Running a supermarket is no breeze, let alone a 35,000 sq ft city-centre store where every hour is rush hour. But Morrisons in Coventry is no ordinary store - and Mike Toth is no ordinary manager.
Last month, Toth was crowned store manager of the year at The Grocer Gold Awards, fighting off four rival managers. The new award reflects the vital - yet often overlooked - role store managers play in the business of running a supermarket chain. As Toth himself notes: "Morrisons' prices and strategy pull the customers in, but my job is to keep them there."
This in itself is no easy task. As a city-centre store, the pressure is relentless, and early-morning restrictions on deliveries make availability a real headache. And competition is fierce. Two miles away is one of the largest Tesco stores in the country. But attracting and retaining customers, training and motivating staff, managing deliveries and overseeing the preparation of 1,300 fresh lines are all in a day's work.
It's Toth's constant willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty that makes this trader, trainer and entrepreneur stand out from the rest. He took over the Coventry branch just before Christmas in 2005, when it was in the final stages of being converted from the Safeway fascia.
"A lot of the conversion work was nearly completed, but what I really had to do during that fortnight was get the store ready and 'Morrisonise' the staff in terms of policies and procedures," he says.
After closing for three days, the store was reopened, ready for Christmas.
Then there was the issue of the traffic lights, which kept his car park constantly congested. He tackled this by inviting the local council to see the queues of frustrated customers waiting at the traffic lights to exit. The outcome? Now Toth and his team can call the council in particularly busy periods to ask them to change the traffic light sequencing. Another issue, the strict curfew that prevents deliveries being made between 10pm and 6.30am, has also been overcome. Add in an 8,000 sq ft extension, and sales have soared 150% to £1m a week since Toth took over.
While giving The Grocer a tour of his Coventry empire, the store manager of the year explains his winning formula, honed during nine years as a Morrisons manager in three different branches.
One of the key reasons sales are booming, he claims, is his ability to understand the needs of his 40,000 weekly customers - many of whom are students from nearby Coventry and Warwick universities. Despite being renowned for living on the cheap, students are a major source of revenue. "It's amazing how much they buy," he says. "The biggest impact they have is at the start of the academic year in September, when I increase the load size and build displays of items they need, such as microwaves, kettles and irons. I'll order more Value products, too, because many are on a tight budget."
But when the students retire home for their pre-pub pasta, it doesn't quieten down in-store - it's time for the next wave. "Because this is a city centre store, a lot of professionals shop here in the evenings, so we are constantly busy," he says.
As well as giving him insight into the minds of his customers, Toth's in-store presence is part of what keeps them coming back time and again, according to the store's personnel manager Sarah Harvey. "He spends a lot of time on the shop floor and will go and say hello to the customers and ask them how they are. Some even recognise him," she adds.
His staff motivational skills are also key to his success. "He is really honest when he gives feedback and goes out of his way to help you improve and learn from mistakes. He also makes a point of praising people in front of the team - and when he recognises our work it really means something. He knows it's a big store and that his team are a massive part of its success."
Toth is no soft touch, says Harvey. "I think he's very challenging. If you go to him with a problem he will ask 'right, what do we do?' and make you think. He will support what you decide and then coach and develop you, so eventually you stand on your own two feet and no longer need him to point you in the right direction."
And Toth has impressed those at head office, too. Asked why Morrisons had nominated him for the award, group retail director Mark Gunter listed "the fantastic job he has done of building the business during a huge conversion, his performance both individually and from a trading point of view, as well as the role he plays in the development of employees in his region".
Training future managers
In recognition of Toth's coaching qualities, Morrisons made his branch a regional showcase store in 2007. As well as training staff from other branches, the Coventry store plays host to trainee senior managers as they prepare to take up their new roles. Toth keeps the trainees under his wing for 16 weeks before they are appointed to other branches. "I try and use the best of what we have got around us," he says. "If I feel other stores have more experienced department managers, I send them there for a few days. When they come back, I test their knowledge and sign them off once they have trained on each department."
On top of all this, Toth somehow manages to find the time for his appeals and grievances officer duties, where he reviews appeals from staff who have been dismissed from Morrisons.
One of the particular challenges of a Morrisons store is the 1,300 fresh lines prepared on site every day. This puts the store manager under greater pressure to ensure staff training is up to scratch, but when it works, it's a real advantage, he says.
"It gives us a fantastic opportunity to increase sales and minimise waste and mark downs," says Toth.
"Look at it this way: most companies get given a bowl of water and that's their usage for the day. We get a running tap and can turn it on and off when we like, to meet demand. That's the culture here - things are different from other companies and it takes some getting used to."
But nothing poses a greater challenge than availability. Toth's resourcefulness was tested to the max when faced with the store's strict overnight delivery curfew, imposed because of its proximity to a housing estate.
"My biggest challenge is ensuring I have the availability customers require from open until close and to make sure the products are of the freshest quality," he says. "The curfew makes it harder. For example, I can get up to 80 palettes of produce delivered on a Friday, but it can't arrive until 6.30am. The store opens at 8am, but I can't get it unloaded by then - let alone on the shop floor."
Thinking outside the box
Toth's solution was to ask head office to deliver an extra 10% of goods the day before, so when he opened in the morning the store would already be holding a little excess stock and not relying on the delivery to keep shelves full. After realising 10% wasn't sufficient, he then pushed to get the early delivery increased to 15%.
"When I first took over the store I didn't really need the extra stock. But when sales grew 50% in the first year, I just couldn't hold it. A change was needed, so I asked for the early delivery. Now we can just top the shelves up in the mornings."
Toth had to alter the staffing hours to accommodate the move and get the deliveries out quicker. He also had to train his staff to work together and replenish other departments as well as their own to speed up the process. But it was worth it. "Our availability is good now and we don't disappoint customers in the mornings."
At busy periods such as Christmas, Toth increases the amount of sales space dedicated to seasonal-related products. "I work in conjunction with my area manager and we increase the footage on certain items such as pickles, biscuits, sparkling water, cordials, mixers, fruit juice, tinned salmon and ham. In some cases I lower the shelves and then put an extra one at the top. For example, I'll put, say, 20 cases of Colman's English Mustard on the top shelf so if I need it during the day, it's there."
The challenges keep coming thick and fast. Toth's next task is to build on the sales he has achieved in the past three years. "I plan to do this by sticking to the company values, excelling in everything we do and maintaining strong availability to achieve double-digit growth this year," he says.
If history is any guide, Toth is more than up to the task.
- You need to be very practical and willing to take a hands-on approach
- It's essential to be passionate. You need to believe in your offer and your people
- You must be confident in yourself and your business
- Show a level of humility
- You have to have a real desire to sell
- Stay focused on customer service and make sure it is a priority for staff
- Be commercially minded at all times
- Engender a culture of doing tasks today rather than leaving them until tomorrow
- Build solid routines that are designed to last and become the norm
- Be a good listener - you can learn a lot by listening to staff and customers