RIT grads find super careers at Wegmans

Alumni who move away from the Rochester area harbor fond memories of one local institution: Wegmans Food Markets.

There's good news for some of the many who've wished the Rochester-based supermarket chain would open a store near them. Wegmans, which operates 63 superstores in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, plans to open stores in the Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., areas in the next several years.

RIT alumni play a role in the company's tremendous success. Wegmans employs more than 100 graduates, including two among the 15 senior vice presidents in the family-owned company. Gerard Pierce '77 (MBA), senior vice president for human resources, started working for Wegmans in 1975. James Leo '79 (MBA), senior vice president and chief financial officer, joined the company in 1978.

Pierce, who grew up in the Rochester area, had an undergraduate degree in marketing from the University of Dayton and experience in the insurance industry as well as at his father's grocery store when he joined Wegmans. He took a job as a store night manager while attending RIT, where he focused his studies on human resources management.

After graduation, he was ready to move into the company's human resources department. The responsibilities have expanded geographically as well as geometrically.

"When I came here, there were 3,000 employees," he notes. "Now there are 30,000." In the next five years, the company will be hiring 15,000 people.

Pierce, who reports to company President Danny Wegman, says the company has been successful in this continuing effort because of the Wegman family philosophy: "They always put people first," he says.

There's substantial evidence of this: The company has been named one of the "Top 100 Companies to Work for in America" by Fortune magazine for five years in a row. "We're very proud of that," says Pierce.

RIT benefits from one of Wegmans' employee benefits. Since 1996, recipients of Wegmans scholarships attending RIT have received $925,000 to fund their studies. Wegmans began the scholarship program in 1984.

Wegmans and RIT are also partners in the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection, which now involves nearly 1,000 youngsters. Founded in 1987 by Wegmans, the program links at-risk adolescents to a network of advocates and employers, support that helps the youngsters stay in school and find success. RIT offers scholarships to participants who are accepted at RIT.

Funding such projects and the company's many other community activities relates directly to Jim Leo's primary responsibility.

"My job is to increase the profitability of the company," he explains.

Leo, another area native, received his undergraduate degree in accounting from St. John Fisher College. His first job at Wegmans was as cash manager in the corporate office. He says the practical, applied emphasis of his MBA courses at RIT helped him develop a "gut feel" for business, and "an understanding of the people part."

"Gerry and Jim have made outstanding contributions to Wegmans' success over the years," says Danny Wegman. "Like our family and our company, they both have deep roots in the Rochester community. And so does RIT. Wegmans and RIT are connected through the many students and graduates who work here. In fact, my daughter, Nicole, has just begun her MBA studies at RIT this fall. Obviously, we're sold on RIT."

Leo and Pierce both say that when they started out with Wegmans, they couldn't have imagined where their careers would take them.

"I took a job that was available in a field I was interested in, for a company that sounded interesting," says Leo. "It's turned out to be even more interesting than I thought."

Says Pierce, "It's always challenging, and there's always opportunity for growth. It's a great place to shop — and a great place to work."

The University Magazine, Winter 2002