Meyer Learning: Talking to Peter Engel of Fred Meyer Jewelers

Peter Engel’s path from salesman to CEO of the country’s second-largest jewelry chain

Peter Engel has spent three decades at Fred Meyer Jewelers, the second-largest jewelry chain in the United States, with 327 stores, operating under the Fred Meyer and Littman nameplates. Since 1999, the jeweler has been a division of The Kroger Co. grocery chain. Engel started as a sales associate, eventually rising to president in 2005. Here he talks about the best advice he ever received, how he juggles his differing responsibilities, and the one quality he looks for in an employee that can’t be taught.

Did you have any mentors that were really important to you?

I would have to say my first mentor was the first president of Fred Meyer Jewelers, Ed Dayoob. He had been in the business for years and years. He was very charismatic, just a wonderful salesman. He taught me to always take care of people, as people are the key to everyone’s success. This is such a people business and I am a people person. His big thing was treating people right.

Did you get any other advice that has stuck with you?

Respect everybody and their ­different advice. We all do things differently. Let people do things their way rather than have people do it your way all the time. Don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t be afraid to try. Just fail fast. Never let fear stop you.

Are there any management guides that had a big effect on you?

I read a lot of magazines and newspapers, books. I learn something from everyone. Karl G. Schoemer wrote a book called The New ­Reality that I have enjoyed reading. It is about change and how the world has changed so fast and it’s changing even faster. We have to be ready for those changes and get people ready for those changes.

As company president, you have a lot of responsibilities. How do you juggle them all?

Honoree Engel at the 2014 Diamond Empowerment Fund GOOD Awards with Anna Martin (l.), now of GIA, and DEF governing board president Phyllis Bergman

I have ways to organize myself, like notes and calendars. In my position, I wear a lot of different hats. I can’t know every piece of the business, but I have to have an understanding of it. So I have to make sure we have experts in place. That is the easiest way: just having the right team and extending trust to that team.

Is it important to learn to delegate?

You learn to let people do what they are experts in. And when they need a little guidance, I am there for them. It is really letting them be the experts in what they do and when you have to, you step in.

What do you look for when you hire someone for your team?

The most important thing is passion. You can teach people a lot of things, but you can’t teach them passion. So I look for people who just have that passion and desire to learn and succeed.

Is that also necessary for a good jewelry salesperson?

Absolutely. A good jewelry salesperson has to be very passionate about their customer, they have to be highly engaged, they have to be great listeners, and sometimes they become part of the customer’s family. This is such an emotional business, especially if it’s a bridal sale. Customers are sharing some of their most intimate moments. The salesperson has to be open and engaging and understanding.

How do you make decisions?

I think more and more the decision-making is done by analytics. As long as we have more information provided to us, that helps us make solid decisions. Sometimes you have to go by your gut, but a lot of the times you need to look at data.

CNN Money recently called Rodney McMullen, the CEO of your parent company, Kroger, “the best CEO you never heard of.” Is there anything you have learned from him?

Rodney McMullen is one of the best human beings on the face of the Earth. He is incredibly smart but he is incredibly compassionate. [Former CEO] Dave Dillon and Rodney and [president and chief operating officer] Mike Ellis—I have worked with those guys for 15 to 20 years. They are amazing.

Is it important to stay in touch with the people in the field?

I spend a tremendous amount of time in the field. I make sure that I go to grand openings whenever possible. During the holidays I make sure that I am out of the office staying in touch with the stores. I will call them or send them emails if they have a new manager or ­associate or are doing something that ­created a good experience. I ­probably know about 250 of our managers on a personal basis. I am very engaged with the field. They are the lifeblood of the company.   

Fred Meyer Jewelers in Little Elm, Texas

Do they help you understand what’s happening on a consumer level?

Yes. And you need to have a certain trust. I tell [associates] that the only way to make the organization better or make the work environment better is if you let me know what you think. I get great feedback from associates and that helps us guide the company in the right direction. It’s all about what the customer wants. We make decisions every day based on what pleases the customers. The people on the front lines have the most contact with the customers.

What changes do you see ahead for the industry?

The big change is the omnichannel revolution and the personalization of jewelry and the new service levels required for ­jewelry. Omnichannel is really the most important. It’s really being there for the customer, whether it’s online or brick and mortar. But it’s exciting because you are able to reach the customer in a way that creates brand loyalty.

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