that we had purchased. I was fortunate to come across a lot of great teammates who helped us grow to 22 stores strong in Wisconsin. I have two great children who are off to a great start in their lives. I couldn’t ask for much more.

DAVE: Learn how to fly a small plane, for personal and business use.