King Soopers President Russ Dispense recently retired as the longest serving president at the company he loyally served for 51 years. At age 16, Russ began his impressive career as a courtesy clerk and continued working through the ranks as manager and vice president before landing the president position in 1998.
Dispense is a proud Colorado native. He grew up on the west side of Denver and attended Regis High School. His neighborhood King Soopers offered courtesy clerk positions to students. “I rode my bike to school and work, which is what we did back then, and it was a good job,” he says. When he was hired with King Soopers, there were only a few stores in the Colorado-based company. The stores were approximately 20,000 square feet and paled in comparison to the stores today, which range from the Fresh Fare store of 30,000 square feet to the sprawling 130,000 square foot super stores.
Two Generations in the Industry
Dispense worked at King Soopers through high school, and college at Western State. He met his wife, Debbie, at the store where she frequently shopped with her mother. They wed in 1970 and after earning a scholarship from King Soopers to attend the University of Southern California’s School of Business, he earned an associate degree in Food Distribution; the couple then spent the next 18 months in California. Returning to Denver, Russ continued his career at King Soopers. He hails from two generations in the produce industry so it was an easy transition for him to manage the produce department in the store. “I had a passion for that department and it’s interesting that in the 60s we had an organic produce section in the cooler in the back for people who had to buy produce without pesticides,” Dispense shares.
His career took a jump-start in the late 70s and 80s, when Dispense held almost every management position in the company. He was involved with the introduction and implementation of the universal product code and held district management positions in systems, operations and merchandising. “All jobs were challenging and interesting, but I really loved real estate,” he states.
As vice president of real estate, Dispense explored capital investment opportunities for the company’s expansions. It wasn’t just the physical land and buildings that interested him, it was also the adjacent neighborhoods. “Customers are really important and it is also important to pay attention to the neighborhood dynamics,” describes Dispense. He searched for the right locations, some within two miles of each other and says, “King Soopers is its own strength; put it on the corner and the people will come.” He adds with a chuckle, “The right location is on the going home side of the street—the right side.”
A Generous Philanthropist
Kelli McGannon, a nearly two-decade King Soopers public relations veteran says of Dispense, “Russ was a teacher and a mentor to our 23,000 associates. He still has a passion for this company and he understands the local communities and neighborhoods around each King Soopers store. The measurements I like the most about him are the ones we can’t measure on paper, but he is a true philanthropist and King Soopers is very generous locally. Last year we gave away $23 million,” she says. McGannon relates that Dispense didn’t send out press releases on the donations because he felt it was the right thing to do—not because he wanted credit for the donations.
Dispense was concerned in 1983 when King Soopers merged with Cincinnati based Kroger. “We were so worried that they were going to change the name to Kroger and we wondered how we could maintain our own identity, but the change was good and we were able to stay autonomous and keep our name.” With each new store, Dispense studied the neighborhood. Of the new 20th Street supermarket he describes, “It’s a small 46,000 square foot store, but it has a lot of in-store prepared foods in the deli to better serve the clientele who live around there, like the Millennials and younger people who want more prepared foods.”
A Reflection of the Community
The departments in each store change to a degree to reflect the clientele’s preferences in their unique neighborhoods, which Dispense relied on more heavily than demographics. McGannon says, “The departments change because we don’t build cookie cutter stores and often demographics don’t tell the whole story. Dispense was famous for saying, ‘People make decisions, not data.’”
The only Fresh Fare concept opened in Denver in 2012 and was born from the uniqueness of its neighborhood. The store caters to shoppers who seek fresh ingredients—especially from local growers—and quick meal solutions. “Fresh Fare has a lot more emphasis on perishables,” Dispense says. Adds McGannon, “It also has grab-and-go and less traditional grocery.” She credits Dispense with having a commitment to buying local long before it was popular.
Merchandising is key. “Demographic merchandising is very important to how we merchandise our stores and how we cater to the needs of the communities that we serve,” Dispense states. “Our biggest strength is to try to be on the leading edge of merchandising, whether it is new products or innovation.” One of the most successful innovations was his team’s creation of the loyalty card. He shares, “We were the first division in Kroger to do the loyalty card and to watch that concept grow throughout the rest of the company has been very gratifying.”
With 149 stores, Dispense toured most of the stores in state (three are out of state) and truly enjoyed commiserating with the associates. He says, “We expect store managers to be on the sales floor 80 to 90 percent of the time, so it’s very important for us to be visible in the stores as well.” McGannon says, “Dispense was a fun and accessible president, and not formal. You could reach him on his cell phone or just come in to his office. The door was always open.”
Dispense connected with the associates on all levels. McGannon shares the story of an associate who was working on her degree in communications and while Dispense chatted with her he said, “You should work for Kelli McGannon, that would be a great fit for you.” Last year after coming up the ranks for a decade the associate applied for a position and now works for McGannon. “It’s a great example of how Russ connected with all associates in our organization,” she shares.
“Watching people grow into vice presidents or being promoted out of the division are some of my best memories of people in the company,” he says. He also enjoyed nurturing relationships with vendors and suppliers. He states, “We’ve always had a philosophy to be our suppliers’ favorite customer.” Through all of the memorable connections he’s made in his 51 years with King Soopers, Dispense mentioned his friend and associate, Dave Savage, a former VP at the organization. . “I worked side by side with him for 30 plus years. He’s worked for me and I’ve worked for him as we went through our careers together. I just have so much respect for him.”
Another innovative focus was on King Soopers’ commitment to health and wellness. McGannon says, “Russ always said it starts with food and we have an obligation to our community to give them healthy choices at affordable prices.” He relays, “We have a social and moral obligation to be involved in the community.” He has been impactful in contributing to the community by serving as past Chairman of the Board of the Better Business Bureau, and board member for Mountain States Employers Council, Children’s Hospital, Colorado Health Foundation and the Western Association of Food Chains.
McGannon says that his innovative leadership is unparalled in this industry, and that he has a passion and devotion to developing people in the business. She says the associates would say, Dispense is kind man and a visionary boss. Dispense says, “I believe in servant leadership. We don’t look for what is at fault, we just look for the solutions. My biggest regret is that in the last several years I haven’t gotten out as much as I’d like to. I used to know everyone.” As an avid Colorado sports fan, Dispense shares a funny story. “One year we were going to the Super Bowl and I got carried away with a magazine order and we had thousands of copies that didn’t sell.”
Dispense is a humble, people-oriented and family-centered man. He wants to travel and spend more time with his family now that he’s retired. “I want to spend more time with my wife. I owe it to her after so many years of this. It sounds kind of corny and everyone says it but in my case, my wife Debbie has been the rock behind all of it. I can’t wait to spend more time with her and the family and get to know my grandkids more. I’m really looking forward to that.”
Of his tenure with King Soopers he shares, “It has been terrific getting to work for a great company that has the same principles.” You may see Dispense on the golf course honing his game skills. “I do enjoy golf and I’m not very good at it but I plan to get better,” he says.
BIO: Kathy Smith is a freelance writer and editor who has been published in many local Denver magazines. She writes frequently for the New West Publishing family of magazines.
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