Portrait of the Biggest Retail Chain
NEVER HITTING A WALL
Within the scope of the 25 years of the largest food retail chain in Poland, Biedronka documented its story in a book. “United by Biedronka” is the acute, restless perception of someone who immersed himself in getting to know the reality of the company as a journalist, as a customer and even as an employee (for some days) to portray “a collective hero”. For Łukasz Grass, former Polish journalist and the author of several books, including the one dedicated to Biedronka, the success of the company lies in surpassing every limit and every obstacle.
There is no such thing as walls impossible to overcome. Łukasz spent nine months living and breathing Biedronka. The conclusions he reached were genuine as the book was meant to go beyond the prettiest side of the Company and tried to capture its true colours. Arkadiusz Mierzwa, Biedronka’s Head of Corporate Affairs, interviewed the author.
INTERVIEW WITH ŁUKASZ GRASS
AUTHOR OF “UNITED BY BIEDRONKA. THE HISTORY OF THE LARGEST RETAIL CHAIN IN POLAND”
You worked on “United by Biedronka” for nine months. You probably know all there is to know about the pace of work in retail and at Biedronka.
It’s incredible. People have no idea about what goes on behind the scenes. I was only familiar with retail on a small scale. I was born and raised in a small village in Western Pomerania – I sometimes think of that place as the End of the World. It was the era of collective state-owned farming. When things changed in 1989, and state farms were closed, my parents rented a “Ruch” kiosk and opened a small convenience store. We catered to all customer needs, including video rental – you can read about the video rental in my book. But the small-scale retail I knew has nothing to do with big chains like Biedronka, with its pace of work, its focus on the customer and on meeting customer needs.
You also spent a few days working in one of our stores. What did you think about working in a store like Biedronka before you had that experience and what do you think now? What’s changed?
First of all, I will never again complain about having to queue at the checkout, regardless of the store. We completed writing two months ago and I’ve had the pleasure of being in stores on many occasions since then and doing my shopping as an ordinary customer. Those few days I spent at Biedronka as an employee have stayed with me; even now that I’m back to being a customer, it’s still top-of-mind. I speak to cashiers very differently now. I’ve undergone an incredible metamorphosis. I never used to smile at them before and didn’t chat to them. I think of myself as someone capable of empathy, but to be honest I saw that form of interaction with cashiers as something unnecessary. Today, I see it differently. Sometimes I even initiate the chat, because I understand just how much a simple, friendly chat with a customer matters to the store staff – this is my personal experience and I see my personal change very clearly.
In your book, you jokingly suggest a programme where customers would spend some time, even a day, in a store to see what it’s like on the inside.
I wasn’t joking, I meant it. I even mentioned it to Maciej Łukowski, a member of the Board of Jerónimo Martins Polska, “How about a programme at Biedronka: ‘Take a look behind the scenes, one day working in a store will leave you smiling in a queue for life’”. One day on the shop floor is really all it takes for a person to understand what working in retail is like. It really isn’t just about scanning barcodes and saying, “Thank you and see you soon”. There is a multitude of tasks which need to be performed within a short time. I don’t think you can understand it until you’ve experienced it. It’s a very humbling experience. This is why I said at the end of the book, and I really meant it, that I take my hat off to store employees. We interviewed sixty people for the book, most of whom were managers, but around twenty people worked directly on the shop floor. These are the ones I dedicated my book to, and I wasn’t just being courteous. As the younger generation would say – “you da man!” Biedronka’s strength, any retail chain’s strength, lies in its shop floor employees, their dedication and their everyday hard work.
Biedronka’s strength lies in the shop floor employees, their dedication, and their everyday work.
And perhaps a set of personal traits which have resulted, over the course of 25 years, in Biedronka’s success. If you were to pinpoint the character traits or the behaviours behind its success, which would they be?
I’m going to quote expressions that may seem banal to some, but are very true at Biedronka, and appear in the book several times, such as “nothing is impossible” or “sky is the limit”. I’ve noticed that Biedronka’s employees, whether at a managerial level or on the shop floor, always try to find a solution to a problem. One of the stories described in the book illustrates it well. At the beginning of this century, a suspended ceiling collapsed in one of the stores. The store manager called the regional manager and said, “Bad news, the ceiling’s collapsed” to which the regional manager replied, “But can customers be served?”.
After a moment of silence in reaction to this unexpected question, the store manager replied, “Well, yes, but at 20%”. It’s at moments like these that it becomes apparent that you never hit a wall at Biedronka. I love sports and any amateur runner will tell you that at around the 30-kilometre mark in a marathon you hit a so-called wall, which simply means that you suddenly lose strength and energy, and start walking. Some runners give up altogether and drop out of the marathon. I didn’t find that “wall” at Biedronka. They always try to find a solution to a problem and the drive to keep moving forward is as plain as day. I believe that this is Biedronka’s recipe for success, together with learning from failure. You didn’t ask but if you had, I’d have said that…
I’m talking to a former journalist… you tend to ask yourselves questions.
If you asked me what led me to take on the project and write a book about Biedronka, I’d say it was the thumbs up for writing about difficulties, not just successes. It was because in the book promoted by Jerónimo Martins Polska problems were not expected to be swept under the rug. And we do know that there have been problems, big ones, at the beginning of the 2000s, and smaller ones to do with finding the right store model. After all, Biedronka operated at a loss for many years and all of this is described in the book: the problems and the solutions.
And the lessons learned.
And that was what convinced me. If you’d invited me to work with you by saying, “We’ll describe nice stuff, paint a pretty picture of Biedronka”, I doubt I’d have accepted the proposal. Describing problems and solutions made an excellent business case study and demonstrated how to build a business long term, and how to succeed.
The constant search for a solution and the ability to learn from problems are two decisive things behind Biedronka’s success.
Working on this book had its fair share of obstacles. We had plans, but then came march and the lockdown. The trip to Portugal had to be rescheduled and some of the interviews were conducted online. What’s more – you write about it in the book so I’m not revealing any secrets – you yourself were also infected by the coronavirus while working on the book.
Yes, I remember when you showed up outside the hospital isolation ward while you were on a trip to Poznań with your son. If I remember correctly, I was on the 8th floor. We waved to one another through the window and we spoke on the phone. I stayed in hospital for 17 days. There certainly were many obstacles, and we had to race against the clock. Writing about Biedronka’s 25 years of history in just a few months, putting together a book featuring a collective hero – tens of thousands of employees – was a huge challenge. All things considered, looking back on the situation just described, perhaps being locked in a room on my own wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
Because it helped you to concentrate on your work? Do I detect Biedronka-style thinking? It wasn’t a wall, it was just an obstacle?
I think so. Before, I might have called you and said, “Listen Arek, I have Covid-19, we have to put the book off”. Your determination in overcoming problems was clearly infectious.
“United by Biedronka” is clearly about combining two approaches, polish and portuguese. How do you view these two nations, their mentalities and attitudes towards life, following your interviews with many poles, but also with portuguese people?
First of all, let me tell you that this was the most fascinating stage of working on the book. We both know that with the huge amount of material we had, we had to discuss what to keep and what to leave out. I insisted on keeping the Polish-Portuguese fragments relating to the culture, language, cooking, love of football and similar topics in the book because of how much they enriched the story. I can still see Carlos Saraiva, who spoke to us in Lisbon, his eyes welling up as he spoke about the years he’d spent in Poland. I’ll never forget it. He spoke beautiful, fluent Polish, practically without an accent. He was very moved when he recalled his life in Poland. I believe that as two nations – the Poles and the Portuguese – we complement one another. I think that I’ve managed to illustrate this in the book. We were good at dealing with the challenges we encountered, we were dynamic, but better organised and ordered.
Yes. But our Portuguese partners from Jerónimo Martins had a more comprehensive approach to customers; they were able to put themselves in the customer’s shoes and understand their needs. I was particularly interested in how the Portuguese managers who came to Poland learned to understand the Polish customer and to think the way a Polish customer does. They didn’t come here to create an existing store, or to fully implement Western ideas. They adjusted their ideas to the expectations of Polish customers. This resulted in a store designed to perfectly meet the needs of Polish customers. But we mustn’t forget that this is an ongoing process and that the stores evolve as the needs and expectations of the customers change.
What’s the most important takeaway from your book about Biedronka’s 25-year journey to becoming Poland’s biggest private employer and one of the biggest companies in Poland?
I would point to two lessons learned, both linked to business, but also to people, which I think are inseparable. The most important measure of a company’s strength is how it copes with problems and crises. Over the course of 25 years, Biedronka overcame many large and small crises. The approach the chain took to address these crises shows its strength. But it is the second lesson that I think is most valuable, the lesson we often write about and the lesson Pedro Soares dos Santos often brings up in the book: people. Allow me to quote Richard Branson, who once said “clients do not come first, employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients”. These are the two key takeaways after nine months of working on the book on the history of Biedronka.
Łukasz, thank you very much for speaking to me, but also for the entire project. I’m glad that the yellow fiat 126p you travelled all over Poland in to see other firms has now brought you to Biedronka. During the past few months, you travelled, watched us from an outsider’s point of view, observing our work, who we are and what matters to us. Many thanks indeed and stay in good health.
Yes, this is what we say these days when we greet others. I too wish everyone good health and hope that all your plans, which Luis Araújo told me about and are shared in the last chapter, come to fruition. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.