Commissary needs tighter ship, director says

  • Tom Philpott / Military Update
  • Saturday, October 7, 2000 9:00pm
  • Local News

Commissary shoppers deserve better prices, more attractive stores, fresher produce and baked goods, and a more attentive staff, said Maj. Gen. Robert J. Courter Jr., director of the Defense Commissary Agency.

Getting there, Courter said, does not require a rise in the 5 percent surcharge on patron purchases or a boost in DeCA’s $1.1 billion annual subsidy. DeCA, with it 300 stores and 17,000 employees, just needs to become more cost-conscious and efficient. It’s happening, said Courter, in an interview at DeCA headquarters on Fort Lee, Va.

Courter has a hard-nose management style that, he conceded, is "different" than what DeCA employees have been used to.

"I want managers to commit to things. I want them to be accountable and I want them to deliver," he said. "That, I think, has affected some peoples’ comfort zone. It probably struck some nerves."

It has.

What Courter has accomplished during 10 months as director has been overshadowed recently by complaints to Congress from DeCA employees. They center on planned staff cuts, alleged


Capitol Hill staffers said some complaints have been signed, some have been delivered in person. Courter’s supporters say the whole controversy seems fueled by a "cottage industry" of anonymous letters.

"They’ve created an ogre that really doesn’t exist," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Zettler, chairman of the Commissary Operation Board. Besides

being one of Courter’s superiors, Zettler said he has been a friend and admirer for seven or eight years, since both men were colonels at Headquarters, Air Force Materiel Command in Ohio. But civilians who worked under Courter years ago are coming forward to reinforce criticism within DeCA. Robert H. Keggan, a retired Air Force engineer and Reserve lieutenant colonel, said he should have spoken up in the early 1990s when he worked for Courter as an expert on industrial waste cleanup.

"Everybody feared he’d make general on the backs of those he abused," Keggan said. "Some good people moved jobs or retired early to get away from him."

Another retired AFMC engineer, Tom Cadogan, said he worked for Courter for several years and finds the response from DeCA employees "thoroughly predictable." He called Courter "brilliant" but said "his ‘bad manners’ and abusive style can’t so easily be swept under the rug when one is dealing with the entire Defense establishment."

The Office of Air Force Inspector General last month dismissed one unsigned complaint against Courter. Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), chairman of a House oversight panel, has asked the Defense Department’s inspector general to review the matter.

Courter talked with Military Update Sept. 29 about his goals for DeCA and answered what then were only anonymous critics. Joining him were Bill Sherman, DeCA’s general counsel; Air Force Col. Jim Pallas, who is both aspecial assistant to Courter and DeCA’s IG, and Tim Ford, the agency’s public affairs officer.

Courter denied encouraging special treatment or perks while on official business. He denied using offensive language with staff or throwing documents in anger during meetings, as critics alleged. Pointing to Sherman and Pallas, he said, "These folks have attended every meeting that I’ve had, big or small." (His spokesman later clarified that Courter does hold frequent one- on-one meetings that neither Sherman nor Pallas attend.)

Sherman said Courter asks hard questions of his staff, and that makes people uncomfortable.

Pallas added that his boss "has a passion to do things right. That’s the hard road and people have trouble with that."

Courter said Defense leaders gave him two priorities: make commissaries more attractive, particularly for young enlisted, and run DeCA in a "more businesslike" way.

Zettler said a challenge for DeCA in attracting younger customers is they hail from a generation that grew up shopping for deals at Wal-Mart or Target. When they see these stores outside the gate, it’s "a touch of home," Zettler said. They have to be educated on their commissary benefit. The savings have dropped, however. A market basket of goods in commissaries still might save 25 percent over prices at traditional grocery chains, but the discount narrows to 10 percent or less when prices are compared to a Wal-Mart "supercenter." Amid such competition, said Courter, commissaries stand to lose more sales if stores decay, if customers can’t get in and out quickly, if produce isn’t kept fresh. And prices, set at cost plus 5 percent, have to be the best deals manufacturers can offer.

Courter said DeCA is a "very strong operation" with employees "very competent" at selling groceries. But it needs to move to a higher level of performance, by curbing costs, streamlining staff and reshaping the mix of skills to meet modern resale challenges.

An early priority was to restore the surcharge account to its original purpose: store renovations and new construction. DeCA had been tapping into surcharge dollars to cover rising operating costs. The neglect in maintenance showed during his early store visits, Courter said.

"I mean you walked in and there were holes in the wall, fronts off of water fountains and doors into stores that didn’t work," he said. He hosted a strategy session last spring to bang out new cost-saving goals.

Courter, a civil engineer, said he encouraged other DeCA leaders to decide among themselves on realistic objectives. They agreed to cut DeCA operating costs 7 percent by 2002 to relieve pressure on surcharge dollars.

Meanwhile, DeCA will borrow $90 million a year from the services for operating expenses that surcharge dollars no longer will be allowed to cover. Another goal is to lower store prices, in part through deals on "Best Value" brand names, so that savings of 25 percent over traditional supermarkets can widen to 30 percent and be based, in part, on price comparisons with discount stores like Wal-Mart.

Those are the goals. How Courter leads DeCA there is also seen as important.

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