( Photo courtesy Markon Cooperative )

Like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., I was raised with stories about my Native American roots. My dad proudly talked about our Choctaw and Cherokee ancestry — but a recent DNA test revealed that I have zero Native American blood. That part of my family lore is fiction.

A company’s DNA can’t be measured with a blood test or saliva sample. Rather, it’s measured in actions by its people from the C-suite to the front lines. 

After the forceful removal of a United Airlines passenger from a plane in April 2017, the airline pledged that customers do and always will come first. But do its actions line up? Airlines talk about customers’ comfort and safety, yet flying has devolved into a terrible experience for many.

How many of us do the same thing at our companies? Do you preach great products, the highest quality, impeccable safety standards, customer-centricity, yet fall short when it comes to delivering on those expectations? If so, it’s time to make some changes, as today’s customers and consumers demand more than talk.  

Wegman’s Supermarkets is an example of a company whose DNA is authentic, with customer centricity woven through everything from product assortment to employee interactions with people. The company regularly tops Fortune’s list of The 100 Best Companies to Work For, and is often cited among the best grocery stores.  

Adweek magazine, in an online article dated Feb. 12, 2016, posed the question: Why do so many people go crazy for Wegmans? 

“They were the first grocer to work from the customer’s point of view,” said Food Trend TV founder Dana McCauley in the Adweek story.  

Wegman’s media relations vice president Jo Natale pointed to another factor in the company’s genetic make up. 

“I wish there was something else I could point to, but we know what it is — it’s our employees … our employees are the point of difference,” Natale said.

So how do you align employees to act in accordance with what you espouse? In other words, how do you make sure your company’s DNA is consistent both in principle and in practice? The answer lies in actions and precedence set by leadership. 

For those of us in produce, this precedence can be set related to food safety. 

“People who talk about changing the culture to one of food safety are putting the cart in front of the horse,” Walter Ram, vice president of food safety for Giumarra Cos. said several years ago to The Packer. “Culture is a result, not a cause. To get to the culture we have to repeat practices until they become the norm.” 

A company’s DNA is about more than storytelling. 

I’ve mentioned in past columns the importance of defining a company purpose, and the value of a mission statement and core values to guide us. 

But these statements only make a difference when we put them into action.
When our employees feel valued and our customers are excited to do business with us, that’s when we know those great soundbites are more than slogans. They are part of our company’s DNA. 

Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative. E-mail him at timy@markon.com.