Career13: Supermarket star

By Steve Hart

Stephen Lockie had just finished sixth form when he decided his school days were over. With no career path in mind he got a job at a supermarket – he enjoyed the work so much he bought one of his own.

Stephen Lockie says that working in supermarkets offers a world of opportunity - so long as you are not afraid of hard work. Photo / Ted Baghurst
Stephen Lockie says that working in supermarkets offers a world of opportunity - so long as you are not afraid of hard work. Photo / Ted Baghurst

"I was at school and just felt that I wasn't where I wanted to be - I just knew I had to try something else," he says.

Born and bred in South Auckland, Stephen left James Cook High School in Manuwera at 16 to work as a trolley boy at a New World supermarket in Manukau. The job didn't last long.

"You need strong legs to push trolleys around all day," he says.

He was in his first full time job for less than two months when his sister, who was working at the Manukau Pak'n'Save store he now owns, helped get him a job in its frozen food section.

"I decided I really liked the work in the store and someone told me I could actually own one, I thought 'that's a good idea - I'll have a go at that," he says.

In September 2010, 14 years after he first began collecting discarded trolleys at the Southmall New World, he bought the New World store in Takapuna. Then, in November 2012, he bought the store where his career first started to take shape.

Over 16 years the 32-year-old has worked at various branches of the Foodstuffs' supermarket chain as well as its support office in Mount Roskill. However, it was while working at Pak'n'Save in Manukau that he was identified by his manager as a potential store owner.

"He and the company was willing to support and invest in me, they could see me owning my own store," says Stephen.

His basic training included working in every department at various supermarkets.

"I got involved and proved I could make a success of each job I did," he says. "By doing that I got a thorough understanding of how the business operates."

Apart from gaining practical experience, Stephen went back to the classroom - gaining a mixture of in-house and external qualifications covering store management (a part-time three-year course), a national certificate in retail and wholesale, a one-year part time leadership course and he attended one-day courses covering topics such as marketing and accounting.

"Most of the education has been through Foodstuffs," he says. "I have been working, earning and learning."

Stephen's interest in training for management was sparked while watching one of his bosses negotiating with a supplier, deciding on what to buy and how much to pay.

"I thought that looks like a dynamic role, I really wanted to get into that," he says. "I said to my boss, 'I want your job - how do I get it?'. I told him I wanted to go as far as I could in the industry and he was really supportive.

"He offered to try me out as an assistant manager in the frozen food department and promised that if I did well he'd look at me for further development. I worked in the department for two years.

"That manager still works there - at the store I now own - so it's quite funny in that sense. But he gave me a chance to learn, and that led to a job as a freezer manager at another store. The Foodstuffs business is all about investing in people."

The New World and Pak'n'Save brands are owned by the Foodstuffs cooperative, and its board carefully selects store owners.

"There's a rule the firm has that means no one can own two or more stores in Auckland," says Stephen. "I sold the Takapuna New World. It's good because it gives people like me a chance to get a store, and stops large firms owning lots of them."

He says running a Pak'n'Save supermarket means each store and department manager gets to decide on what to buy from suppliers and what prices to charge customers.
"We are given the opportunity to tailor what we stock to our catchment area," he says. "Managers are autonomous - we can decide what to buy and what to sell, each department manager has a lot of power really.

"And that's what I really enjoy about it, you have the power to make decisions, and you'd see the results of those decisions right away in your store."

His days are busy though, despite all the food on the shelves, the job of being a supermarket owner is no picnic. His store is open from 8am to 10pm seven days a week, and in the run up to Christmas he was arriving at 5am and not leaving until 7pm - every day of the week.

"It's funny because it doesn't feel like a 12 or 13 hour day," he says. "Some evenings my wife and children come to the store to have dinner with me. My wife and children are very understanding of the commitment I have taken on.

"You can't get around working at weekends, they are our busiest trading times - but I do get time away when I need to, to keep that balance.

"I like turning up to work and doing what I need to do to get a result - that's what really drives me. I have found it very easy to get where I am today.

"Working in supermarkets is New Zealand's best kept secret - they offer a world of opportunity - so long as you are not afraid of hard work."

Stephen says his goal is to make his new store the best it can be, and is ambitious to take on a larger supermarket in the future.

"I also hope to become a board member or a director of Foodstuffs," he says. "One day I'll be helping to make decisions on the people coming through who want to own their own stores - that would be a privileged position to be in."

* Steve Hart is a freelance writer at SteveHart.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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