The retiring president of Webstop reflects on the lessons he’s learned throughout his career and offers wisdom on the future of the grocery industry.
Robert Hemphill seems to have accomplished the impossible during his long career. A visionary talent in his field, he remains simultaneously cherished by coworkers, clients, and even competitors.
As he steps away from Webstop and enters into his next stage in life, he reflects on the path that brought him to Webstop and taps into his deep well of knowledge to offer up lessons about the future.
A Growing Passion for Innovation
Despite Hemphill’s massive influence on the grocery industry, his interests began elsewhere. Hemphill grew up with dreams of being an artist and eventually attended classes at UCLA with a focus on engineering. His early career started at JCPenney, where he managed employees and the technical aspects of the store’s sales and inventory.
Showing early signs of the innovative spirit that would follow him throughout his career, he noticed that the newly installed computer systems the store used were making costly errors. Once, while overseeing the stores sewing inventory he noticed the computer program automatically reordering large quantities of needles, which had a negative impact on the efficiency of the warehouse. “It became pretty obvious to me that these systems could be better programmed, and businesses needed to rethink how we approached the programming aspect of these technologies,” said Hemphill. This prompted him to pick up his education again, this time with a renewed focus on business and computer systems.
“It became pretty obvious to me that these systems could be better programmed, and businesses needed to rethink how we approached the programming aspect of these technologies,”
He returned to the workforce with an intentional focus on technology, working as a system analyst and programmer at Burrough’s Corporation, before joining the Big 8 accounting firm Ernst & Whinney as a specialist in retail and wholesale tech. This position allowed Hemphill to develop a close relationship with a client, Skagg’s Drug Store, who eventually hired him to join their systems division. “Over time I became VP of systems over three large regional grocery and drug chains,” remembers Hemphill. “A big challenge was working to integrate disparate systems and user groups in the chains to chase the elusive goal of lower costs and streamlined operations.”
With a foot firmly in the burgeoning retail technology landscape, Hemphill moved to Catalina Electronic Clearing Services in Florida where he was a part of a startup that developed electronic coupon clearing for the grocery industry. His time at Catalina offered an opportunity to become even further enmeshed in the technical side of grocery retail. “Part of my responsibility at Catalina was to help develop the standards that were used for a number of years on the barcoding of coupons, which was a huge departure from what I had been previously doing.”
As the 1990s progressed, Hemphill continued to research and consider the ways the internet offered new possibilities for digital marketing. Ultimately, he bet on himself and formed Webstop in 1996. “I had helped a number of electronic marketing startups get their products and services going. Most were trying to build quickly and do an IPO, to get quick bucks and move on to the next win. I wasn’t interested in this approach, so I built Webstop for stability and durability.”
With Webstop, Hemphill attempted to do something truly unique in the field. “I noticed that so many small retailers had no plan for implementing technology, and thought that we could help close the gaps between independents and major chains.”
This realization speaks to what separates Hemphill from other business owners. As opposed to thinking about his work narrowly through the potential profits he could earn, he first thinks about helping others succeed in their own work.
Other companies have taken notice of this strategy— Marti Hitchings, Marketing Operations Manager at Spartan Nash said, “Throughout the years that I’ve worked with Robert, I’ve been impressed with his commitment to the Independent Retailer. He built a strong family business dedicated to serving other family businesses. Webstop has made website technology accessible and affordable for retailers of all sizes.”
This distinct approach can also be seen in the organizational structure of Webstop, which Hemphill notes has always been intentional. “Since the key management team is made up of family members, it’s clear that we needed to be family-based. Many initial hires were friends or people we’ve worked with before. We don’t have many formal policies, and we make it easy to take time off as needed. Many employees have said they feel like they are treated like family, not just an employee, which is perhaps why we have had such low turnover.”
Webstop’s people-first company culture has resulted in a firm that looks significantly different from others. “People work closely together,” Hemphill said. “When a developer has a problem, others volunteer immediately to help. When a production employee needs time off, others take over their work with no complaints and know that they will receive the same benefits when they need it. It’s totally different from corporate culture.”
This unique leadership style places trust in employees to stay committed to Webstop’s goals, without micromanaging their day-to-day responsibilities. Hemphill argues that this approach has actually resulted in his employees being more productive, “You don’t miss out on productivity, because everyone’s attitude is so positive.”
And clients noticed this unique culture as well… Kevin Coupe, Founder of retailer news outlet Morning News Beat,
“The level of customer service that Webstop offered to me was reflective of the degree to which the company— and the wonderful people who work there— have served not just as a service provider to their retail clients, but as a partner, deeply invested in these companies’ success. This is, I feel certain, because of Robert’s core values as a person and as a business leader. I feel equally certain that as [Morning News Beat] enjoys its 20th year in business, I never would’ve made it, much less enjoyed the success we’ve had if not for Robert Hemphill.”
Guiding a Changing Industry
Over the years, Hemphill spearheaded a variety of grocery websites, digital circulars, email, and digital coupon initiatives that changed the way grocers advertise and engage with their shoppers. In the internet boom of the last 25 years, he has guided countless grocers to success in establishing and navigating their digital presence.
Terry Kushner, former Director of Interactive Marketing and Consumer Insights at Tops Friendly Markets, benefitted from Hemphill’s reliability as a digital marketing partner: “Over the years, our business grew exponentially. Concurrently, the digital landscape was rapidly evolving. Aligning ourselves with Robert and his capable and dedicated Webstop team enabled us to successfully address the daunting challenges these changes presented. With Robert’s support and leadership, our teams learned from and challenged each other, enabling us to establish a cutting-edge website and social media presence.”
In 2010 Robert oversaw a new initiative with IGA USA in which Webstop built customizable websites for IGA’s 1,100 U.S. stores and launched them all on a single day. Mark Batenic, IGA’s Chairman and former CEO, “WE still remember the day Webstop launched over 1000 customizable web sites for us. The introduction of web sites for our stores was a defining day for IGA in its journey to reaching shoppers and Robert and Webstop were massive contributors to this journey. And our business relationship continues to this day.” Webstop would go on to win IGA’s Red Oval Partner of the Year award as the two companies continue to work together for the benefit of the independent grocer.
“We still remember the day Webstop launched over 1000 customizable web sites for us. The introduction of web sites for our stores was a defining day for IGA in its journey to reaching shoppers and Robert and Webstop were massive contributors to this journey. And our business relationship continues to this day.”
Hemphill has situated himself as an important fixture in the grocery industry, and his outside-the-box approach means that he will remain an important voice for retailers thinking about the future. Despite making a name for himself by helping others implement technology, he is quick to stress prudence for retailers: “Data and analytics are more available than ever, but the difficult thing is being able to sift through it and know what to do with it,” Hemphill said. “Ultimately, marketing needs to be useful. If it’s not offering something of use, email blasts, text messages, etc. will become annoying to the customer.”
He expresses similar caution about the potential for technology to replace face-to-face interactions. “Technology has enabled much better tracking and analysis of consumer behavior and the effectiveness of promotions and marketing. But with that comes concern about the shopping experience becoming less personal.”
The emphasis on personalization also impacts the layout of stores. “I’d suggest there is less of a hometown feeling in large, efficient stores.”
His way forward for these concerns is to return to basics. “Training, hiring, and mentoring can go a long way in helping.”
Ultimately Hemphill stresses the important balance between remaining consistent with what works while keeping an eye focused on the way things are changing. “Continue to do the things that work well today. But don’t be afraid of trying new digital approaches that eliminate friction and help consumers with their busy lives.”
The Future of Webstop
As Webstop turns toward its future without Hemphill at the helm they remain guided by his vision of leadership, and his particular emphasis on stability. “It’s difficult to maintain exceptional products and services when you have frequent management changes. I have always tried to emphasize longevity, as opposed to fast growth.”
This vision of consistency is exactly what Webstop plans to implement moving forward. While Robert will remain connected to the company in an advisory role, Greg Hemphill, President; Brian Hemphill, COO; and Shawn Tuckett, CEO will assume his responsibilities upon his retirement.
“Robert led with his heart and blazed a trail that has revolutionized an industry. His focus on innovation was coupled with deep care for his staff and clients. His legacy is much more than the features he pioneered, it’s rooted in the relationships he made and the people he impacted. We are excited for the next chapter in Webstop’s story and will stay committed to the ideals Robert established in his leadership of Webstop,” Tuckett said.
“As Webstop’s second employee I’ve had the honor of seeing this company grow from humble beginnings to the digital marketing force it is today,” Greg Hemphill shared. “Robert’s mentorship has been invaluable to my personal development in my career. His leadership holds a desire to innovate and conduct our business in an ethical manner. Robert’s approach to providing a high value proposition to our clients saw us through the Y2k crisis, the dot-com bust of the 2000’s, and the recent pandemic. As Webstop enters a new chapter, with Robert taking a less active role, I know his approach to running a business will remain within the DNA of the company. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to work closely with him for the last 20 years and look forward to receiving his advice in the years to come.”
Brian Hemphill said, “Working with my father and guided by his leadership for 20+ years has been a great learning experience. Building a business together as a family has fostered a closeness we may not otherwise have. It’s a privilege to help carry on the Webstop legacy Robert created.”
Reflecting on his career, Hemphill expressed gratitude for the team and clients who joined him to make Webstop a successful venture over the last 25 years: “I’ve been lucky to learn from a lot of really brilliant and hardworking people,” he said. “I’ve had a great life working in this industry, and I’m grateful.”