Taking Stock

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Schlicker Deserving Of First Ballot Hall Of Fame Induction

It is with bittersweet feelings that I write my thoughts about the soon-to-be retiring Carl Schlicker, COO of Ahold USA.

The bitter: the grocery industry, which continues to be plagued by an overdose of process, is losing one of its best talents of the past 25 years – a man not only possessed with a great depth of knowledge and insight, but a leader who has always been sensitive to the needs of his people and loyalty to his company. That’s a very rare combination today.

The sweet: the satisfaction of knowing that Carl, 61, gave it his all in a career that will span nearly 40 years when he steps down as Ahold’s top man in the U.S. in February. As he told me, “Physically I can still do it, but mentally it’s become more demanding.” There is also sweetness in the time that he wants to spend with his family (children and grandchildren) and especially his wife, Sue, who he readily admits, sacrificed a lot because of the demands of Carl’s many and varied roles at Ahold USA. “Yes, she sacrificed a lot,” Schlicker noted, “but she contributed a lot more. Without her, my success would not have happened.”

I’ve written many columns in my nearly 40 years in the biz about people I’ve admired (and a few about people I didn’t), but my level of my appreciation of Carl as a business leader and as mensch ranks him among the finest people of my generation.

In the late 1990s, when he came to Giant/Carlisle to oversee store operations as part of Tony Schiano’s great team that followed him from Edwards in Windsor Locks, CT, Schlicker was often referred to as “Jersey Carl.” His tough guy reputation might have been aided by the fact that the former Marine was born in the Garden State (Elizabeth) and his father was a police officer, but store managers and DMs told us that, while Schlicker was fair, he was also demanding, and at times, contentious.

At his next stop at Giant as executive VP-sales and merchandising, suppliers and brokers also spoke of Schlicker’s fairness, adding that he was always prepared and very aggressive. However, several made it a point to note that if you didn’t deliver on what you promised, a trip to the woodshed was not unheard of.

The truth is, Carl never lost that edge; that drive and frankness are two of his best assets, but he learned to temper it.

I watched that external mellowing evolve over the past 10 years, but especially so after he was named CEO of Giant/Carlisle in 2007 and a year later when he moved to a bigger stage as chief executive of Stop & Shop and Giant/Landover.

In late 2009, when Schlicker was selected to head Ahold USA’s major restructuring effort it represented, in my opinion, an affirmation that the “everyman” in all of us could be duly recognized. Sure, Ahold could have easily chosen a better educated, more polished and more experienced executive to lead its most important project in the U.S. (which it entered in 1979), but wise men like Larry Benjamin (formerly Ahold’s top man in the U.S.) and former CEO John Rishton realized that promoting a team player who understood Ahold USA’s culture and chemistry would be a winning proposition.

And with a project as daunting and complex as AholdUSA’s corporate restructuring, the leadership abilities and immense skill package of Schlicker’s really shone. As the unit struggled with meeting timelines and occasionally with execution, Schlicker was at his best during that challenging period. He was upbeat with his team, encouraging them to think positively about what the end results would bring. His communication skills were excellent. And even though certain areas like digital marketing and enhanced technology weren’t instinctive for him, he believed in taking risks that would not only maintain Ahold’s dominant position in the Northeast, but would improve it by differentiating the Ahold USA banners from its competitors.

Today, I rarely hear any “Jersey Carl” stories anymore; Carl Schlicker has become a delegator and a great listener. While some observers might think he “bleeds” Ahold,” I don’t think that’s the case at all, despite his tenacious loyalty. Carl “bleeds” for his people, that’s how much he cares for and admires them.

As long as I’ve known Carl, on a personal level, he really hasn’t changed that much. Yes, he’s opinionated (that’s a good thing), he’s got a great sense of humor (and a self-deprecating one at times) and he’s a lot of fun to hang with. Plus, his BS-O-Meter is arguably the best in the entire grocery business (he’s so intuitive and quick, like a baseball speed gun that reads “curve ball, 85 miles per hour”).

Those who are fortunate enough to know Carl personally and professionally really comprehend what makes him successful – there’s no hypocrisy, no “double speak,” no spin and very little politicking. If you like your coffee very sweet, Carl’s not your man. And if you’re cup is always half empty, you’ve also come to the wrong café.

In the two weeks since Carl announced that he was stepping down, I’ve talked to at least 30 Ahold USA associates (from corporate to the divisional headquarters to the stores). Unanimously, their admiration for him is very strong, but there’s a bit of sadness, too.

They know, like I do, that leaders like Carl Schlicker are rare commodities and are almost impossible to replace. I’m proud to say that he’s been a difference maker and will always be a friend.