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Could This Be the Best Company in the World?

To paraphrase the classic line from Spinal Tap, if great companies go to 10, Wegmans goes to 11. This East Coast supermarket chain is a 90+ year-old, family owned business doing almost $6 billion a year in sales. Major research firms and the media routinely name Wegmans the best supermarket in the country, and it has a cult-like following.

But "Best Company in the World"? Admittedly a mighty bold, sweeping statement and intentionally dramatic, but not entirely sensationalistic. The truth is, I don't know how a company could be better.

Just so you know, I have no personal involvement, investment, agenda, or business interest in the subject company. But Wegmans is headquartered in my hometown. And I shop there. A lot. Everyone here does.

Wegmans exists in a rarefied atmosphere. Reaching the billion-dollar mark as a private company is one of the most difficult feats in business -- there are only a few hundred in the country, and Wegmans is the 55th largest, based on Forbes' 2010 list. Add to that the accomplishment of approaching a century in business, and you're probably getting into lottery odds.

So how did this 77-store grocer achieve such greatness, and how does it continue to operate at such a consistently extraordinary level? Its recipe for success contains ingredients that any company -- from MomPopShop to ColossusCo -- can use to be the best it can be:
Be an extraordinary employer: Wegmans has been on Fortune magazine's "Best Places To Work" list since the list started in 1998. In 2005, it was named the best place to work in America. This is not luck; it is a relentless, passionate effort to make sure that every one of the company's 41,000 people is happy, well cared-for, and given extensive avenues for growth. Wegmans' employees enjoy flexible scheduling, broad career track opportunities, and eligibility for the company's lauded scholarship program, which has to date given over $81 million in educational assistance to more than 25,000 employees. The company's family-friendly approach even offers such unusual benefits as adoption assistance.

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone working there who's not smiling and eager to please. This translates to low turnover and happy customers who shop longer and buy more.

Create an amazing customer experience: Wegmans has become a genuine tourist destination in the communities it serves. To many people, shopping there is as much entertainment as it is errand. The environment is like an enormous, impeccably merchandised open-air market, in stark contrast to the cold, white linoleum and fluorescent environment that has defined the industry for generations. Unlike in those sterile supermarkets, nobody rushes from aisle to aisle trying to get the shopping done as quickly as possible. People move slowly and look around, as if in an art gallery. Customers relax at exotic tea bars, choose from multiple eat-in options, take home chef-prepared meals, even custom-blend their gorp of choice at a trail-mix bar. The company constantly experiments with unique, "experiential" store features, all focused on customer convenience, newness, and excitement.

Pioneer new ways of doing things: Wegmans is always ahead of the curve. It was instrumental in the development and implementation of bar code standards and practices in the early '70s, among the first to use electronic discounts and loyalty cards, reinvented grocery store design and merchandising, and "bought local" long before it became a trend. The company constantly looks for ways to use technology -- from the interactive recipe/shopping list feature on its website to an iPhone app that organizes the shopping list by store aisle -- to enhance the customer experience.
Be a force for good in the community: Wegmans is known for its philanthropy and community involvement. In addition to the earlier-mentioned scholarship program, the company supports countless causes and events in its expanding geographic realm. The company associates its name with "goodness," both inside its stores and out, further solidifying the loyalty of those who work and shop there.

What makes this all the more impressive is that Wegmans is still a genuine family business. On any given weekend it is not uncommon to see CEO Danny Wegman pushing a cart, doing his shopping, talking to employees and shoppers. Customers are fiercely loyal and will tell you they feel like Wegmans is "their" store. Actor Alec Baldwin spoke on David Letterman about his mother's refusal to leave upstate New York because there are no Wegmans stores in Los Angeles.

Wegmans has, in short, made itself beloved and irresistible, and has deservedly reaped the rewards of its magic. So is it the Best Company in the World? Feel free to challenge the title.

Photos courtesy of Wegmans

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