The Great American Work Ethic

by Cynndie Hoff

Grainy black-and-white photos of the Great Depression conjure poignant images of the worst of times. Yet, that dark era inspired one of this country’s most powerful legacies: the great American work ethic. Those values and lessons still exist in the 21st-century workplace and in the ethos of exceptional corporate executives like Jim Lee ’74, president and chief operating officer of Stater Bros. Markets. Lee credits his parents, who weathered the Dust Bowl days with hard work and instilled in him a strong faith, with his personal and professional success. “My dad served in World War II and then worked two jobs most of his life while my mom worked as a hairdresser for more than 50 years,” said Lee. “They rarely had new clothes, but they always had clean clothes, and they taught me by example that love and respect mattered more than dollars and cents.”

Lee kept that family tradition close to his heart as he set off to make his own mark. His journey began with a job as a clerk’s helper “box boy” at a local Ralphs grocery store and a scholarship to play basketball at Azusa Pacific College. Then-coach Cliff Hamlow, Ph.D., APU vice president emeritus, remembers Lee well even four decades later. “Jim was part of a great group of freshman players. I definitely saw leadership qualities in him, but what really stood out was his work ethic,” he said. “He understood the game and what it meant to be part of the team. He was never afraid to get sweat on his brow.”

Despite his tenacity, the Cougars’ exceptionally talented roster caused Lee to suspect he wouldn’t see much of the court at APU in the years that followed, so he transferred to neighboring Citrus Community College. The following year, California State University, Fullerton recruited him, but something or Someone told Lee it wasn’t where he belonged. He swallowed his pride and called Hamlow. “He could have made that call very difficult for me,” said Lee. “He could have rightfully told me that I had made my choice and there was no room for me on the team. Instead, Coach Hamlow said something that changed my life and became an important element in my career and my relationships. He said, ‘I’ve been saving a place for you.’ That simple act of forgiveness made such an impact on me that it now affects how I do business every day.”

Today, the man who began as a grocery bagger now heads one of the largest food corporations in the nation with a leadership philosophy forged from key mentors in his life. “I have a bit of Coach Hamlow in me,” he said, “and a bit of Jerry Smith, my manager at my first job, and a definite influence from an amazing man, Jack Brown, Stater Bros.’ CEO. They each modeled for me how to truly value people.” And like them, he gives back by paying it forward. “Jim inspires those around him and instills the confidence to reach higher,” said a Stater Bros. employee who has worked closely with Lee for 10 years. “He makes you want to do your very best, not only for the company, but for yourself. I am forever a better employee, but more importantly, a better person having worked for, and with, Jim.”

Over the years, Lee garnered similar respect from those outside the organization as he built a reputation for creating a workplace culture characterized by integrity. In 2008, APU honored him with the Academic Hall of Honor Award. The USC Marshall School of Business Food Industry Management Program named him the Food Industry Executive of the Year for 2010. And this year, he received the 2011 Humanitarian Award from the California Conference for Equality and Justice for his longtime dedication and service to the food industry.

Befitting the influence of his parents’ Depression-era wisdom, Lee humbly shrugs off the accolades and points to the true treasures in his life—his faith; his wife of nearly 40 years, Nancy; and their two daughters and four grandchildren. In a time when so many want to start at the top of their field, the Jim Lees of the world remind others of the value in beginning at the bottom, the satisfaction of a job well done, and the reward of contentment and peace that comes only from a life lived and worked for the Lord.

Originally published in the Winter '11 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.