Judith Spires entered the retail service industry with modest aspirations.
As a 17-year-old high school student, she landed a part-time cashier position at Acme Markets, the same Pennsylvania-based supermarket chain where her father worked as a truck driver. Her goal was simply to save money for college.
However, unlike many other teenagers, she used that first job less as a stepping stone than as a launching pad, rising through the ranks of a company and industry dominated by men to become president of the supermarket chain.
Now, Spires serves as chairman and CEO of KB US Holdings, the Delaware-based investment firm that owns the upscale food retailers Kings Food Markets and Balducci’s Food Lover’s Markets, which opened a new store in Reston on June 22.
Spires takes pride in her ability to use her professional success to support that of others in the grocery industry, especially women.
“I’m really proud of the people I have mentored in this industry, because I think it’s a great industry,” Spires said. “[I’m] so excited that I can open the doors for women…I feel good about giving back in the industry that I dearly love.”
A native of Cherry Hill, N.J., who went to school in the Philadelphia, Pa., area, Spires received a bachelor’s degree in special education from LaSalle University, but the supermarket industry has been her passion since she started working part-time at Acme in 1970.
Towards the end of her time at college, Spires decided that she would pursue a career at Acme in the hopes of becoming a manager, a challenging goal at the time considering her father had never seen a woman in management despite working at the company for more than 25 years.
Spires’s ambitions were met with a mix of support and skepticism.
When she informed her parents of her desire to manage at Acme instead of becoming a teacher as planned, her father responded to the news by saying he believed she could be anything she wanted to be.
She also credits her first store manager with being a mentor and helping fuel the self-confidence and enthusiasm she needed to succeed.
“He came to work every day full of energy and stopped at nothing to create a store where customers loved to shop,” Spires said. “…He created ways to make it fun for customers with dressing up for Halloween, with customer appreciation days. It showed me how I could use my creativity. I could immediately know by my customer’s response how I was doing.”
At the same time, Spires was aware that being the only woman in the room – sometimes literally as was the case during one concept meeting with all of Acme’s store managers – meant that she had to work especially hard.
“You’ve got to over-perform at the job,” Spires said. “You can’t just do the job. You’ve got to do more, and I think that’s how I build my relationships.”
When she first became a store manager, she learned from a district manager, that others in the company had opposed her promotion because she was a woman, though her boss said he did not care as long as her store made money.
At another point, Spires says she encountered an executive who did not believe women belonged in the supermarket industry.
Though he did not stay with Acme for very long, she saw him again about 10 years later when she was working as manager of the company’s most profitable store at that time. He apologized, saying that he regularly brings managers from his current workplace to her store to show them “what a well-run store should be.”
Spires went on to become president of the Dallas-Fort Worth and Rocky Mountain divisions of Albertsons, Acme’s parent company, before serving as president of Acme Markets until March 2010.
Spires left Acme Markets after being recruited to serve as CEO for Kings Food Markets, which was acquired by KB Holdings in 2016 along with Balducci’s.
Spires’s career has attracted accolades such as a lifetime achievement award from the business journal NJBIZ in 2017 and the title of “Top Women in Grocery Trailblazer” from Progressive Grocer magazine in 2016.
“There were detractors,” Spires said. “I didn’t let it affect me. I just made up my mind that I wasn’t comparing myself to others. I was comparing myself to my personal best, and that’s how you get to there.”
Still, Spires’s individual success has not necessarily translated into success for women in the grocery industry at large.
According to Data USA, a website that compiles and analyzes public U.S. government data, the grocery store industry is 50.9 percent male with approximately 1.54 million men and 1.49 million women in the workforce.
Even though the industry boasts close-to-equal numbers of male and female employees, women face a noticeable disadvantage in pay with an average salary of $21,580 to the $28,640 that their male counterparts receive on average.
That disparity gets more extreme with an improvement in rank. Male cashiers earn about $3,600 more than female cashiers, but male first-line supervisors receive an average salary of $48,447, about $10,000 more than female supervisors, who are paid around $35,184 on average.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also suggests that women are less likely to be promoted from an entry-level position into a supervisory role.
While there do not appear to be any statistics specifically for grocery stores, the BLS found based on its annual current population survey that women made up 72.7 percent of cashiers but only 43.4 percent of first-line supervisors of retail sales workers in 2017.
Research presented at the Food Marketing Institute’s Midwinter Executive Conference, which took place in Miami, Fla., at the end of January, showed that progress is far from inevitable.
The consulting firm Accenture and nonprofit Network of Executive Women projected that the food retail industry will have 70 percent fewer women in leadership roles in a decade based on current attrition rates, according to the industry news outlet Food Dive, which reported on the conference on Jan. 31.
Panelists at the conference said that a lack of flexibility around maternity care, difficulties with balancing work and life obligations, limited institutional support, and unconscious biases all hinder women’s opportunities for advancement.
According to Accenture and NEW’s research, women occupy less than 30 percent of senior leadership roles and 13 percent of c-suite executive roles, and those who do enter upper management leave those positions at twice the rate of men, Food Dive’s Jeff Wells reported.
Spires cites Balducci’s, which she now oversees with KB Holdings, as an example of what the grocery store industry can look like when all talent is allowed to flourish, saying the company has a mix of men and women in management and praising the cultural diversity of its employees.
Balducci’s currently has six stores across Maryland, Virginia, New York, and Connecticut, including the recently opened location in Reston. It has three more stores under development in Northern Virginia, according to Spires.
“I just love the people that I work with at Balducci’s because they are so proud that they work for the company,” Spires said. “They know that they’re working for the very best, and that’s what they constantly want to give the consumers, from the front line to the back office to the high-level supervision. It’s a very dedicated team of people that really believe in the product they sell and the customers they serve.”