Nash Finch's Alec Covington: High school graduate turned CEO

Like Apple’s Steve Jobs, Nash Finch CEO Alec Covington climbed the corporate ranks after completing only a high school degree.  On Friday, November 19, the UST Retail Club hosted Mr. Covington for its CEO Luncheon Event, "Navigating the Recession and Coming Out Ahead."   I attended the luncheon with many of my MBA classmates and took away three key lessons from his presentation.

Lesson 1:  Stick to your core values.  As much as this seems like a no-brainer, it really is in the best interest for businesses and individuals to operate according to their values.  The old adage that greed is good is no longer in vogue.  Mr. Covington spoke about a difficult situation that he faced with an employee.  Basically, the employee decided not to allocate full vacation time to new employees of an acquired firm.   Although this cut costs, Mr. Covington decided that these new employees were more than deserving of the time that they had accrued previously and reinstated the benefits.  His fundamental core values led him to do the right thing to benefit both parties.

Lesson 2:  Actions speak louder than words.  How do you effectively get people to follow you?  Well, you can either say something, or you can lead by doing.  In Mr. Covington’s case, he put this valuable lesson into practice while at one of his warehouses.  When he arrived, he noticed paper and scraps scattered over the floor.  So he simply reached down, picked them up, and threw them away.  The other employees followed by proactively cleaning the rest of the warehouse floor.  It seems like a small action, but its effectiveness will be felt much longer than any e-mail about a warehouse cleaning initiative would.

Lesson 3:  Be persistent with business strategies, even if they don't work the first time.  Often times, managers set a direction for the company to follow, but hit roadblocks early on.  Instead of changing strategy at any sign of turbulence, Mr. Covington encourages that patience be exercised.  This is all the more difficult to do when the company is in a downward spiral.  Mr. Covington faced this situation in 2006 when he first joined Nash Finch.   The company was nearing default on loans and its profits were decreasing, but he stuck with his strategy to turn the company around.  The stock price has now increased from $23/share in 2006 to $36/share today.

Sticking to your own core values and learning from your life lessons can provide a valuable guiding light during tough times.  Mr. Covington's career proves that much can be learned and accomplished in business settings, even with limited formal education.

Greg Laughlin is student in the Full-time UST MBA program.