Clear communication, positive reinforcement and a constant drive to improve are all tools frequently used by this year's GRAMs National Manager of the Year, Paddy O'Neill of Superquinn Knocklyon
Aug 8 2012
Paddy O’Neill of Superquinn Knocklyon has been named National Manager of the Year 2012
What are the qualities that make a good manager a truly excellent manager? Every year the ShelfLife GRAMs judges grapple with this very question when contemplating who should be named the National Manager of the Year. Naturally, an ability to cope and even thrive, regardless of whatever comes your way in the unpredictable day-to-day world of grocery retailing is a crucial pre-requisite. In this respect, winner Paddy O’Neill of Superquinn Knocklyon, Dublin, was an ideal candidate. Indeed the art of quick-thinking was a lesson he learnt early on in his career, when fruit and veg was the first department he managed.
“It gave you all the challenges of how to handle fresh produce and showed how important fresh is to the customer,” says O’Neill. “You understand that the life of the product belongs to the customer and not just to you. Just because it has five days’ shelf life, doesn’t mean you can keep it in your back-up room for four, it really is important to get that product out into the customer’s grasp so that they have that home life and that really cuts down on food waste.” Indeed, he notes: “I think that challenge itself keeps you on your toes and really gets you focused on what this business is about.”
Speaking of keeping O'Neill on his toes, ShelfLife was keen to learn who had inspired him throughout his retailing career. Not surprisingly for a man who describes himself as “Superquinn born and bred,” the legendary retailing stalwart that is Feargal Quinn was his first answer. “A walk with Feargal Quinn around your store was an experience because it was never about anything the accountant would want to know,” he explains. “It was just simply about what the customer thinks and what affect changes would have on the customer and could we do things even better?” Retail director Cormac Tobin was another influential figure, “like another version of Feargal, really driven and passionate. Probably what I learned from him was just how to try and stay passionate about the business after all the years that you’ve been in it.”
Standards are consistently high at the 27,000 sq m Superquinn Knocklyon store which recently benefited from expanded fruit and veg and bakery departments
A waning passion for the business has certainly never been a problem for this particular retailer, as while he first joined the Superquinn group over two decades ago in 1986, his journey has proved anything but static. His very first role involved working “on the trolleys,” and since then he has steadily progressed up the career ladder. Early on in his career, his chosen route was an apprenticeship in the butchery division, but he embarked on a change of direction around 1991 and subsequently became the assistant charge hand at Superquinn Blanchardstown’s fruit and veg department.
After just a couple of years in this role, the company opened Superquinn Lucan, where a fruit and veg charge hand was required. Fortuitously for O’Neill, the Lucan store manager decided “to take a leap of faith” and let him “have a go” at managing his own department. However after two years, the ambitious retailer concedes he felt a bit confined and decided to look at entering into store management. He soon found himself working as a trainee manager at Superquinn Blackrock, where he stayed for around two years, before being appointed store manager of his first supermarket, Superquinn Sutton in 2000. He later went on to manage both Superquinn Blackrock and Superquinn Ballinteer before relocating to his current position at the 27,000 sq m Knocklyon store, some two years and seven months ago.
For those not used to working for a multiple or larger group, this path may well appear to involve a high turnover of locations. As O’Neill explains: “We don’t move managers as much as we would the trainees and assistants, to gain experience of working with different people, different demographics, and different sized stores.” Managers, he adds, generally would stay for five or six years at a store, so that customers and colleagues “can relate to the individual.” And while in some cases a manager could be in a store “for eight or nine years,” O’Neill says that this depends on the opportunities available, as occasionally, “if you’ve been doing really well in a store and one of the higher profile stores becomes available, you can get a move quickly into one of those.”
After acquiring the Superquinn chain in 2005, owners Select Retail Holdings brought another new experience O’Neill’s way. “After a conversation with Simon [Burke], we looked at where the company needed to go and he then asked me to do the first revamp for them in Blanchardstown,” explains the manager. A revamp is obviously a major task for any individual and their group to complete, and one that sheds a certain amount of light on the owners’ management style. “Obviously we had come very much from Feargal’s background and people had a different vision of where the company needed to be and where it needed to be positioned,” says O’Neill.
Explaining more about how Select Retail Holding’s style differed from that of previous owners, the Quinns, he notes: “In some ways the business was never about fixtures and fittings, the business was always about people and quality. I just think that in some way we were maybe slightly, not really understanding whether this is right for the customer, will the customer understand what we’re trying to do here?” Naturally, this discussion leads to some reflection on Superquinn’s current owner, the Musgrave Group. “I think where we’re going at the moment, it’s a really positive journey with Musgraves in that they really are lifting the lid on what our customers wanted us to be in the past and what was right back then and maybe looking back at some of those things and realising that hasn’t changed. The company has certainly become re-energised and very much customer-focused.”
A new vision
ShelfLife is curious to learn more about the changes the Musgrave Group has introduced. “I think vision is the first word I’d use,” answers O’Neill candidly. “It’s actually having a strategy and a point where we want to get to, and starting to build a commercial plan around how we get to that point with a huge focus on the customers and also the training needs” in order to “bring back really positive customer engagement”.
On the question of whether the store now offers better value, he adds: “I think we certainly have addressed a gap between Superquinn and its competitors, but sometimes value isn’t the actual price, it’s also the whole service experience”.
Of course, managing such a large store would be impossible without its dedicated team of 157 staff. The Knocklyon store has two assistant managers, who look after the fresh and ambient departments respectively, with a team of eight junior managers below them. For O’Neill, regular communication is essential to ensure performance objectives are met. He meets with duty managers on a daily basis to go through the previous day’s performance, and any issues or emails that have arisen so that everyone can agree what should be focused on. Then, at a weekly meeting, “the whole business in its entirety” is examined.
Visibility on shop floor essential
In saying this, O’Neill tries to “manage on the floor all of the time” so that he’s “visible to customers” and “accessible for colleagues and their department managers”. This provides staff with direction and “acts as a role model” in terms of interacting with customers. Being on the floor also gives him the opportunity to see at first hand if the team’s objectives are actually being implemented, and he can then “give regular feedback” to staff.
When asked more about his management tips, he adds: “I think you’ve also got to be really good at communicating with your colleagues. Don’t just think you know what customers want, you’ve really got to see what’s happening on the floor. You’ve also got to have an obsession for standards.” For O’Neill this means “never settling” for anything other than the best you can possibly be and still everyday challenging that. "I always say it’s right for now but maybe we’ll look at it again tomorrow and see can we tweak it then.”
Taking feedback on board from colleagues and customers is also “really important because that’s who we have to work for”. In fact, as a result of customer feedback stating Knocklyon’s fruit and veg and bakery departments were too narrow, both were recently widened to create “a much more inviting entrance when you come into the store” with greater space in the bakery allowing it to be segmented into different sections.
Maintaining a loyal transaction
The manager adopts a realistic approach towards customers’ changing financial circumstances and concedes that while “we will not stop people from going to the discounters, what we can do is make sure that when they come here, we really remind them what’s great about Knocklyon”. The success of this strategy is borne out by the fact that while the store’s overall spend has come down, transaction numbers have remained stable, so they’re not losing customers.
This level of customer loyalty can also be attributed to continually strong innovation in-store. “Customers are coming in every single week, so we’re constantly trying to challenge ourselves to excite them,” says O’Neill, by introducing new products and displays and highlighting product seasonality through recipe ideas and tastings. In fact, O’Neill jokes that tastings are available across so many departments, such as bakery, cheeses, deli and fruit and veg, that, “you can pretty much have your dinner running around the shop!”
Gaining recognition as a team
On the topic of his reaction to winning the highest GRAMs accolade available, O’Neill emphasises that the result was very much a team effort. “When I got the award, it’s a great personal achievement for the effort that you’ve put in but it’s really about people. I remember coming back and putting the award in the canteen with a big thank you note to all the colleagues. Really it’s their award, you’re representing them and likewise they represent you and it just says to the team, ‘you know what, if we really work hard, and we really focus we can get recognised, by our customers most of all but also by the trade for doing a job really well’. Coming back, it lifts everybody so I think every [award] initiative that you can enter, it just drives the passion for this business, and that’s what the food business is all about.”