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How To Execute A Compelling Vision

Paul Saginaw, co-founder of Zingerman’s Family of Businesses, unveiled the secrets required to build a $40 million enterprise with 600 employees—without any proprietary products or services at Friday’s DO GOOD SUMMIT. The company’s outstanding success hinges on a business philosophy that enables people to tap into and grow their talents in an honest, open, and supportive environment.

Image Zingerman's Community of Businesses Logo

A Winning Combo: Strategy, Culture & Structure

Zingerman’s offers a prime example of how powerful an authentic company can be. It starts with vision. In fact, Saginaw had the audience salivating as he described the vision he and his partner, Ari Weinzweig, created before opening Zingerman’s in 1982.


Imagine the finest artisan food products from around the world presented in a setting so friendly and accessible that customers would feel comfortable asking questions. Combine that with a busy, bustling sandwich shop and sandwiches filled with tasty condiments that would drip down your chin from the first bite and so large they’d take two hands to hold.

Add to that picture a company that would create meaningful work based on dignity, a sense of community, and democratic values. Everyone who would work at Zingerman’s would not only have a voice, they’d have the power to make decisions. The founders wanted to establish a workplace that decoupled decision-making from titles. They wanted every employee to feel personally responsible for the business’ success.


The vision worked. Zingerman’s became an exceptional workplace… the kind you read about in books like First, Break all the Rules and Primal Leadership. Mind you, Saginaw and Weinzweig did this long before published research demonstrated their approach would build a business that would outperform and outlast competitors.

When it comes to the competition, Saginaw says he doesn’t worry about it. Zingerman’s stays on path by adhering to what he calls the natural laws of business. Zingerman’s has successfully developed a strong identity by embedding a sense of purpose in everything it does. Vision, operating principles, systems that support those operating principles (including wholly open books), culture, and servant leadership produce extraordinary results.

Saginaw noted that operating principles set the standards by which all actions are recognized and rewarded. They guide decision-making to keep culture and systems aligned. By adhering to its principles, the company creates a level of trust generally unheard of in any industry. And this trust allows people to do extraordinary things. This is the magic that enables Saginaw to operate without worry for what competitors have up their sleeves.

Saginaw will also tell you that principles aren’t principles unless they cost you something. When someone is out of integrity you have do address the issue head on—even if that means you have to ask a partner to leave.

Course Corrections

About 10 years into operations the founders noted that Zingerman’s had lost its specialness. A leadership team that had been brought on board to manage the company held more traditional business philosophies than the founders. A top down management style, title-based decision-making, and risk aversion had crept into the business.

Saginaw and Weinzweig recognized the root cause. Zingerman’s had strayed from its founding vision. They re-evaluated purpose and decided to grow the company in a way that stayed true to their original vision. Call it a cultural reboot.


Zingerman’s fosters growth by growing its people. Employees can extend the brand by opening new, food related businesses in the county as long as the new businesses bring quality improvements and align with established vision, culture, and operating principles. Today 18 different ventures comprise Zingerman’s Family of Businesses within a single county in Michigan.

That’s right. Zingerman’s Family of Businesses operate in a single county and function as a community within the larger community. This community-minded strategy has helped build a strong local economy. In fact, Zingerman’s current vision seeks to mirror demographics in the county with diversity in the workforce. Think Local First DC, sponsors of the DO GOOD SUMMIT, invited Saginaw to give the keynote as a way to inspire local businesses to adopt Zingerman’s model for building healthy, local communities.

Lessons Learned

At the end, Saginaw will tell you that that one of the most important lessons he has learned has to do with humanity. Whenever he has the choice between being right and being kind, he chooses to be kind.

“When you don’t care who gets the credit, you can achieve some extraordinary things,” claims Saginaw. Like deliberately building a thriving community. Adhering to the basics the way Zingerman’s has requires clarity, courage, and discipline. It’s nice to see how well contemporary leadership practices (put into place before the research backed them up) have worked. Now that’s truly visionary.

This post first appeared as How to Differentiate on Business Philosophy Alone in Modern DC Business. The Zingerman example shows how to hit a home run by mixing strategy, structure, and culture in a way that works effectively for these particular founders. The recipe will be different for every organization, and execution requires focus and discipline. You can, however, learn more from Zingerman’s.

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