Photo courtesy of SpartanNash
In addition to its nationwide retail and distribution business, Grand Rapids, Michigan-based SpartanNash also operates a $1.89 billion military business segment serving commissaries and exchanges at US military bases around the world. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, SpartanNash quickly mobilized its domestic and international supply chain networks to collect and pack essential food and supplies and ship them to humanitarian teams in Warsaw, Poland—pledged to donate more than $1 million to products ranging from energy bars to personal care items. The company also made an immediate cash donation of $25,000 to nonprofit logistics partner Convoy of Hope.
“This is a humanitarian catastrophe, and SpartanNash is uniquely positioned to support Ukrainians alongside the American military heroes serving on the front lines of this crisis,” Tony Sarsam, SpartanNash President and CEO, said in a press release about the response the company.
Last week, a first container of donations left SpartanNash’s military distribution headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Sharon Fleener, the company’s Director of Export Services Regulations. Fleener spoke up WGB about how the efforts on the ground came together and what it means for SpartanNash to be able to use its military expertise and all-hands-on-deck mentality to support crisis response.
Christine LaFave Grace: How did you and the SpartanNash team mobilize so quickly?
Sharon Fleener: It literally took full effect and kicked into action in a matter of days, which would normally take weeks. Just booking a container takes between one and two weeks, sometimes even three, depending on what is happening in the world and in the supply chain.
Basically, we have been shipping food to our military heroes and their families abroad for more than 40 years. It really related to what we do every day here at our military department in Norfolk, Virginia. We deal with about five shipping companies, but there was one very special one that jumped into action and raised its hand when I called them – Hapag-Lloyd. And they said, “You know what? For that first mission we will donate a container.” I really emphasized the timetable – the ship would be leaving in a few days so we could get there and be the first out there to help because every single moment is precious – and they said, “Don’t worry about the lead time when booking; We’ll give you an empty one, and then you can load it up and drive on.” Kudos to Hapag-Lloyd for the donation.
And then we were able to get together with Convoy of Hope – they couldn’t believe we could get empty so fast. I introduced the two and they were quick to get the paperwork for the second leg as soon as they arrived in Warsaw, Poland.
Have you ever managed an operation like this?
Absolutely. We are very used to being business critical. With the Afghan refugees, it was literally within hours that we had tri-walls packed and ready to be flown straight to the front lines. It fits perfectly into our wheelhouse and we just saw it as an opportunity. When we hear something like this, we immediately say: on your marks, get set, go.
It was really a mindless thing because that’s what we do.
Can you tell a bit more about your relationship with Convoy of Hope?
Convoy of Hope is absolutely amazing. Every day they do what our mission is – to give something back. The pride we take in supporting only our military heroes and their families abroad, and not just that, our neighborhoods and communities – when someone needs help, it’s not even a thought for us to say, “How can we help?” Service is a big part of who we are and partnering with Convoy of Hope has widened our circle, if you will. I appreciate her more than anyone will ever know.
How did that come together on site?
We are always in talks with people in Europe and all our destinations, even as far as Africa and Bahrain. So we always check which items are needed. Our procurement team does an absolutely amazing job of stocking and our relationship with suppliers is phenomenal. And we keep our own brand items in plenty of stock, ready to use, especially for emergency items. So it was really ready for use at any time, because we usually have these items in stock.
What is unique about responding to this crisis?
Many people have asked me, “How can you do this?” Or ask, “How can I donate? How do I get to your container?”
People don’t think about it, “How does the product get there?” It’s an extremely complicated and very delicate passage, if you will. The United States has its own United States regulations and standards. Each individual country also has its own. The United States is constantly negotiating with them for products going there. You have 1,500 regulations that need to be followed – documentation, customs, knowledge of inspections, etc. Then you have all the way to the final destination, which is not easy. You have the rails, and when you pick up humanitarian products, you have to guide them and watch them on the journey.
Even if it happened in a few moments, I don’t want to reduce the risk factor involved. It’s very, very dangerous. It’s not complete until we see that finale: “It’s here.”
There are many intricate details that go into the journey from here to there.
How did SpartanNash staff respond on site?
There really was no hesitation. It was really, ‘Oh, is that what we do? Let’s get started.” I really didn’t have to ask anyone for anything. Most of our people who are here come from a military background. I’ve lived abroad all my life. It’s part of our culture here; it’s part of our mission at SpartanNash. People are so excited and willing to help. We are a family.