To Serve and Protect: Dollar General Corp.’s Bob Ravener

In April 2012 Dollar General announced its support of the White House’s Joining Forces initiative, which promotes private sector employment for members of the military community. Available positions with the Fortune 200 retailer range from sales associates and warehouse employees to store managers and district managers.

When Dollar General Corp.’s executive vice president and chief people officer Bob Ravener decided to leave the U.S. Navy, he attended a veteran hiring fair and was offered his first civilian position in HR at PepsiCo, but he didn’t know what human resources was.

“The only thing that came to mind is that old Dirty Harry movie when Clint Eastwood had wrecked one too many vehicles and his police captain pulls him into his office and says, ‘Harry, that’s it. You’re coming off the street and going into personnel.’ Harry turns around and says, ‘Personnel? That’s for idiots.’ But then the captain says, ‘I was in personnel for 10 years,’” Ravener joked. “That’s all I knew about HR, and yet I was being given such a fantastic opportunity.”

While he imagined his future might mimic scenes from the aforementioned movie “The Enforcer,” Ravener said it was difficult for employers to grasp what his life had been like. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, he served on active duty as a strategic weapons submarine officer aboard a ballistic missile submarine. He was also an academic liaison officer at the academy, where he helped athletes stay on course academically while also coaching and recruiting for the Navy’s baseball team and teaching boxing under the guidance of former Olympic boxing coach Emerson Smith.

A Fresh Start
While Ravener didn’t have experience in the civilian workplace, he was eager to delve into corporate America despite the changes he would experience in the new environment. “People are either going to rise to those occasions that are placed in front of them, or they’re not going to have the commitment to see it through,” he said. “In my case, I uncovered a level of tenacity and determination in me that was going to push me to keep going, even in the face of new challenges.”

After several years of increasing leadership roles at PepsiCo, Ravener took on executive roles in human resources and operations at former shoe retailer Footstar Inc. From there, he became vice president of human resources for The Home Depot’s Store Support Center and a domestic field division from April 2003 to September 2005. He then joined Starbucks as a field vice president and was subsequently promoted to senior vice president of U.S. partner resources, overseeing all human resources activity for more than 10,000 stores.

“Working with people who come from various backgrounds, different walks of life, and helping to motivate, inspire and drive their performance will ultimately drive the organization to success. That’s what motivates me. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the military, government, sports or the corporate world. It’s about people,” he said.

As members of the Dollar General team, CEO Rick Dreiling asks employees to carry out the company’s mission — serving others — in every aspect of their day-to-day work. He said serving others means providing customers with a better life and ensuring employees have respect and opportunity, shareholders gain a superior return and communities engage with a spirit of involvement. To accomplish this mission, Dreiling said employees must uphold the values that have made the company successful: honesty, fairness and respect.

“Talent management is what will continue to distinguish Dollar General from all other retailers,” he said. “With the best people, processes and practices, we have been able to accomplish a great deal in the last five years. Through an ongoing focus on people, Dollar General will be positioned for many challenges ahead as the retail landscape goes through constant evolution.”

Business Is Booming
Dollar General opened more than 2,500 stores and added 25,000 employees in the past five years. The company had 1.5 billion transactions last year and added two new distribution centers, marking its 23rd straight year of same-store sales growth. The retailer will add 635 stores and remodel or relocate 550 others this year. In its recently concluded fourth quarter, Dollar General’s net income increased to $317.4 million, or 97 cents per share, from $292.5 million, or 85 cents per share, in the last year.

Growing alongside the business are the company’s internal placements to fill job vacancies. Dollar General exceeded last year’s goal of 60 percent, and this year the goal is 65 percent. “The greatest example of great leadership is for someone to be able to look at those they’ve developed and helped grow and see them succeed at a higher level,” Ravener said.

To develop employees, Ravener’s team of 200 HR professionals aligns with the company’s functional teams, which correspond directly with senior team leaders and the company’s overall business strategy. The HR partner is essentially the conduit between the business function and technical specialties such as succession planning and identifying specific employee development needs.

To facilitate development, senior team leaders encourage employees to complete individual growth and development plans to take ownership of learning while fostering discussion about career aspirations. Managers periodically meet informally with employees, and formally during mid-year and end-of-year review processes, to ensure they have the resources they need and are aligned on performance and development plans.

“It’s kind of like a rising tide,” Ravener said. “The more we can train and develop people, the rising tide of improvement will lift all boats and make us better as an organization.”

The company also created talent development centers that assess employees’ readiness for the next promotion and include specific action plans targeting areas that need improvement. To date more than 700 retail employees have been through the talent development center, and 42 percent have since been promoted. Further, industry store manager turnover averages between 25 and 35 percent; managers who have participated in Dollar General’s talent development center have a 10 percent turnover rate. For those in the pool who have been promoted as a result of the talent development centers experience, turnover drops to 2 percent.

To measure the success of its development programs, Dollar General implemented a survey last year to gauge employees’ enthusiasm about their work and satisfaction with the company. While the company had conducted smaller, more localized surveys before, this was the first time it measured across its 90,000 employees.

“When you put a lot of emphasis on growing employees and measuring their fulfillment, they see the investment in them and are motivated and inspired to do well, stay longer and help the company succeed,” Ravener said.

Paychecks for Patriots
As he continues to grow Dollar General employees, including his staff of 200, Ravener hasn’t lost touch with his military roots.

In May 2009 CEO Dreiling signed a pledge to support employees serving in the National Guard and Reserve. Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a Department of Defense committee established to gain and maintain employer support for Guard and Reserve service, created the Statement of Support, which confirms that Dollar General joins other employers in pledging to:

• Recognize, honor and enforce the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

• Give managers and supervisors tools to effectively manage employees who serve in the Guard and Reserve.

• Continually recognize and support service members and their families in peace, in crisis and in war.

Since then, Ravener has made sure veterans are on Dollar General’s agenda. The company created an employee resource group for veterans, honors military members on Veterans Day with discounts, sends care packages to those serving in the Guard and Reserve and has created a coin it gives to veteran employees as a gift for their service.

Last year Dollar General partnered with the Tennessee Department of Labor to connect veterans with jobs. The Paychecks for Patriots program helps resolve unemployment challenges facing veterans by equipping the military community with resources to more easily access available job opportunities at committed companies.

“The Department of Defense spends more than $17 billion a year training military members,” Ravener said. “These are individuals with a tremendous amount of personal attributes that any business can excel with. Things like teamwork, self-discipline, reliability, integrity and leadership.”

When Ravener was 23 years old, he was a junior officer on a submarine. As an officer on the deck, he was responsible for a $2 billion piece of equipment, 150 lives on board and the mission’s success. While his experiences did not mirror those of young adults in civilian life, he said the responsibility at such a young age gave him the foundation to be successful later in corporate roles.

“The element of ‘whatever it takes’ is there with veterans,” said Emily King, vice president of military transitions at recruiting firm The Buller Group and an expert on the challenges military veterans and their employers face when transitioning into the civilian workforce. “Some worry veterans can’t think outside the box, that their training was too rigid, but I guarantee you, when you’re in a combat zone, in another country, in an unfamiliar terrain, you’re going to think outside the box to get the job done.”

Ravener’s commitment to this is what led him to start Paycheck for Patriots last October, which brought together 150 employers throughout the state to conduct hiring fairs for Tennessee military veterans. Florida followed suit in May, and Tennessee will hold its second event in October.

“The camaraderie, the can-do attitude, the results orientation, sense of urgency, action orientation — all are reinforced in the military, and all are helpful attributes as someone moves up the ladder in any walk of life,” he said.

Dreiling said Ravener’s commitment to Dollar General employees and veterans around the country has elevated Dreiling’s own professional success.

“His sound judgment, eye for talent, passion for development and personal coaching have all been critical enablers that have helped me be a more effective CEO,” he said.

Dreiling wrote the forward to Ravener’s upcoming book, The Difference Between Today and Tomorrow Is … YOU!, which aims to share hope with those struggling to find the opportunities and motivation they need to reach their potential and live fulfilling lives.

“Regardless of the situation a person is in, corporate, military or otherwise, they have to be given opportunities to grow,” Ravener said. “I see it as my job to make that happen, and I’m fortunate to have had the experiences I did.”