February 5, 2020
Spend a minute at H-E-B Digital and you'll discover that many of our Partners didn't spend their first day at an office. A sizable portion of our workforce started their H-E-B careers in our stores and their experiences inform the digital revolution they're helping to spearhead today.
One example of that journey is Esther Castelo, who began as a part-time cashier in 1993 and now serves as Vice President of Digital Commerce Operations. We sat down with her to ask how she went from scanning turkeys to building the next wave of retail.
Is it true that you were wearing flip-flops during your first interview with H-E-B?
That is correct. I was wearing a t-shirt, torn-at-the-knees sweatpants, and flip flops!
I had temporarily moved back in with my mom while I was in school, and she sent me to H-E-B to pick up a few things. The store was having a job fair (this is back when we did all of the hiring at store-level), and I needed a part-time job. I thought I'd fill out an application and see how it went, not realizing they were doing on-site interviews. When I got to the front of the line, I figured "What the hell? I have nothing to lose." Thank goodness they saw past my fashion and gave me the job.
So, you started working as a front-end checker at the San Antonio Marketplace store. What was your first day like?
I started on November 23, 1993, four days before Thanksgiving. On my first day, a Partner (what we call H-E-B employees) took us upstairs and gave us a sheet of paper that looked like the keyboard. The trainer showed us what every key did, gave us a couple of scenarios, and sent us downstairs to pair up with an experienced cashier.
But the store was shorthanded, so they put a Partner on the check-stand next to mine in case I had questions, and set me off.
If you have ever been a checker or bagger four days before Thanksgiving, you know it is crazy busy. Needless to say, I had no choice but to figure it out as I went, scanning more turkeys than I ever imagined possible.
How long were you a checker?
Only for a little bit. At that store, I worked for an amazing manager, Kathy Bowen, who saw something in me. She started using me as what we then called a Junior Assistant Service Manager. She urged me to apply to the training program we now call our School of Retail Management (SoRM) to develop my skills in H‑E‑B store operations. I went through the program and became a Service Director, which I loved.
After a couple of years, there was a re-org and that role no longer existed. So, I moved into our grocery department as a Manager. Again, I was influenced by great leaders—Michael Strauss (currently Director of Retail Operation in San Antonio), Bob Brandt (a retired Partner known for Customer Service—he even has an award named after him), and others—who encouraged me to apply for H-E-B's School of Retail Leadership (SoRL), which develops skills at the total store level. The first time I applied, I didn't get in. I was upset, but I got over it, tried again a year later, and made it
Once you made it in, what was the program like?
It was awesome and challenging—a lot of learning all at once. I was only in the program for about five months when Alice Childers, who was Vice President of San Antonio Food and Drug, HR called and said, "Kiddo, I have a great opportunity for you!"
You never know what will happen when people say, "I have an opportunity for you." They needed an Assistant Store Director to work with my previous boss Kathy Bowen to open a new store in Fredericksburg, TX. (Kathy and I have a lot of history—she's probably one of the most influential leaders of my career.) So, I moved to Fredericksburg.
How did you move into corporate?
After a two-year run in Fredericksburg, I was able to return to San Antonio as a Top Store Leader—that's what we call the person in charge of each individual store. Then I moved and opened two other stores, then trained other leaders on our larger store formats. Then I got another "I have a great opportunity for you" call. This one was to work on a productivity project on the corporate side. I had no idea what that meant, so I asked around and everyone told me not to do it.
So, I accepted.
I love to work on things that people tell me I can't or shouldn't do. So, I helped start our Continuous Improvement & Design (CID) department. That team looks at our processes from end to end to find out how to make them more streamlined and efficient. I'm super proud of that work and how it evolved to be a significant part of how we do business every day.
What was the biggest adjustment as you transitioned to the corporate level?
I thought I knew a lot coming from stores, but this role challenged me in ways I could not have imagined. I was making a ton of mistakes because I did not understand the other sides of the business. I understood the power of relationships at the store level, but I had never invested in the relationships at the corporate level. We were also working on something most people at H-E-B were not totally bought into, so getting everyone on board and open to a new way of running their business was quite challenging. I had to quickly learn about change leadership, the power of effective communication, empathy, and relationships—four key learnings that changed the game for me as a leader at H-E-B.
And then what?
After eight years on the Continuous Improvement & Design team, I went back to store operations as a Director of Retail Operations in Houston, which was another job that I absolutely loved. Then I got a call from Paul Tepfenhart, Group Vice-President, and Howard Butt III, who said: "Esther, we have a great opportunity for you." And here we are!
Currently, I have the awesome opportunity to run the Store Operations side of H-E-B Digital, which has been the most rewarding and most challenging job I have ever had at H-E-B. I am having a lot of fun, but this role is stretching me and so many others in ways we just could not have imagined. While the CID change was pretty significant, this one is definitely challenging in new ways. I guess that's why this one is called a "digital transformation."
What’s your favorite part of your job…and the most challenging?
My favorite part will always be about the people, our Partners and customers! I have the most amazing team that leads the charge every day (I get a lot of the credit, but make no mistake, my team makes all these great things happen—not me). I also love all of the energy in the stores, the excitement from our customers and all of the amazing Partners I have met across the company. I have learned so much on the tech side, which was a part of the business I knew nothing about. I still don’t know much, but now I know who to call!
The biggest challenge for us right now is that we are learning while we are also working to win. There is no time to slow down and we have to build a business in a space that we haven't spent a century in. We have experts in tech, experts in store operations, experts in delivery, and experts in product development—the challenge is sharing that expertise across all areas of a very complex business to bring the absolute best experience to our customers.
The great news is that, like anything else at H-E-B, we will figure it out!
What's next for you?
Ha, we will see when the next "great opportunity" comes my way. I love H-E-B and will continue to work hard in whatever capacity I’m needed to make sure we succeed.
When did you know H-E-B was going to be your home for the long haul?
It's hard to say the exact moment that it happened, but here is what I can tell you: 26 years ago, I never imagined that I would be able to work for a company that I love and respect, surrounded by people that I love and respect, earning a living that allows me to provide my family with a life I did not dream possible, and doing all of this in a job that is as exciting as it is challenging and rewarding. I also get to work for so many leaders that I believe in and admire who I know believe in me. How in the world could anyone ever walk away from that?
Esther Castelo is the Vice President, Digital Commerce Operations. You can connect with her on Linkedin.
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