Five years after tragedy, Jim Kowalski's daughter keeps his legacy alive
ST. PAUL — Kris Kowalski Christiansen picked up the phone call from her father, Jim Kowalski, in late August of 2013. The call would change her forever.
The two were scheduled to attend an important executive meeting soon, but he had to cancel for an impromptu fishing trip to Canada with a friend.
"You go ahead and take that meeting; you've got this," he reassured her.
At the time, Kowalski Christiansen didn't know that would be one of the last things she heard from her father, or that it would later serve as a reminder of how far she'd come and the faith he had in her.
Jim Kowalski died in a small-plane accident on a lake on that trip. He was 67.
His legacy, which he fostered with Kowalski Christiansen's mother Mary Anne Kowalski, still lives through their daughter, her staff and the metro-area grocery business they built to last.
Kowalski's Markets is now in its 35th year of operation and runs 11 stores after opening a first location on St. Paul's Grand Avenue in 1983.
Kowalski Christiansen says their success stems from a workspace where everyone's voice is valued, a dedication to local products and a comforting shopping environment.
From the beginning
Jim Kowalski didn't like what he saw as an employee of an underperforming Red Owl grocery store in 1983. With the help of Mary Anne, a gracious loan from a friend and their life savings, the couple bought the Grand Avenue location in St. Paul and converted it into the first Kowalski's Market.
The business gradually expanded, opening a second location in White Bear Lake in 1986 and several more around the metro area during the early 2000s.
Kowalski Christiansen noted how new small-business owners tend to want their hands in everything, but her parents knew their knowledge was limited. So recruiting talent became a priority. So, too, was giving them a voice in how the business was run.
"You may have to invest in people beforehand to get a good business rolling," she said. "You cannot do it all yourself."
In the early 1990s, Mary Anne Kowalski adopted a set of governing principles: Kowalski's strives to balance a democracy with a thriving business plan.
The ideology was developed to sustain the company vision into the future.
A store for the neighborhood
Jim and Mary Anne Kowalski lived in the Grand Avenue area and knew the community's input mattered as much as their staff's, Kowalski Christiansen said.
So the Kowalskis started hosting consumer group meetings, which let neighbors speak their mind. Customers would discuss products they liked, and those they didn't, as well as give their input on customer service.
"If we don't listen to (customers), what the heck are we doing here?" Kowalski Christiansen said.
Kowalski's Markets still holds such meetings at each of their locations.
Their selection of local products has been a hallmark for years, Kowalski Christiansen said. She said that carrying a local salad dressing could easily become a win-win situation. Not only are they carrying a unique product, but they're also helping a fellow entrepreneur.
"We're all attached to a higher good than just ourselves," she said.
A family calling
Out of college, Kowalski Christiansen was interested in the fashion industry. For two years she worked in retail.
Her parents then asked her to lunch one day. They had a proposition: Join the staff at Kowalski's Markets full time, and if, after three years, she felt the business wasn't her home, they'd understand if she left.
"We'll be your biggest supporters," her parents said.
Kowalski Christiansen accepted.
After seeing her parents in action and the atmosphere they and their governing principles created, she fell in love with the work — and the business.
"Watching entrepreneurs when they're good at what they do is really an exciting experience," Kowalski Christiansen said.
Her parents monitored her work ethic for some time — they needed to be sure the future of the company was in passionate hands. Her parents wanted her to experience every part of the grocery business. Whether that was the deli, the back office or the bakery, Kowalski Christiansen did it all.
"We saw it in her; could she see it in herself?" Mary Anne Kowalski said of her only child. "This wasn't just about her, this was about the entire company."
Hitting the 'reset' button
Jim Kowalski's death was sudden and tragic.
"I became a different person from that day forward," Kowalski Christiansen said.
She said her family and co-workers sensed it was time for a shift in attitude.
"He was the bravest person I knew, so now we all have to be a little braver," her daughter Sophie said. Sophie is 14 and has just started handling odd jobs around the stores.
Jim Kowalski's reach extended further than the walls of his stores. Kowalski Christiansen says it was common for her father to offer guidance to budding entrepreneurs.
"There are countless stories of 'your father changed my life,' " she said.
Kowalski Christiansen said she still draws strength from him "on a daily basis."
Mention her father, Kowalski Christiansen is often quick to note the work of her mother and the remaining staff. At Kowalski's, everyone is appreciated for their role, she said.
"You can't run a business thinking you're the one who knows everything," Kowalski Christiansen said. "(We're) really a team."
Kowalski's by the numbers
- 1983: Year started.
- 11: Number of stores.
- 1,800: Number of employees.
- $275-$325 million: Annual sales.
Kowalski's governing principles
- Human capacity: Every individual has the capacity to know what is good, to grow in that knowledge, to govern for the common good and to be a co-producer of justice in the world.
- Democratic practices: Rule by "the people" is the best system of human governance.
- Active citizenship: An active citizen is a governing member. In a democracy, citizens are obligated to govern for the good of the whole.
- Political competence: All stakeholders are responsible to develop the political competence to define problems, produce solutions and establish common agreements in light of civic principles and standards while achieving business goals.
- Institutional efficacy: Institutions are obligated to sustain the democratic values of our society.