Welcome to TEACH Talks, Featuring H-E-B President Scott McClelland
For the latest episode of our TEACH Talks interview series, we’re pleased to be joined by Scott McClelland, President of H-E-B—or, as he is affectionately known to Texans, “the H-E-B Guy.” As he steps down from his post with H-E-B at the end of 2022, we can think of no better time to sit down with Scott to discuss his career highlights, his thoughts on the importance of education and what the future holds for him and his family.
We enjoyed our conversation with Scott so much that we didn’t want you to miss any of it, so we decided to share his entire interview in two episodes.
Welcome to Part 1 of our TEACH Talks conversation with Scott McClelland. Enjoy the video above, and follow along with the full transcript below. Our series will be distributed on ToEducateAllChildren.org, via social media channels, and to our email subscribers. If you are not already a subscriber, join today so you don’t miss a new episode.
H-E-B President Scott McClelland
Scott McClelland is the outgoing President of H-E-B Food/Drug Stores. H-E-B is a $36B retailer that operates 390 stores in Texas and Mexico. In his capacity, Scott oversees the operations of all H-E-B banners across the state of Texas. Named America’s top Grocery Retailer in 2019, H-E-B is known for operating stores with low prices, unique products tailored to Texans’ tastes and friendly partners.
Scott has worked at H-E-B since 1990, after a ten-year career at Pepsico’s Frito Lay division. He served in several marketing and operations positions before being named President of all H-E-B stores in July 2017. Previously, Scott served as President of H-E-B’s Houston operation. Under his leadership, H-E-B’s market share has grown from 11% to a market-leading 34%. Known as the “H-E-B Guy,” Scott is the local face for H-E-B, starring in TV commercials along with JJ Watt, Jose Altuve and other Houston notables.
H-E-B strives to be a good corporate citizen, and as such, Scott serves on numerous local boards, including the Greater Houston Partnership, where he served as the chairman on their board of Directors. In 2017, Scott co-founded education-based non-profit Good Reason Houston, focused on improving education for ALL students across Harris County by eliminating achievement gaps. Scott is the former board chair of the Houston Food Bank and headed their $56mm capital campaign to fund the construction of the largest food bank warehouse in the United States.
Scott received his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Southern California and graduated from Harvard’s Advanced Management Program.
Alvin Abraham: Hello. My name is Alvin Abraham, Executive Director of To Educate All Children—better known around the Houston community as TEACH. Thank you for joining us for TEACH Talks, our video series featuring one-on-one interviews with some of Houston’s most influential leaders. Today, we are pleased to be joined by Scott McClelland, President of H-E-B, or as he’s affectionately known to Texans, the H-E-B Guy. We enjoyed our conversation with Scott so much and found his answers so insightful that we didn’t want you to miss a moment. To that end, we have decided to share this interview in its entirety by creating two episodes. Welcome to Part 1 of our TEACH Talks conversation with Scott.
Scott has worked with H-E-B since 1990, being named president of all H-E-B stores in July 2017. Under his leadership, H-E-B has grown from a market share of 11%, to a market-leading 34%, and was named America’s Top Grocery Retailer in 2019. In addition to helping H-E-B take a big bite of the grocery market, Scott has served on numerous local boards. Scott is a strong advocate for the power of education to shape futures. In 2017, Scott co-founded Good Reason Houston, a non-profit focused on improving education for all students across Harris County. On a more personal note, Scott and his wife Soraya have co-chaired TEACH’s own annual gala, Touchdown for TEACH, for the past four years. While Scott is accustomed to serving as TEACH’s interviewer and emcee, today we will be the ones asking the questions. As he steps down from his post with H-E-B at the end of 2022, we can think of no better time to sit with Scott, to discuss his career highlights, his thoughts on the importance of education, and what the future holds for him and his family. We hope you enjoy this interview with our very own the H-E-B Guy.
AA: So, Scott, we’re so excited that you’re here, but I can’t start with the questions until I say you look really different since the last time I saw you. What’s new?
Scott McClelland: Well, in January, I stepped down for my role as President of H-E-B. I’m now working part-time helping H-E-B enter the DFW market this year, and I’ll be fully retired at the end of the year. So, I haven’t gone to the barber quite as much, and I bought a new pair of glasses. But hopefully what you see is I look a little bit more relaxed.
AA: You look fresh and renewed, and I’m excited about getting to know more about what’s in store for you next here.
AA: Over the next few months. So as the H-E-B Guy, you’re also cemented as the Houston Guy. So, some may be surprised to hear that you actually grew up in Los Angeles. What was life like growing up in LA? And how did your time there shape your future ambitions?
SM: Sure. Well, I would say growing up in California when I did was really a blessing. Not so sure I would want to do it again today, but at that time. The other thing that’s interesting about my upbringing was that I have one sister who’s 18 and a half years older than I am, and we both have the same parents. So, by the time that I came along, frankly, my parents were just tired. And I remember when I was 10, my dad said, “Don’t get into any trouble. And if you do, I just don’t want to hear anything about it.” And so, I had lovely parents. I wouldn’t say that they necessarily pushed me academically, they just basically said, “Do the best job you can.” And then they stepped out of the way.
And so that left a lot of latitude in terms of how hard I wanted to try. And in times during my educational career, I tried hard, and at times, I tried not hard at all, and sometimes teachers had to step in and really redirect me, and that was important. So, I would say, being from California is a source of pride for me. I’ve been in Texas for over 30 years, proud to be here, but I view myself as, if you think about Texas being the third coast, then I’m bicoastal.
AA: I love it. Tell me more about what school was like in Los Angeles for you?
SM: Sure. Well, I went to public school. When I grew up, most everyone went to public school. Frankly, today, most everyone goes to public school, about 90% of all kids in Texas still go to public schools. So, there are charters and there are private schools, but it still is the primary way that people get educated. And I was born in Compton, interestingly enough. And when I was five, my parents moved to Port of Los Angeles, so to San Pedro, and I went to public school there. And we moved there primarily because it was a better school district.
I wasn’t a great student, and as I said, my parents didn’t necessarily stress academics a lot. And in the fourth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Dozier, she had an intervention before the word intervention had even been invented. She not only had my mom come to the parent-teacher conference, but she had my dad come also. Really all I remember is what happened when they got home, and it wasn’t very pleasant, but she was going to take a stand for excellence. I was thinking I was going to be a professional baseball player in the fourth grade. Obviously, that didn’t come to pass, and I did not like Mrs. Dozier because she pushed me. But she forced me to be more academic, and after that I became a better student as a result of her.
AA: It’s clear that education has always been important to you. You’ve often said that after groceries, of course, education is the topic you’re most passionate about. How did that passion begin?
SM: I think, well, one is, I had such a good experience in public schools, and I sent my daughters to public schools. But the other reason is because of the diversity of people I work with at H-E-B. 130,000 partners, that’s what we call our employees, and they come in all shapes and sizes and educational backgrounds. It really is the highlight of getting to work at H-E-B because you really see the tapestry of not just Houston, but of Texas and what it’s made up of.
But a few years ago, we had to change our training manuals from an eighth-grade literacy level to a fifth-grade literacy level. It really became clear to me that a lot of the people who worked for us were really set behind because of the zip code that they were born into or who their parents were. As a child, you can’t pick either. So, what happens is that their entire future was really predicated upon where did they grow up. I think a basic right is, and the great equalizer is getting a good education. It can help break the barrier of poverty and help people grow to become more. Public schools seem to be the best place to do it. So, you think about leverage points, about where you can make a difference in our society, make Houston or make Texas a better place to live, frankly it really starts with education for all regardless of what your ethnicity is or your income level or what part of the state you grew up.
AA: Yep. I couldn’t agree more. You certainly leveraged your education to carve an inspiring path for yourself. You received your bachelor’s degree from USC, got your master’s at Harvard. What paved the way for your academic success?
SM: I think one of the things that’s interesting that if you look at, in particular, kids that grow up in a lower socioeconomic area, the reality of what’s possible to them is a function of where they’ve been able to travel to and what they’ve been able to see. So, there are many kids who live in Houston that have not been to the other side of the city. They’ve not been downtown. As you begin to look at role models within the one mile in which they live, there aren’t necessarily jobs or people that they can look up to and aspire to.
In my own situation, I knew I was always going to go to college, but for my parents, we never entertained that I would go to school outside of Southern California. Now, I got lucky. I chose a good school to go to in Southern California. Then as I went to work for Frito-Lay after I graduated, I began to then get transferred to other parts of the country. What happened was what I saw as being possible just grew because what was my home base of Southern California became the United States, and then I worked internationally and became the world. I saw gee, this is a much bigger place with a lot of different opportunities. I was blessed.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Maybe I was a little bit of both, but I had that opportunity. So that really shaped me, I think, a lot is the combination of a good solid education combined with getting a job that gave me the opportunity based off of my efforts and my skills. So that’s really, I think, what played in for me, and I think that’s an opportunity for us to look at is, is help young people see what could be potential in their life so that they don’t just settle.
The grocery business, nobody says that, “When I grow up, I want to work in a grocery store.” We’re a default occupation. I’ve got four grandkids. Ask them what do they want to be when they grow up. A teacher, a veterinarian, a princess. But none of them say, “Oh, I want to work at H-E-B.” So, what we’ve ended up with frankly, is people who came to work for us in high school because they needed a little bit of money or people who end up working for us because either they didn’t see more possibility for themselves, or their parents didn’t push them to achieve more. What they found is much like what I found is they got lucky in that we’re an industry or we’re a company within an industry that pushes people to get more responsibility and be bigger than they thought they could be.
That’s really what I’ve viewed my job as being at H-E-B is just developing raw talent. As I look back now on over a 30-year career at H-E-B, what’s probably most meaningful is to see people who started at the lowest levels work their way up to be a store manager or a director, in some cases vice president, simply because of the effort that they put in and their ability not to hit their head on the ceiling and continue to grow as people.
AA: That’s fantastic. In that spirit, it wouldn’t be a TEACH Talks if we didn’t praise our educators. As we always say at Teach, every child deserves a really great teacher. You mentioned Mrs. Dozier. Is there another special teacher who inspired you?
SM: I think what’s interesting, if you look for most people, if you look beyond your parents and say, who had the most influence in you on your entire life, people are going to say they’ll point to a teacher that had some relative impact. And then if you ask a group of people, well, how many of you had two teachers that really impacted your life? You find that the number goes down significantly. How many have had three? Like no one’s had three teachers that dramatically impacted their life. I was lucky in that I had two, Ms. Dozier in the fourth grade who really kind of set me straight and forced me to have to study. And then when I was a freshman in high school, I had a young public speaking teacher by the name of Christine Freuda, and she might have been 23 or 24. And the most valuable class I took in high school and in college was public speaking, but it was the early 70s.
And she introduced us to different ways of thinking. For instance, she took our class that my school was predominantly white, but we were mixed race, but we went, we spent a day at Manual Arts High School in downtown LA that was 100% African American. And we just went to classes with people who looked nothing like us and came from a completely different socioeconomic level, much lower. And then a month later they came to our school and they went around with us. And just getting to experience that, again, it was 1971. So, it was really somewhat groundbreaking. And here I am, 64, reflecting back on that, or having sitting blindfolded in the front of the class and having your classmates come up and whisper something about what they respected about you, for who you were, not what you did. Like, wow, that’s something in terms of expressing gratitude that I still employ today.
So, I would say this, Mrs. Dozier and Mrs. Freuda were really the two most consequential teachers. And I just add on to that is in a society today where… Well, really forever. You don’t have to be certified to be a parent. And so, the quality of parental leadership runs a bell-shaped curve, right? You’ve got some that do just an unbelievable job, got a lot that do the best they can with what they got. And sometimes that’s a challenge. And then you have people that probably are somewhat indifferent. And so, you think about the importance that places on the quality of educators to sometimes step in and fill a void that parents may not fill or be able to fill simply because of the circumstances they’re in, or unfortunately, in some instances because of their willingness. And so having a great teacher just makes such a huge difference for students.
AA: Absolutely. So much like Mrs. Dozier and Mrs. Freuda as a distinguished leader, both in your industry and in our community, you’ve inspired many. For more than 30 years overseeing H-E-B, you help the company grow from an 11% to a leading 34% market share.
SM: Maybe even a little higher now.
AA: Great. I love that. What H-E-B achievement has made you proudest?
SM: Yeah, it’s funny now. I’m in the sunset of my career at H-E-B, and as you look back, there are a lot of things to be proud of is $2 billion company when I joined, $36 billion company now. So, I mean, look, it’s grown a lot, a lot of products that we’ve developed along the way that really, I think have improved the quality of life for people who live in Texas. But the fact of the matter is I think what I’ve taken the most pride in is seeing the growth in terms of the partners, employees who work for us and being able to create better careers and really come to the realization that at our core. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a checker or if you’re a manager or you’re me, in life, you really want the opportunity to make a difference. And so, working hard on the culture to allow people to be a contribution to what it is that we’re trying to achieve, being the best retailer, having everyone count in the company.
And so, part of doing that is being a good listener and creating a big enough opening for people to be able to contribute. And what I found was in many instances, when I learned the most is when I’m with people on the front lines at the lowest level, because they’re closest to the work. And what you find is that when you listen to the ideas that they have, and then act on those, they just take such pride. And that goes from being a job to more of a calling. So, here’s an interesting story. I was up in Conroe and a big part of our business in these last two years has been curbside. So, cars will pull up and we’ll carry the groceries out to the car. And so, I had a maintenance man. He might have earned $18 an hour. He was watching our folks shuttle the product from where we packaged it all out to the cars, and it was raining, and they were getting wet. And so were the groceries. And so, he took a shopping cart and he built a canopy over it and put these plastic sheets down the side. And when I was at the store, he wanted to show it to me. What a genius idea. And I looked at that and I thought, why wasn’t I smart enough to do it? But here’s a guy that cared enough about making the quality of the experience for both the customer not getting wet groceries, and the person who had to walk out in the rain, stand under a canopy as they rolled the cart. It really made my month. And so took his idea and we built on it, and he gets full credit for it.
AA: That’s fantastic. And as someone who still to this day does curbside delivery to my car, thank you. That’s fantastic. And I’m so happy to hear that. You should feel very proud of the legacy that you built at H-E-B and as a store that does more, H-E-B has developed quite a reputation for caring for Texans. Through the pandemic, through Harvey, through the freeze from last year, you’ve always been there to open your doors to the community. What lessons can you share that might help schools and organizations teach, continue on delivering their mission, even in the midst of a crisis?
SM: Sure. Well, unfortunately we’ve been through our share of many of them, whether it’s been hurricanes or water boils or this long trudge we’ve been on for the last two years with COVID-19. And I think one of the things that we’ve done is, one, made sure that we’ve listened and tried to simplify. Most people think the grocery industry is pretty busy, but pretty easy. You bring in a case of green beans and you stack it on the shelf. There’s quite a bit more that goes into it beyond that.
And so, from the get-go, and COVID-19, what we said is we really aspired to do two things. One, have our employees and our customers feel safe coming into our stores because without either of them, we wouldn’t have a business. And two, we better have something to sell them. So, let’s be creative in terms of how we work the supply chain. And that was our mantra as we went through. So, we didn’t run an offense that had 20 different plays in it. That was really at the forefront. Every day we woke up into make it safe, have something to sell, and then begin to work through there.
And I think that’s, maybe what’s important in dealing with instances like this is, can you simplify? And secondly is, how strong is your culture? And make sure that you do things that line up with who it is that you say you want to be, because that’s when it really gets stretched so that when you listen and you see what your employees are having to go through is making decisions that are in support of them so that they will want to come to work, paying them more, feeding them when they come to work, doing those sorts of things.
And so, I would say that’s really, at H-E-B, we always say, we’re going to be the last to close and first to open. That only happens if people will be there to be the last to close and the first to open. And I always wondered why is it that people will come to work when water is deep, right after a hurricane? And it goes back to what I said earlier about people want the opportunity to make a difference. And when there’s a tragedy or a crisis, that’s when at H-E-B, we know it’s our chance and obligation to step up to the plate. And I’m just amazed at how many of our people step up and do it. Even when we say, “If you can’t get to work, we’ll pay you anyway,” they still find a way to get there.
AA: Scott, we are so, so thrilled that you were able to spend this much time with us today. Thank you so much for being part of TEACH Talks today. We really appreciate it.
SM: Happy to do it and thank you for all the good things you do for not just educators, but for students.
AA: Thank you for joining us today for Part 1 of our two-part TEACH Talks episode with H-E-B President Scott McClelland. I hope our time with him has given you a glimpse of the real person behind the H-E-B guy. It was great hearing the story of how one teacher made such an impact on Scott’s life, proving again, that every child deserves a great teacher.
Join us next month for Part 2, as we wrap up our conversation with Scott. We’ll be nosy about his personal life and ask some fun questions about his time as a TV star and get a preview of the next chapter of his life. And then maybe he’ll give us some acting lessons. Please be sure to share this video through your social channels. If you haven’t already, subscribe to our newsletter at ToEducateAllChildren.org so you don’t miss an episode. Thank you for supporting public education.