Kroger Never Says Never

One of the biggest obstacles to success for minority- and women-owned businesses is finding an advocate at a company they want to do business with. Typically, that person is a supplier diversity manager who may already be juggling hundreds of relationships. So, when Ohio entrepreneur Greg Battle referred to Denise Thomas, Kroger Co.’s director of supplier diversity, as “an angel to many,” that is high praise indeed.

“If she can’t help you, that means you have to go back and work on yourself,” said Battle, an African-American whose company, Coolant Control Inc., sells industrial lubricants to Kroger.

The two met up in December at one of Kroger’s Manufacturing and Corporate Brands Diverse Supplier Business Interchanges in Cincinnati, an invitation-only event for current vendors seeking to expand their business with the grocery store chain.

“Watching a company grow into a multimillion-dollar business is really rewarding,” said Thomas, who joined Kroger in 2003. “We have to understand that we must provide opportunities for these businesses to grow. Barney Kroger started with one Kroger store because somebody gave him an opportunity. That’s what it’s all about.”

Kroger’s most recent effort to expand its supplier diversity program focuses on growing its network of private-label suppliers to meet a growing demand for its in-house products such as Private Selection and Simple Truth. Thomas said corporate brands account for about one-fourth of all Kroger store sales, creating significant opportunities for minority- and women-owned firms.

Kroger, one of the country’s largest grocery chains with 2,458 stores, spends nearly $2 billion annually with minority- and women-owned businesses. Thomas said while the company strives for an open-door policy when it comes to minority suppliers, offering guidance and suggestions, there are times when the door must stay shut.

“Vendors need to understand what their capabilities are,” she said. “Last year, I had someone register in our program, and his sales were $150 last year. Sometimes you just have to say, ‘Kroger’s not the place for you,’ but you can never say never.”