She would become the first female store manager in Acme’s history, but when she tells her rise-to-the-top tale, the details are more about good old-fashioned work ethic than breaking glass ceilings. She worked night crew. Frozen food. Produce. She supervised several stores, then moved to the executive level, hitting the advertising, merchandising and human resources departments. When she was asked to develop a floral program, Spires says, she “didn’t know the difference between a petunia and a rose.” But her bosses didn’t seem worried. “They said, ‘You can learn the particulars very quickly. You have management skills.’ And I learned that early on: Say yes to every opportunity.”
“She worked hard and made the sacrifices that you need to make. There’s no time limit in our business. It’s very demanding from a schedule perspective,” says Mark Tarzwell, who worked at Acme with Spires when she was the floral merchandiser. Today he deals with her from the supply angle, as president of food distributor Burris Logistics. “She’ll drive a hard bargain, but she’ll be fair, and she’s always courteous when she’s doing it.”
Along the way, Spires did find time to marry her college sweetheart and have a son, who graduated from college this year and started a job at Campbell Soup. (“We all have the same passion,” Spires says of her family. “The passion for food and feeding people.”) Meanwhile, Acme ownership was being bounced around the country. American Stores, the owner for decades, moved its headquarters to Salt Lake City after a merger. Then they sold out to Albertsons in Boise, Idaho, which gave Spires her first shot at being president of a division — with a catch. She had to leave her hometown and Acme to take it. She moved to Colorado, and later Texas, to serve as president of Albertsons’ divisions in those regions, but she and her husband kept their Shore house in Ocean City. Finally, three years ago, Supervalu bought Albertsons, and Judy Spires came home — her wish fulfilled.
By then, declining market share was a problem for the chain. But Spires has home-field advantage. She knows the Ack-uh-me, knows what it means to this region and its hundreds of little neighborhoods and towns and the people who live in them.
“There were five kids in my family, and we weren’t by any means well-off,” Spires explains. “So when we got stuff, it was special. And I remember whenever I would thank my dad for special things, he would say, ‘Thank the Good Lord and thank Acme Markets.’”
“I HEAR A continuum through age groups of customers say ‘I love my Acme,’” Spires tells me one morning in her spacious corner office at the company’s Malvern headquarters. The building is in a nondescript office park; the look of the interior is dated, the lobby “design” of the variety that relies on obligatory OSHA posters for decoration. “I was talking to a customer yesterday” — yes, she takes calls from customers — “and he was not happy with the way something was handled. I got it taken care of, and his big thing was, ‘I love that store. I don’t want to not shop at that store.’”