Fortune released their annual list of the Top 100 Companies to Work for yesterday. Salesforce took the number one spot, but I want to talk about the first runner-up--Wegmans.  

Wegmans was my first "real" job out of graduate school. Prior to joining, I worked in temp jobs as I struggled to find a place that wanted to hire someone with a master's degree in political science. They gave me a chance. I worked there for only a year and a half, but during my time there, I learned a ton, and it relates directly to why Wegmans has been on the top 100 company list for 21 years. Here are three things I learned from Wegmans.

1. Understanding the business is the key to success

I was an HR analyst. I ran numbers, I analyzed contracts and I made pay recommendations. That was my job. But I spent three weeks working in a store, on my feet, serving customers, stocking shelves, and running a cash register. The only department I didn't work in was the bakery and that was simply because I needed to get back to my primary job. (And perhaps they rightly assumed that if they tried to have me decorate a cake, I'd drive away business.) 

This was not unusual. People in the corporate offices all took turns in the stores. During the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas, corporate and regional office staff took turns working in the stores. All the senior leadership (at least when I worked there) had worked in leadership positions in the stores, as store managers or assistant managers. The result of all this? Everyone knew the business.

There weren't grand plans made to implement trendy things that would make employees' lives miserable, as so often happens in the retail world. Why? Because everyone sitting in the meetings knew what it was like to stand on their feet for eight-plus hours a day, doing difficult physical labor while dealing with customers. That understanding meant policies and programs that worked.

2. Pay the best and you get the best

If you've ever shopped in a Wegmans, you've probably been blown over not only by its product selection but by its customer service as well. And the employees are happy to work there (as evidenced by this annual recognition from Fortune). 

When I worked for Wegmans, it was opening stores in a new region, which meant new pay structures--because the company understood that you can't just transfer pay from upstate New York to New Jersey. Part of my job was to find out the pay and benefits for other area grocery stores and ensure that Wegmans paid more and had better benefits. It wasn't enough to match market rates--they wanted to be better.

3. Training and education are critical to continued success

Many of my co-workers in the corporate offices started work as teenagers, running a cash register, stocking shelves, or pushing carts. They attended college, partially paid for with scholarships provided by Wegmans, and continued their careers with the company. They promoted from within. 

When I worked there, the chairman (Robert Wegman, who died in 2006) funded several private Catholic elementary schools in Rochester, New York, where the company is headquartered. I had the privilege of meeting with him, one on one, to report on the success of these schools. I asked why he did this, and he said that he saw failing public schools that weren't capable of producing the kind of people he needed to make his stores successful, so he decided to do something, and that was funding the private schools.  There was no requirement that the scholarship students one day work for Wegmans, but I'm sure many of them did.

Looking at how Wegmans continues to be profitable, have dedicated employees, and expand along the East Coast, I'm pretty sure it still follows these same principles. 

People ask me, if it was such a great place to work, why I ever left. It's a good question and the answer is hidden in the first thing I learned--the importance of understanding the business. I was ambitious. I wanted career success, and to have that at Wegmans, I knew I needed to leave my cushy office job and work in a store. That meant nights and weekends, and I wasn't willing to do that. So, I left for a job in the pharmaceutical industry. Which means the Wegmans system worked exactly correctly. The leadership wants to be there and loves the company. You can't say that about every company.