The Value of Family-Style Learning Strategy

In a challenging market, Liz Volk helps grocery chain Longo’s thrive by imploring a simple mantra: people first

A grocery chain looking to thrive in the complex greater Toronto area needs to know a few things about itself to build a brand that can hold its own. For Longo’s, those defining factors are pretty straightforward: the company is Toronto-based, family-owned, privately run, focused on fresh quality products and friendly service, and long-standing, with more than sixty years of history.

However, as the company grew, it needed someone to build out and evolve the people strategy. In 2006, Liz Volk became that someone when she assumed the role of vice president of human resources. “The people strategy must be aligned to business strategy and must be ever evolving because our business is growing and changing,” she says. “Strategy has to have a lot of flexibility inside it to grow and adapt.”

For Longo’s, that strategy starts with the talent acquisition processes and approaches. It then moves on to how people learn in the organization, how new team members are trained, how the company rewards its people, and how it keeps them safe and healthy. “Our belief is if we can to help our team members be the best they can be—healthy, active members of the community—that also plays out in how they impact our customers,” Volk says.

The efforts made toward well-being for Longo’s team members include online wellness programs, healthy living workshops, guest speakers that cover financial as well as physical well-being, and an extensive benefits plan to support team members and their families. The company has even joined forces with Toronto’s Humber College, which gives team members access to on-campus gym memberships and the opportunity to work with aspiring personal trainers.

Volk’s work with Ceridian human capital management system Dayforce proves to be another key partnership. Through that agreement, Longo’s team members can utilize cloud technology to view work schedules, request time off, view pay information, and sign up for benefits. Volk, meanwhile, uses it for labor management, time and attendance tracking, benefits, and employee self-serve options.

“Our belief is if we can help our team members be the best they can be—healthy, active members of the community—that also plays out in how they impact our customers.”

Working directly with vendors produces benefits in Longo’s employee training, as well. For example, it’s not uncommon for team members in specialty areas like the deli to travel to get better educated about the products that they work with and sell every day. “We do a lot of partnerships, particularly with our vendor community,” Volk explains. “That way, our team members can really understand where our food is sourced from all the way through to bringing it to life in our stores, so they can help our customers in being educated as well.”

All of this ties back into the treat-you-like-family culture that Longo’s continuously strives for with its customers. Volk calls it their secret sauce. “That really strong sense of service and friendliness differentiates us from some pretty big players in the market,” she says. In fact, Waterstone Human Capital named Longo’s one of Canada’s Top 10 Most Admired Corporate Cultures in 2015—which begat Volk’s current board position for determining that award.

Since she came on board at Longo’s in 2006, the organization has tripled in size, from two thousand team members to roughly six thousand. Now, the challenge is sustaining that culture while the company becomes successful enough to hold its own alongside the bigger, more prolific competitors.

One way to sustain that culture is through employee initiatives, which are intended to translate into a clearly defined employment brand, even as the organization spreads beyond the bounds of the greater Toronto area. “Because Longo’s has such a strong consumer brand here in Toronto, we’ve been able to leverage that to recruit and bring on new team members,” Volk says. “But we’re now of a much larger size and moving into some lesser-known areas for us, and it’s time to really have our own employment brand that dovetails the company brand.”

The recruiting, learning, and well-being strategies implemented by Volk are all part of that employment brand. The bigger picture for her, though, is a learning strategy that maps out an employee’s career at Longo’s. By studying the trajectories of its own people, she says, Longo’s can help with a blueprint for their future in the grocery industry. That could mean cross-training in different areas of the same store, or it might involve work at other locations.

“We don’t have it all mapped out yet, but we felt it was crucial at this stage of evolution with the company [to get it started] because we’re building out one to two stores a year and also have a growing online business,” Volk says. “It’s important to determine how our learning strategy is going to play out over the next three to five years.”

One thing is clear: Longo’s culture will be integrated throughout every step of the process. “From the moment you’re onboarded to every training development we have, conferences, and talent planning,” Volk says, “There’s always a component that aligns back to treating you like family.”