Ray Simpkins brings big-box experience to local grocer Outpost

Ray Simpkins says he has always been a salesman.

At a young age, Simpkins said, he would knock on doors around his neighborhood offering candy bars for purchase so he could buy remote-controlled cars.

“Retail has been in my blood,” Simpkins said.

Now 45 years of age, Simpkins started this year as the new general manager of Outpost Natural Foods Cooperative. The Milwaukee-based grocer selected Simpkins to succeed Pam Mehnert as the company’s leader. Mehnert retired after 42 years with Outpost.

Simpkins joined Outpost from Dollar General, where he most recently served as a district manager working in the greater Columbus, Ohio, area. Excluding his childhood candy sales, Simpkins dated his formal retail experience to college, when he obtained a job to cover bills.

He studied sociology at Wright State University and intended to find a career that would use his degree. After he graduated, he briefly was employed in the juvenile corrections field.

But Simpkins said he quickly realized the role didn’t fit his personality.

“I got good at being in retail and being in management and leading teams,” Simpkins said. “That’s where my passion is.”

In addition to Dollar General, his career has included stints with The Home Depot, Sam’s Club and Fresh Thyme Market.

Simpkins said he learned of the opportunity at Outpost – and of Outpost itself – when a recruiter contacted him on LinkedIn to gauge his interest in leading the cooperative. He wasn’t looking for a new job at the time, but Simpkins said he takes a “glass-half-full” approach to life.

“I’m going to do my own research and my own homework before I make an informed decision,” Simpkins said. “It took me coming to meet folks and understanding what the company is about and how we serve some of the underserved communities and what we offer them and how we’re big in the community.”

As he explored the opportunity, Simpkins said he learned of vendors who started at the grassroots level, earned a spot on the shelves at Outpost and are now selling their wares in other stores. He also learned about how Outpost involves itself in the Milwaukee community.

In addition, he found in Outpost a leadership team that has notched significant accomplishments, Simpkins said. Outpost was founded in 1970 and has grown its footprint to a network of four stores in Milwaukee, Wauwatosa and Mequon.

Simpkins said he sees in Outpost “an opportunity to do something special” by drawing on his experience in big-box retail while working in the smaller-format stores.

“I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t feel like I could add value to the company and be able to partner with the directors that are here and put our best foot forward to move the co-op forward,” he said.

Simpkins said his experience in big-box retail taught him how to navigate a fast-paced environment where attention to detail is required. He also said his emotional and social intelligence would be of service as the leader of a retail business.

“You have to be able to know how to get the best, the most, out of your people and what people need from you for them to be successful,” Simpkins said. “That’s really important.”

Ashley Fisher, the president of Outpost’s board of directors, pointed to the new general manager’s people skills as one of the reasons he’s a fit for the job. Fisher said the board sought a general manager who had the business acumen to steer Outpost through challenges facing the retail industry, including supply chain and the growing cost of food and goods.

Not only did the board find that expertise in Simpkins, she said he’s also driven and personable. As an example, Fisher said, she learned Simpkins met one night with Outpost’s janitor. By the end of the conversation, Fisher said Simpkins had the employee’s phone number.

“I think that really speaks to the kind of approachability and care for the organization that he’s going to bring people of all levels,” she said. “He’s someone who wants to know the people who work with and for him.”

Simpkins’ first day on the job as general manager was March 22. Since starting his new role, he said he has spent time acquainting himself with Outpost’s staff and educating himself about co-op operations.

Broadly, Simpkins said his goal is to grow Outpost’s membership and market share. He’s interested in increasing the grocer’s community events and wants to play a role in stimulating the local economy.

Simpkins said he’s excited for the challenges before him.

“I think we’re at a crossroad to be able to do some really special stuff here and grow the business,” he said. “I’m looking forward to embracing that, and I think everybody’s looking forward to that.”

Ray Simpkins

  • Title: General manager
  • Business: Outpost Natural Foods Cooperative
  • Education: Bachelor’s degree in sociology from Wright State University, MBA from Strayer University
  • Family: Married, father of adult son
  • Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
  • Resides: Milwaukee
  • Age: 45
  • Hobbies: Vacationing with family
  • Favorite vacation destination: Tennessee
  • First job: Frying fish and hush puppies at Long John Silver’s
  • Best professional advice: “When things are going great, give your team the credit. When you have opportunities, then you have to be able to shoulder that responsibility as a leader.”
Sari Lesk, Milwaukee Business Journal

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