Devotion, fairness and taking up the time and mental space to remember his employees are just a few of the reasons Stewart’s Shops President and President Gary Dake, has been once again honored with leadership recognition in the annual Top Workplaces report. (His leadership among large employers was last recognized in 2021.)
Employees say Dake listens and makes good decisions as he heads a corporation of 5,000, whom he refers to as Partners, and oversees 357 stores in New York and Vermont.
Recently, he sat down with the Times Union to share how he balances leading the corporation while remaining relevant and innovative.
Q: How do you maintain your spot as one of the region’s top corporate leaders?
A: The main word is share. Everyone knows we try to share with the community. We do a lot philanthropically. We also like to share with our employees. We are very, very proud of employee ownership. That’s why we have such good people. They sit on the same side of the table as co-owners and that makes it infinitely easier, and in our view, more productive and more profitable.
Q: This edition of Top Workplaces is centered on innovation. What has Stewart’s done to innovate?
A: The company is more than 75 years old. I think of myself as a refiner more than an innovator because what we are doing is not rocket science. Retail is more about having a lot of discipline. But the things we have done lately that might be considered changes, not innovations, is we have added a number of electric vehicle charging locations. We are working with Tesla and with the New York Power Authority because we know the world is changing on how we fuel our vehicles. While I hesitate to say we are innovative, we are staying on the front line of what is going on.
Something else that is new to us, but is hardly innovative, is this past year we launched an e-commerce site. We are selling products online, generally things you would not find in the store. I never dreamed people would want a Stewart’s hoodie. We sold out rapidly. For people who don’t live in the area, they have the ability to buy Stewart’s coffee that they can brew at home. We have been getting requests for that for years. We are excited to do that. We are trying to sell things online, hats, dog leashes, dog bandanas, that we don’t sell in the stores for the simple reason is we want people to come into the store. We like our customers. But it’s a fun addition.
Q: How are you keeping Stewart’s a brand that people know and trust?
A: One of the things we are not doing is cashier-less checkout. A lot of the larger stores and convenience stores are trying to do it. But quite frankly, our people are one of our strongest assets. The interaction between our partners and our customers is what makes us different. We have made a commitment to cashiers for people to talk with or to interact with because they make the place tick. The last thing I want to do is automate my partners out of the system.
Q: At a time when many are struggling to find employees, how does Stewart’s find and retain them?
A: There is a wide variety of what we do. We manufacture our own products, we distribute our own products, we design our own stores, we have a lot of opportunities for people to grow. We have plenty of people who start part-time and become full-time, then become shift leader, manager, district manager. We are very strong proponents of promoting from within. It’s a good recruitment tool. People who arrive with great potential and a good attitude, but perhaps not a resume or educational background to get their dream job, are getting onto the ground floor and having the ability to work their way up. It is a good opportunity for a lot of people. The opportunity of growth and employee ownership is wonderful.
Q: Do you still go out and work in the stores?
A: Every year for our Holiday Match, I do. I go to the top shop for collections, the top shop for growth for the first half of the program, top shop for growth for the entire program and I work a four-hour shift in each of the shops. I’m not the fastest partner. But it helps me remember and appreciate how hard all of our people work. People think it looks so simple, but the reality is those men and women are working really hard. It just shows how good they are, the complexity of doing various things, without looking too stressed out.
Source: The Times Union, 4/28/23