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Dan Johnson retires after more than 40 years with Kroger

Dan Johnson’s produce industry career is both a very familiar story and a testament to the way employer-employee relationships used to be revered.

He began his career as a bag boy at the tender age of 16 at the local Kroger in his hometown of Marietta, GA. He worked his way through high school and college, made it a career and then moved up through the ranks to the top produce slot. “When I began looking for a career, it wasn’t unusual to align yourself with a good company and stay there for 35 to 40 years,” he recalls.Dan-Johnson-1Dan Johnson

“There was a sense of loyalty each way. I was loyal to the company and they were loyal to me. It was like a family all those years. We supported each other very well,” he said speaking of both his co-workers and his employer.

Except for a very short stint with the Internal Revenue Service right out of college, Johnson worked for Kroger part-time for a half-dozen years beginning in 1970, and then full-time for the next 40 years from 1977 to his retirement from the organization on March 31, 2017. Though he very much appreciated the bag boy job and working in virtually every department as a part time employee in those early years, he thought a career as a lawyer was in his future. After graduating from what is now called the University of West Georgia, he went to work with the IRS as a brief interlude before attempting to go to law school. But at that time — in the mid-1970s — he said there were indications that there was “an excess of lawyers. My old boss at Kroger recommended that I enter the management training program. I enjoyed it when I worked there so that’s what I did. Forty consecutive years later, and here I am.”

Johnson’s career reads like a blueprint for success, heavy on constantly moving up through the ranks and taking one opportunity after another. In fact, he uses the word “opportunity” liberally as he discusses moving from one position to the next, learning more and more about retail in general, and the produce industry specifically over those four decades, as he accepted the opportunities presented to him.

He spent his career in several different divisions and survived multiple merging of divisions over the years. “I was in the Atlanta division, moved to Nashville then back to Atlanta. Then I went to Houston and Dallas and finally Michigan before moving to corporate in Cincinnati.”

After completing the training program, he was an assistant manager and then co-manager of a store. He had been a produce clerk during his part time work and jumped at the opportunity to move into produce merchandising a couple of years into his career. That led to an assistant buying position and then a head buyer during most of the early 1980s. From the mid-1980s and for the following decade, Johnson was a produce merchandiser in both Houston and Dallas. In the late 1990s and through the turn of the millennial, he gained experience on the grocery and drug side of the retail operation as a merchandiser and district manager in the merged Houston/Dallas divisionouston and Houston/Dallas divisionH. He served a stint in advertising and marketing for the Michigan division from about 2001 to 2003, before transferring to corporate on special assignment. “At corporate I was involved in developing and rolling out our Fresh Insights program, which was designed to identify and eliminate shrink throughout the perishable departments.”

Utilizing technology and data, Kroger devised an effort to improve its perishable departments. Johnson said this never-ending quest to improve by Kroger management is what he considers the company’s source of strength and differentiation from other retailers. It is, he believes, the difference-maker that sets Kroger apart and causes many observers to consistently rank it as one of the top retailers in the country.

Johnson returned to the produce department in 2005 as the director of produce procurement for the entire chain. In 2010, he was named corporate director of produce & floral sales and marketing. It was that position from which he retired earlier this year.

Having served Kroger in many capacities, it is produce that formed the core of his career. “I’ve always called produce the fun side of the business,” he said, explaining that it is constantly changing. “It’s like playing chess every day. The supplier makes a move, Mother Nature makes a move, then you have to make a move. Every day really is different.”

At its core, the produce industry believes it is different than other aspects of the retail business, and Johnson confirms this. “Produce is quite different,” he says. “In the grocery and drug departments, it’s all about the P.O. (purchase order). In produce it still is all about word of mouth.”

As he surveys his career, he has no doubt as to the most significant change he witnessed. “The biggest change is technology. Everything else cascades below it.”

He said even if you just think of the product itself, it is technology that has moved the industry from a seasonal supplier of produce to “now, when we source most products on a year-round basis with no regard to the season.”

He said that technology is also evident when you look at the packaging, including the breathable membranes and the biodegradable clamshells.

Johnson said another subset of technology is the data that is now used to drive much of the decision making. A generation ago the data didn’t even exist. Now retailers can drill down and make very informed decisions based on detailed reports.

Two other areas that Johnson pointed to as game changers during his career were the value-added revolution and the intense focus on food safety. Of course, when he started bagging groceries in 1970, value-added didn’t even exist in the produce department as a word. “In those days about the only thing we offered like that was cut melons that we’d cut and wrap in the back room,” he said.

And as far as food safety is concerned, he acknowledges that in those days “we didn’t understand what you needed to do to keep people safe.”

Continuing on the theme of what sets Kroger apart, Johnson believes it comes back to the philosophy that “we are never 100 percent satisfied with our performance. We are always trying to re-engineer what we do to make it a little bit better.”

And at 63, Johnson thinks a little re-engineering of his own career is also a good idea. He’s not quite ready to hang ‘em up. “Yesterday I met with an attorney and filed the paperwork to form an LLC.”

While he hadn’t yet received the approval for his new company name from the state of Texas where he lives, he is fairly certain that he will soon hang out his produce consulting shingle under the moniker of Dan Johnson Insights LLC.

But first things first and on the top of his list is a three-week trip to France with his wife, Jeana, and their extended family, including his two daughters. “And then when I return I’ll head to United Fresh,” he said.