Judith Spires was a typical teenager when she became a cashier at a supermarket to help pay for her education.
It was just the beginning of a long career for the Cherry Hill native.
“I was able to find my passion and fall in love with this business,” Spires said.
Spires, now chairman and CEO of Kings Food Markets, values the effort it took over a 30-year career to work her way up from cashier to president, first at Acme Markets and now at Kings.
It is just one of the many reasons why Spires is this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award honoree for the NJBIZ Best 50 Women in Business awards program.
“As I take a look at this award’s former recipients, I am deeply honored and humbled to be recognized alongside so many incredible women,” Spires said. “Growing up in this wonderful state, I never thought that I would achieve something like this.
“It just means so much.”
Spires immediately sought a career in retail management upon graduating from LaSalle University in Philadelphia — a field that she said was fairly male-dominated at the time, even if she didn’t fully realize it.
“I did not see anybody that looked like me — meaning, all of the bosses wore white collar shirts, black ties and suits,” she said. “But that, I can tell you, has changed for the better.”
It was not without hard work. Spires attended Cornell University’s Food Executive Program in 1991 while working full-time with Acme Markets.
“I developed my own strategy for how I was going to achieve my goals from a young age,” Spires said. “I compared myself to myself to be my personal best.”
After earning her master’s degree in business administration from LaSalle in 2009, Spires accepted her current position at the Parsippany-based Kings Food Markets brand in 2010.
“I (first) wanted to identify our strengths and the values that we stand for in order to articulate a strategy and mission that our people could own and become part of,” she said.
Spires considered five consumer trends while working to successfully rebrand Kings over the past few years: the decline of big brands; increasingly independent living; the “e-revolution”; personalized service; and the “experience economy.”
That has translated into an increase of products from local vendors and food entrepreneurs, catering services, fresh items and prepared foods, digital and mobile capabilities, social media efforts, and immersive experiences such as cooking classes.
It has all paid off.
Under Spires’ leadership, the 81-year-old chain that focuses on fresh and specialty gourmet food has expanded outside New Jersey into Garden City, New York, and Old Greenwich, Connecticut, and debuted unique concepts and product selections. It rebranded and remodeled 23 of its existing 25 locations in order to effectively transition Kings into the 21st century.
“I was able to take my passion and live it while benefitting the communities I work in, the employees I work with, my family and myself,” Spires said.
Kings Food Markets is responsible for more than 2,500 jobs in the state and 200 more in Connecticut and New York.
Ahead of the trends
Judith Spires has been instrumental in driving Kings Food Markets’ innovation and rebranding since joining the company in 2010.
“The drive to be healthy and the superfoods that will help us all live forever while having different dietary needs — that is the exciting thing that my team and I work on all the time,” she said.
Kings Food Markets continues to meet customers’ increasing demands for prepared foods and digital capabilities.
“People want to eat well and with their families, but everyone is time starved. They need good ‘insta-ready’ choices,” Spires said. “And we continue to work to offer our customers the full Kings experience, such as further developing our online and mobile technologies.”
Kings Food Markets will rebrand its Short Hills location this year, with Bernardsville to follow, and has hired a real estate professional in order to continue to open additional locations in the state.
“I want to continue to fuel the passion that turned into a lifelong career for me by creating opportunities for others to fulfill their dreams in life,” Spires said. “I want to make sure that we have a strong organization that allows people to grow and develop.”
Spires said Kings is fortunate to have such low turnover.
“Kings is a place in which people have a lot of flexibility,” she said. “Combined with a great work environment, many are pleased with their positions here.”
As the company grows, it continues to promote from within as well as hire externally.
“What continues to amaze me about the state of New Jersey is the level of talent and work ethic here,” Spires said. “That is truly a plus.”
Spires said she wakes up in the morning with the energy, drive and enthusiasm to continue pursuing her passion. She expects the same from her employees and mentees.
“I ask them, are you living your passion? If you are not happy, leave what you are doing and find out what that driving force really is,” she said. “When you live your passion, there is nothing that can stop you.”
Spires also credits transparency and being true to her own personal values with her success.
“You have nothing but your reputation,” she said. “That is what you have that somebody can’t take away from you.”
Spires also believes that women, especially, need to learn what is best for them when it comes to balancing work and family.
“I was a better wife and mother because I have worked in the job that I have,” she said. “Everyone, of course, needs to work to pay the bills, but your family knows when you are not happy.
“If you are happy doing what you are doing, your family and your kids will benefit from that. If you are at work and feel guilty, that is not what you should be doing.”
Spires clearly loves her job, as evidenced by her devotion to several food-related organizations in the state.
For example, she recently finished her third term as the chairperson of the New Jersey Food Council. Richard Saker, chairman, CEO and president of Saker Holdings Corp. and Saker ShopRites, took over earlier this year.
“I hope that our leaders, as we go through the next race for governor, can understand how important it is to listen to the business community in order to understand what makes us successful in driving growth and prosperity,” Spires said.
She still serves as chairperson of the Academy of Food Marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
“My parents both believed the college education is the most important thing, so I am involved to help people who want careers in our industry,” she said.
She also continues to be a member of the board of The Food Marketing Institute and of the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.
“One of the things that I always say yes to is an opportunity to speak with groups that are trying to progress and do better. How can I best share my challenges and successes in order for them to gain insight?” Spires said. “It also is disheartening to me that in the state of New Jersey, there are so many children who go to bed hungry at night.
“Here at Kings, we are totally committed to hunger elimination.”
Lastly, Spires continues to work with Big Brothers Big Sisters America.
“I believe we can make a difference one person at a time,” she said. “While my ‘Little’ and I have aged out of the formal program, she will be my ‘Little’ for my entire life.
“I encourage and help others to find the same mutually beneficial type of experiences.”
Spires, who received the 2016 Corporate Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Corporate Growth in New Jersey last year, will be honored, along with this year’s class of Best 50 Women in Business, March 20 at The Palace at Somerset Park.
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