Tony Sarsam took the reins at SpartanNash in the middle of the global pandemic. That meant the chief executive, who previously led an embattled Borden Dairy to an acquisition, had to hit the ground running even faster than a new CEO typically would.

But it didn’t prevent him from swiftly laying the foundation for the company’s future. In several months’ time, SpartanNash has named a raft of new appointments across top positions, including chief financial officer, chief supply chain officer, chief strategy officer and board chairman.

That rapid onboarding has become something SpartanNash now actively promotes. And it heralds transformative change for a company whose stock price has struggled to gain momentum in recent years. In an interview with Grocery Dive, Sarsam said getting the right leadership in place quickly at SpartanNash has a trickle-down effect through the company, with top executives able to hire great store leaders, who in turn hire top-notch cashiers, baggers and warehouse associates.

“To build that future for our company right now, we have to be bold,” he said.

Hiring at the store and warehouse level is proving difficult in a tight labor market, however, and that’s testing Sarsam’s ability to create the “people-first” company he envisions. He’s also fighting on two fronts at SpartanNash, which operates a distribution as well as retail division. The former is undergoing significant updates to improve efficiency, while the latter, a network of more than 150 stores under hometown brands like D&W Fresh Market and Martin’s Super Markets, is contending with the numerous demands of a suddenly elevated digital business.

Courtesy of SpartanNash

Asked about his ultimate vision for the retailer/wholesaler, Sarsam said he’s excited by the many different directions the company could take, from acquisitions to expansion into new geographies, but that it all starts with his top goal for 2021: getting the right talent in place.

“There’s a lot of different directions we can go, but every direction is going to depend on having great people,” he said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

GROCERY DIVE: What was it like taking over a major food company in the middle of a pandemic? What was the biggest challenge you faced?

TONY SARSAM: My style in getting started depends on meeting people and being visible. But as I got started, there was nobody here. In an office that holds 600 people, there might have been four on opening day. That was challenging, but the upside was that the vast majority of the people who work at SpartanNash came to work every day. They worked in our warehouses and in our grocery stores, and I made sure to make those connections right away.

I also had to learn how to lead in a publicly traded environment. While I’ve spent the vast majority of my career in publicly traded companies, I’ve only been CEO of private companies. So there’s a bit of learning in that. The business had really terrific execution during the pandemic, and our folks never missed a beat in making sure communities got the supplies they needed, but we were in response mode in terms of labor and in getting our hands on supplies like toilet paper. While I think we did an admirable job, it was response mode, and that came with some exposures and some things that were not favorable in terms of our overall supply chain.

What’s behind all of these new top-level appointments at the company?

I set out some basic elements of our early mission, and the No. 1 goal early on was to create a future that includes a focus on people-first and on having great talent and great people in the organization. It’s a mindset of, “We’re going to be a talent machine and we’re going to grow the business.” And not all those elements were embedded here when I started. There were some capability gaps, and there were roles that just didn’t exist here.

For example, we didn’t have a laser-focused safety expert on the team. And I thought that was really important in making a statement about being people-first. You have to make a stand and show you really care about worker safety. That was a void, and so I brought on Greg Molloy to be our head of safety.

You have to move fast, and we’ve moved pretty fast. To build that future for our company right now, we have to be bold.

How important is having the right executives in place to achieving your long-term goals at SpartanNash?

It’s critically important. I believe that for companies to have great cultures and great talent, they have to build it from the ground up. You find it in those entry-level positions and the first-line supervisors in your organization. But the paradox is, it’s very difficult to get there if you don’t have great leaders at the top. The CEO can’t do that by himself or by herself. I bring on new leaders who I believe can then bring on other new leaders that can bring on and train people and create a vision for the type of talent that we’re going to have and the kind of culture that we’re going to create here.

Courtesy of SpartanNash

You spoke about frontline talent, which has become a major challenge for grocers and wholesalers lately. What are you seeing in the labor market and how is SpartanNash responding?

A tough situation got a lot tougher due to the pandemic. But I said [during our recent earnings call] that it’s our intention to win the war on talent. We’re not going to sit here and admire the problem or complain about it — we’re going to get right at it and make sure we have a great offering.