When most people go to work, they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about toilet paper. Matt Johnson ’98 does.
The New York City native is a director of supply chain management at H-E-B, the No. 2 grocery store in the U.S. with 340 stores in Texas and Mexico. Johnson stumbled into the position after originally joining H-E-B in an operational leadership role. Normally, his position entails forecasting demand and collaborating across many supply chain teams to replenish more than 300 stores’ groceries, but the onset of COVID-19 and the subsequent pandemic has narrowed their focus. Now, Johnson and his team are heavily focused on the forecasting behind keeping shelves stocked with pandemic essentials—especially toilet paper and hand sanitizer—that customers need.
“The approach that we take when planning for things like this has a lot more to do with what the community needs versus how to maximize profitability or sales,” Johnson says. “We’re much more targeting the issues that will negatively impact our community.”
H-E-B began monitoring COVID-19 as soon as news emerged about the virus in China. Johnson and his team started collaborating with business partners on what potential store demand might look like to help with planning different scenarios to assist in the buying and sourcing decisions they make for critical amounts of supply ahead of time. This gave H-E-B stores an advantage when the U.S. effectively shut down in March 2020. They have been adapting ever since.
This is not the first time Johnson and his team have faced supply chain issues brought on by a crisis. In fact, their COVID-19 planning procedures were largely informed by hurricane preparedness after facing Hurricane Harvey a few years ago. However, the whole world was affected by COVID-19 simultaneously, which presented new challenges to all retailers.
“In retrospect, once COVID-19 hit, [emergency response] for a hurricane did not seem as overwhelming because there is an end in sight,” Johnson explains. “But when we started to approach two to three months into the pandemic, our volume [of goods needed] remained as high as it was, and it was hard to maintain.” To help fix this issue, Johnson and his team pressed pause mid-pandemic to completely redesign their systems, which had become muddled and difficult to use. A necessary stressor, he says, to make the process less stressful long-term.
Johnson cites the extreme length of the pandemic as one of the biggest challenges for all H-E-B partners.
“One of the really concerning things is you’re running at 120 miles per hour for a long period of time,” Johnson says. Store partners and warehouse partners were putting in extended effort to support us, not because H-E-B required it, “but because they felt an ownership in it,” Johnson says.
“When we were at the peak [of the pandemic], there wasn’t an effort to push people. We actually had to tell them to stop,” Johnson says. “There is this element of ownership at H-E-B, and it’s driven a lot by leadership. There’s a culture that’s very prevalent across the entire company that you know that what you’re doing has some purpose—to a greater degree than I’ve ever seen before.”
The creative thinking and problem solving Johnson and his team have honed to get through this unprecedented time were skills he developed during his years at Trinity. “Trinity wasn’t about memorizing content—it taught me how to learn,” Johnson says. “From the nature of language classes to the case study classes to classes in art and cinematography in the Vietnam era, it taught me to be a critical thinker about what I was consuming.”
While at Trinity, Johnson double majored in communication and psychology and minored in finance. He fondly recalls his classes with communication professor Bill Christ, Ph.D., who Johnson says “brought me around to the idea that psychology, marketing, and communications all tie together into a place that can have a positive impact on the world. He taught me that you should recognize that as you craft a message and send it out, it’s not necessarily what you say but how it’s heard.”
And around the world, people are hearing about H-E-B, whose tagline accurately rings true: Here, Everything’s Better.
The company has received several awards in the past few months, including being named No. 10 in Glassdoor’s “Best Places to Work” as well as one of the top 10 private companies in America by Forbes. One of H-E-B’s stores even made national news in February for letting customers leave with their groceries, sans payment, when the power went out during the winter storm.
“When I first moved here, I saw people had this die-hard love for their grocery store, and I did not understand it for the life of me. And it’s still mildly confusing, but at the same time, I get it,” Johnson explains. “H-E-B is built on the ideal that you do good for the sake of doing good and good things will come of it, and I think you can watch that happen in times like this.”