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Grocery Store Chain Leads US Best-Employer List

Every year the business magazine Fortune publishes its list of the 100 best American companies to work for. This year, the number one business is not among nationally known companies. Rather, it is a privately owned, regional grocery store chain.

Of course, Wegmans is not a typical grocery store. Its flagship store in Pittsford, New York is roughly the size of a warehouse. The feel is more like a European open-air market than a grocery store -- complete with an authentic French pastry shop.

What sets the company apart is its business model, centered on worker and customer relations. Wegman's motto is: employees first, customers second. In other words, if the employees are happy, the customers will be, too.

Recently, a crowd of Wegmans employees filled the main office of the corporate office to hear from company chairman Robert Wegman, 86. "When I came back from the Marine Corps in 1945," he reminisced, "and I went to my uncle who was running the company at that time and I said, 'I'd like to go to work for you,' he said, 'Don't come in the grocery business. It's the worst business in the world.' And you know - he was right!"

When Mr. Wegman became president of the company in 1950, he says the grocery business was one of the lowest paying industries in the United States and no benefits were offered to employees. More than 54 years later, he calls being named the number one business to work for a culmination of his life's work. "I have always enjoyed working with our employees," he says. "I call them my friends and I still do. I don't know how much longer I'm going to be able to keep doing this…if I hadn't have lived this long I never would have gotten this recognition."

Wegmans now has 67 stores in four states. It will soon expand into a fifth state -- Maryland on the east coast. But Robert Wegman emphasizes that he's not interested in becoming the biggest company.

That sentiment is shared by his son, Wegmans president, Danny Wegman. "The main thrill we get as a company isn't necessarily getting bigger but it is always getting better," he says. "For that to happen, we believe that each one of us has to get better and learn more about the job we're doing, learn more about our customers. So that's our primary focus. My dad has always said, 'I don't want to be the biggest…I just want to be the best.' And we think that's the best way to do that."

The Wegmans grocery chain offers more than paychecks to its workers. Until recently, employees didn't pay anything for health insurance. A college scholarship program has provided more than $54 million in tuition assistance to more than 17,000 employees.

One of the recipients was Steve O'Malley, who has been working at Wegmans for two decades. "I first started when I was 16," he says. "I got a scholarship with Wegmans…and the opportunities they give employees -- it's just amazing! Most of my career [has been] in produce, then all over the country on different trips and stuff. There's a lot of education opportunities. It allows me to come back and share with fellow employees and our customers."

Mr. O'Malley praises Wegmans for taking all of its workers seriously. "There's a genuine interest in every employee's thoughts," he says. "And we listen not only to our customers, but most of the ideas for our company come from employees themselves at all levels. And it's just great to have the support of upper management."

Fortune magazine has been compiling the list of the top 100 companies to work for since 1998. Wegmans has been on that list every year -- but this is the first time it's been named number one.