Julian Agollari’s American Dream, when he moved from Albania to the States with his wife and their baby daughter some 25 years ago, started on the floor. Not just at work, but in the family’s Southwest Florida apartment. “We slept on the floor for six months,” Agollari says. “We did that until we could afford a mattress.”
Agollari is now a district manager for Publix, overseeing a dozen stores for the $54.5 billion Lakeland grocery giant in and around Naples. It’s at least the third management post he’s held in nearly 20 years at the company; he started in the customer service department in 2004.
Yet Agollari’s humble start sleeping on the floor, when it comes to leading people — especially with empathy — is never far from his mind, he says. “When I’m managing people I try to think about that experience.”
Agollari, 48, is one of two Publix leaders based in stores or markets on the west coast of Florida the company recently honored with its top awards. Agollari won the company’s President Award, given annually to six district managers, one from each division in the company. The award goes to leaders, the company says, who are “committed to perpetuating diversity and inclusion” in the company and “are a role model to others through their demonstration of exemplary leadership.”
Publix Tampa store manager Jenniffer Kras, meanwhile, won the company’s 2022 George W. Jenkins Award. Named after Publix’s founder, known to associates as Mr. George, recipients of the award, the company says, “exemplify leadership, perpetuate the Publix culture and demonstrate their commitment to his vision.” Kras, 48, one of six in the company to win the award, was recognized for her work at her previous store, in St. Petersburg.
Publix announced the awards in a brief statement late last year. In interviews with the pair — Agollari in the Naples store, Kras on Zoom — I discovered they adhere to several common leadership principles that apply to any leader, in nearly any field. For one, managing by walking around and seeing the team, one-on-one or in groups, is irreplaceable. It’s the best way to connect with people, especially in a place like Publix, with a wide demographic range of employees. Another principle: motivating, inspiring and building confidence of people on your team requires patience, repetition — lots of repetition — and a consistent ability to listen without judging.
Kras has been with Publix since 1990. She started working there, she says, because “she didn’t want to have a corporate job in a glass building” somewhere.
Yet she didn’t start out with a Publix career in mind. “Never in a million years did I think I’d be here this long,” she says.
Over time, and the last 15 years in management, her thought process has changed. She says she particularly appreciates the leaders she reports to are “direct and transparent,” with clear directives. That’s allowed her, in turn, to be a servant leader for her team. “You almost can’t think of being anywhere else,” she says. “It’s a very dynamic place to work.”
Dynamic enough Kras was recently asked to open a new Publix, the teardown and rebuild of one on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa. The 60,000-square-foot store, in one of Tampa’s busiest areas, opened March 2.
Kras says she’s honed her listening skills over the years to know, or at least be better at knowing, when to hang back on an issue and when to go into solution mode. “I’m so hands-on,” Kras quips, she sometimes worries “they’re going to get sick of me.”
At the same time, when an employee comes to her with a problem, big or small, she will try to not prejudge an outcome. “Sometimes you have to step back and realize to be mindful of what they’re going through.”
Of course, managing a grocery store is more than the employees. There’s the customers, and then there’s the thousands of products. The best kind of manager, Kras says, is also a good observer. “You have to assess your employees, the quality of the products, the customers,” she says. “Is there a good vibe going on throughout the store? From one end to the other, you always have to be available and moving.”
Move on up
Like Kras, Agollari does a lot of managing by walking around — likely more than enough to surpass the standard 10,000 steps a day goal. “Every day,” he says, “I put myself in the position of the people I am encountering.”
Agollari, who oversees 10 to 12 managers and some 1,600 employees in all the stories in his district, is also an observer. He also goes deep into the psychological side of what leading people sometimes requires. One example? For a recent manager’s meeting, held inside a Naples Publix, he brought in a guest speaker to talk about imposter syndrome — when someone doubts his or her skills or abilities — and how to combat it. Agollari did that, he says, because he’s constantly thinking of ways to build the confidence of people he works with.
Agollari started his grocery career at a Publix competitor, Winn-Dixie. That’s where he first worked in Florida when his family moved to America. He was an assistant manager and worked overnights, too.
But the job was mostly a grind. His next move was going to be to open a UPS store. Just before that, he was shopping at his local Publix, with his baby daughter in the cart, when he saw a friend and neighbor who worked there. The friend knew Agollari wasn't happy at Winn-Dixie and connected him with a Publix manager. Several conversations later Agollari was working in the Publix customer service department.
Agollari says the chats with the store manager made him realize it was the company he was with, not the industry, that was the problem. “There actually was a right way to run a grocery business,” he says. “That is what I was missing all along.”
One of Agollari’s primary roles as district manager, he says, is “to get people to understand you can do a lot more than you think you can do.” He does that, he says, by empowering people to make their own decisions and not micromanaging. That’s how he learned and grew as a leader. “When I was a store manager, I didn’t wait for leadership to tell me what to do,” he says. “I treated it like it was my own business.”
Another key to Agollari’s management style is to be open and flexible to change — and be willing to hear it from others. “I don’t like ‘yes’ managers,” he says. “I want people to be individuals.”
Agollari, who wanted to be a police officer when he was a kid, tries to get to know as many employees as possible, and is regularly meeting new ones. He says one of his favorite things to do as a Publix district manager is to sign off on promotions. He recently promoted two people to manager and one to assistant manager.
The pride Agollari takes in promoting others takes him back to his start, at Publix and as an immigrant to the United States. And it’s a lesson he learned from others, and executed on his own. “You can be anything you want here,” he says. “The only thing stopping you is yourself.”
Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.