Trickle Down Health

By Leah Fisher Nyfeler – December 1, 2014
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

In April 2014, a sea of red-shirted runners and walkers took to the streets for the Capitol 10K. This October, those same red shirts helped raise a record-setting amount of money for the American Heart Associations Heart Walk. Those people are the employees (partners, as they are called in-house), who work for San Antonio-based grocer H-E-B. In an era where it is often hard to inspire extracurricular activities in a staff, much less fitness-based activities, how does H-E-B get so many of the 17,000 staff members from the 76 stores in this Central Texas region to participate? Simple—that commitment starts at the top, with executives who are devoted to personal and corporate health and wellness. 

Senior vice president and general manager Jeff Thomas started out working for H-E-B like so many—he was a high school kid who needed a job. Little did he know that 39 years later, he’d have worked his way up the ladder to become a leader and role model within Texas’ largest private employer. A native of Corpus Christi (he’s run Beach to Bay for 15 years straight), Thomas relocated his family in 2005 to assume the position he holds now. “Once I made the move to Austin, I wanted to get involved in the community,” said Thomas. “I think it’s a big part of my role…and fortunately, I’m with a company that allows me to get involved in a lot of different activities.” 

Thomas ran the Cap10K his first year in Austin; while H-E-B sponsored the event, he was disappointed that there wasn’t more of an H-E-B presence on the run. Since then, he’s worked hard to encourage partner participation and a visible presence—those red shirts—at all sorts of events, such as the Texas Mamma Jamma Ride and Junior Achievement’s Relay Marathon. “Giving money is one thing, but what I really enjoy is seeing our team and partners involved. Whether it’s the Kite Festival, Zilker Tree Lighting, the Trail of Lights, Austin City Limits Festival, F1 Fan Fest—whatever’s going on, we’ll be there,” said Thomas.

Each week, Thomas provides his regional employees a newsletter (they’re numbered, and he’s well into the 200s now) offering health and wellness tips and encouragement toward an active lifestyle. His hands-on leadership led to some 600 employees actively participating in October’s Heart Walk and more than 3,000 at last April’s Cap10K. That support is also physical; look for the H-E-B tent at local events. “I love it,” said Thomas. “It’s a huge team building experience, and we’re like a family, my H-E-B family. So every event we participate in, we will have a tent set up and our partners know to go to that. At the Cap10K, we had a huge area for our partners, with massage tables, health and wellness tables—things to reinforce the lifestyle that we’d like them to live.”

“The lifestyle” is one of optimal health and wellness, and Kate Rogers, vice president and partner of communications and engagement, works hard to involve all. “I didn’t start the Wellness Program,” explained Rogers, who’s been with H-E-B for 16 years. “When I took responsibility for a lot of these activities, our president [Craig Boyan] said, ‘I’m very proud of the work we have done, but I think we can do more.’” Rogers took that directive and ran with it. Her first objective was to “create a culture of health internally. That means it has to be so pervasive, it goes beyond the Wellness Program.”

As a result, every leader in the company, including Thomas, participated in a course called “Fit to Lead” through the Cooper Institute in Dallas. Thomas found benefits that he, in turn, passed on to his employees. “I didn’t want it to stop there,” he said. Rogers has made the course information available to all partners through H-E-B’s educational program Online U (U as in University). In addition, “We worked with [the Cooper Institute] on the publication of a book called ‘Healthy at H-E-B Handbook,’ which we distributed widely; it covers a broad range of topics as they relate to food, body, and life,” Rogers explained.

Another exciting health program with a trickle-down effect is the annual Slim Down Showdown in January. This 12-week healthy living contest started internally with a small group of partners and evolved into a community event with thousands of participants and numerous side benefits. 

“This is a great example of what we’re trying to do,” said Rogers. “It really does start with one person. The first year we did the Slim Down Showdown, we had a contestant from our store in Beeville and his nickname was ‘Tiny.’ Tiny had worked in the Beeville store for many, many years and so everybody in the Beeville community knew Tiny. After the Showdown, he decided he wanted to organize a 5K. It was the very first in Beeville, and the mayor helped Tiny and his wife put it together. I remember one of the [participants] that morning came up to me to say how much she appreciated as a runner that we’d brought something to her hometown. She secondarily commented on how, lately, she’d noticed how many of the participants at area running events were H-E-B partners. It works both ways.”

An area that brings both Rogers and Thomas pride is Team H-E-B. Rogers explained that Team H-E-B was created to foster that company-wide view of culture and health. Partners are encouraged to find whatever activity they’re passionate about—running, triathlon, softball, basketball, tennis (“we’ve kind of got it all,” said Rogers)—and share that passion with others in the company through teams, participation in events, and shared workouts. 

Both Rogers and Thomas stressed the company’s focus on healthy eating for partners and customers. Rogers touched on this again and again, as she discussed everything from the variety of activities, programs, classes, and screenings that are available to benefits-enrolled employees. She offered this observation: “The hardest part of a healthy lifestyle is what you eat and drink everyday. There is so much conflicting information out there…and science has changed, so it’s hard to stay on top of that and really understand your personal nutrition needs. That’s the thinking behind our launch of nutritional services, putting nutritionists and dietitians in the store…It’s fine to have a consultation in an office setting, but it’s even more powerful when you’re standing in the grocery aisle.”

For Thomas, the importance of healthy nutrition has driven product selection. “Take our Healthy Living departments,” he said. “Those didn’t exist all that long ago. Now, we have a pretty good sized department that provides a lot of great options to our customers who maybe didn’t have access to [these products] before or had to go farther distances or mail order to get them.”

The big picture drawn by H-E-B’s leadership is that, when partners are healthy, the store is healthy and that, in turn, will be passed on to customers. As Thomas said, “[Health] isn’t just exercise; it’s a balance of exercise, nutrition, emotional health, spiritual health (whatever that is for whoever it is), and then financial health.

“For me, [a healthy lifestyle] is a passion—and it’s an obligation and an honor that I take seriously, to serve as a role model to my immediate team and to all of our partners to be healthy.” 


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