Why a Compassionate Mind-set Strengthens H-E-B

Tina James on how a shared focus on helping one another echoes company-wide

Tina James, chief people officer at H-E-B, uses an employee-centered mind-set to help the supermarket chain grow.

Tina James wasn’t expecting an extensive stay with H-E-B. Originally from Washington, DC, James pictured that putting in a few years at the supermarket chain right after earning her MBA would help her cut her teeth in business, but she never imagined remaining in Texas. After transitioning to an HR role in the company, though, James experienced what she still considers one of the most monumental moments of her career when H-E-B worked to help its employees—who the company affectionately refers to as partners—and community members alike combat severe flooding on the Guadalupe River.

H-E-B provided goods and services that partners may have been without, and it was James’s job to ensure that every team member received them. Providing supplies off the shelves, gift certificates to replace clothing, and hotel rooms for those whose homes were underwater, James witnessed firsthand how each team member was treated with respect and dignity.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” James recalls. “They just believe in helping people.”

More than twenty years later and now as the company’s chief people officer, James is committed to serving each and every H-E-B employee with the same family mind-set and spirit that inspired her early in her career. She says the partner-centered culture at H-E-B is not only a hallmark of the company, but it’s also responsible for incredible employee engagement and retention.

“That is what really distinguishes us,” James explains. “When you treat people like their whole life matters to you, they engage heavily and are loyal and take care of their customers.” James says the company doesn’t have to offer a litany of customer service programs or initiatives, because a culture of service is deeply ingrained in the philosophy of H-E-B. “We treat our people right and trust that they’ll do the same for our customers,” she adds.

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James is the first chief people officer in the company’s 113-year history. In her extensive career at H-E-B, James has used her HR role to serve partners in increasingly progressive means that she feels is reflective of the company’s strong culture.

For example, when the US Department of Transportation regulations called for drivers to put an emphasis on physical fitness, James’s department hand-crafted a program to aid drivers’ adaptations to the new health expectations. “It’s a case of asking yourself, ‘What is the right thing to do here, and how can we help people be at their best?’” James says.

In an effort to continue helping underserved or overlooked populations, her team has worked to expand mental health coverage and options for H-E-B partners and their families. “Any mom will tell you the story of trying to get their child in to see a mental health professional, and you have to have empathy,” James says. In hopes of minimizing wait times and bureaucratic red tape, H-E-B formed a healthcare alliance with several providers that offer partners the opportunity to see health professionals on a day-of basis, far from the weeks or months it can commonly take.

James and her team have also reengineered H-E-B’s interview and hiring processes for candidates with high-functioning autism. She says that genius-level minds are often passed over because their communication style may not fit a conventional job interview. “The very skills they don’t have are ones they need to pass an interview,” James says.

By tweaking the interview and hiring practices, James says that partners were able to demonstrate their mastery as IT professionals, testers, and developers, and oftentimes, completely change their lives. A new year-round program will also train about twelve interns with high-functioning autism at a time. James says it’s demonstrated that managers don’t have to do anything particularly “special” to accommodate those with autism.

“To be honest, the special skills it takes to manage partners with autism are just good management practices: be clear in your expectations, give timely feedback, and provide examples of alternative behavior,” she explains.

And while H-E-B’s commitment to its partners was a formative experience for her early in her career, James had the opportunity to face down floodwaters while at the helm of HR. Hurricane Harvey’s catastrophic impact on Texas left James and the entire H-E-B team with new and novel action items. Along with generators and mobile kitchens, James recalls that this was the first time the company had to run down mobile shower units to send into disaster areas.

“I have the most high-performing team I could ever imagine,” James says. “You can’t write a playbook for something like Hurricane Harvey. You just have to hope you have the best people around you, and they will rise to the occasion.”

And James says H-E-B continues to demonstrate its willingness to go the extra mile. For partners who had flood insurance, H-E-B helped to pay their deductibles. For those who didn’t have insurance, H-E-B helped to pay for home repairs. “I don’t know of many other employers who would do that,” James says. “But if your brother or sister were in that position, wouldn’t you do what you could to help them?”

In return, James says, H-E-B employees demonstrated their loyalty and pride in their company when it truly counted. “We had partners who, on their own, decided to walk a mile and a half in waist-deep water to try and get to their store,” James says. “Those partners opened up the store and welcomed customers with open arms, because they knew our customers had been devastated.”

And for James, it all comes back to the company motto that is passed from employee to customer: Each and every person counts.

Photo: Roberta Barnes

A Foundation of Giving Back

Since its debut in Kerrville, Texas, in 1905, H-E-B has promoted a culture of strong partner and community support for more than one hundred years. But it’s a mind-set that goes beyond just support for its employees and the community. It’s about treating each other like family—a tradition that continues to this day.

Whether that is in day-to-day operations or in times of disaster, H-E-B has demonstrated leadership in going the extra mile for its partners and its community.

After Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas, the H-E-B mobile disaster units served more than sixty thousand hot meals to Texans. H-E-B has been a leader in the recovery efforts, and the Butt family has contributed more than $10 million to efforts in Houston and the Gulf Coast in addition to sending hundreds of volunteers to assist with clean-up efforts.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas (BCBSTX) has served the healthcare needs of Texans for more than eighty years. We are proud of our long-standing relationship with H-E-B and thank Tina James for recognizing the benefit of our dedicated programs.