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Ukrop’s CEO Walks the Ethics Talk

Most Christians would say the Golden Rule—treating others as you wish to be treated—is a good way to live. For Virginia food store executive Bobby Ukrop and his family, it’s also a good way to do business.

For Virginia food store executive Bobby Ukrop and his family, it’s also a good way to do business.

At Ukrop’s Super Markets, a chain of 28 stores scattered across central Virginia, the Golden Rule is incorporated into the company’s mission: “to serve our customers and community efficiently and effectively while treating our customers, associates, and suppliers as we personally like to be treated.”

The Ukrop family’s commitment to Christian principles is also reflected in the company’s daily business practices. Alongside familiar core values such as “superior customer service,” “superior quality and freshness” and “cost consciousness” is a commitment to “honesty and fairness:  acting openly, equitably and consistently in all we do.”

At a time when corporate scandals have fueled Americans’ skepticism about such lofty language, Ukrop recognizes that belief must be backed by behavior.

“Our shared values are very important to us,” he told EthicsDaily.com, “but our words have to be consistent with our actions. We need to ‘walk the talk.'”

“It’s very important that I practice what I preach,” added the company’s president and CEO, “whether it’s picking up trash in the parking lot or trying to set a good example by how I speak to a customer or an associate. We try to model the behavior we’re desiring in our associates.”

Chief among Ukrop’s own role models—for his business and for his life—were his parents: “In their souls, they believed serving others was the noble thing to do.”

Ukrop’s stores are closed on Sundays, do not sell alcohol or tabloid newspapers, and donate 10 percent of pre-tax profits to charity. Yet the company has earned the food store industry’s largest market share in central Virginia since 1985.

“Being closed on Sundays means we have to be better (than the competition),” Ukrop said with a chuckle, “and I like that.”

The company has thrived in an era when family businesses are becoming an endangered species. Ukrop’s father opened the first store in 1937; his brother Jim, now Ukrop’s chairman, talked their father into opening a second store in 1963, the first step in a carefully designed expansion plan.

Along the way, Ukrop’s has earned a widespread reputation for its commitment to quality service, innovative practices and the welfare of its employees. For each of the past three years, it has been listed in Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

With competitive wages and benefits and a hospitable work environment, Ukrop’s employee retention ranks consistently higher than industry standards. The company’s annual picnic resembles a big family reunion. Last year, a $1,500, interest-free loan was made available to all employees wanting to purchase a computer, with payments processed through payroll deduction.

“We try to treat people right, to value them, respect them,” said Ukrop. “People want to be part of something that’s about more than just dollars and cents.”

The Ukrop brothers launched “VALUES,” an employee orientation program, in 1976. It introduces new associates to Ukrop’s corporate culture and helps each employee “learn both the work ethic and the worth ethic” of the company, Ukrop explained. “We have 5,700 associates, ranging from age 16 to 86, and we want their work experience at Ukrop’s to be a life-enriching experience.”

Ukrop believes another driving force in the company’s success is “a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. We’re continually trying to raise the bar, to get better at what we do.”

“We try to listen very carefully to our customers and then be willing to change to embrace the changing needs of our customers,” he added. “We have found that people come to us not only to buy food but also for the environment created in our stores by our associates. We want people to leave our store feeling better than when they came in.”

“We’re not perfect, but when we make a mistake, we try to learn from it. Ultimately, our business is built on trust; and you can only build trust over time through relationships.”

Ukrop and his family are faithful members of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, where he teaches a fifth-grade Sunday school class. While he is open about his Christian faith, he refuses to equate business success with God’s favor and remains leery of the label “Christian business.”

“We don’t want anybody to shop with us because we happen to be Christians,” he recently told Richmond’s Inside Business newspaper.”We want them to come because of our products and services. We don’t think we have a ‘divine right’ to be successful; we have to work at it very hard.”

“I think there are times being Christians does enable us to run our business more effectively,” he said. “We try to model servant leadership. Jesus was a great example of a servant leader, and we try to model our lives after Jesus. But we also know that we have people from many different races and faiths who work with us and shop with us, and we try to value and respect everybody.”

Ukrop noted that a poster in the stores encourages employees to “go to our house of worship this week.” A few decades ago, he said, the sign would have read “church” instead of “house of worship.” The change in language respects employees’ different faith traditions while still reflecting Ukrop’s core values.

The company’s mission-based focus is mirrored in the personal mission statement that guides Ukrop’s life: “to use my passion to inspire myself and others to help build loving families who honor God daily.”

Not surprisingly, he believes his vocation involves more than earning a living.

“I look upon what I do as a ministry,” he said. “And I love it.”

David Wilkinson is a well-known Baptist journalist currently writing news stories and features for EthicsDaily.com.