Brock Sands loves to iron.
For decades, the Waverly native has given his white company shirts a “military press,” a term he invented to describe the single, hard push he gives his Rowenta steam iron that turns the sleeves, the front and the back of the shirt to crisp perfection.
Over years, he has cut the shirt ironing to under 10 minutes per item.
“It used to take me a long time,” he said.
Perfection comes with practice and looking the part has always been Brock’s approach to work.
In the 43 years he has invested himself at Hy-Vee, starting as a part-time high school student and climbing the ladder at the Waverly store to his current position, he has lived by this motto: Loyalty, hard work, dedication.
From 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Waverly Area Veterans Post, friends, colleagues and customers he has served over the years will stop to celebrate him and wish him luck in his retirement.
He’s got a new set of golf clubs ready for his next chapter, which at least for now brims with ideas for cooking, fishing, visiting with the kids while he can still enjoy them, not to mention plans to continue to iron any laundered item, including his wife’s, in the house that needs his expert “military press.”
Still, he is not severing the cord completely. He is going to work at the store part-time when they need him, as it is not easy to disconnect from the place and the people who have been at the center of your out-of-home universe for over four decades.
HOW BROCK STARTED
Brock was 16 when he sat down for an interview with the assistant store manager of the Waverly store, selling his eagerness and his discipline as his main assets.
It was the ‘70s, and bell bottom jeans and long hair were a thing, putting the popular cultural trends at odds with a grocery store company that branded a clean, tight look in its employees.
“If you cut your hair, I’ll give you a job,” John Nebel, the assistant store manager, told him.
A quick-thinking student in dire need for a part-time job for gas money and everything else teens desire, Brock was sold.
His aunt, a beautician, cut his shoulder-length, brown mane, and in return, he got a steady paycheck.
His first day at the Waverly store was on Aug. 28, 1977, a date he remembers like it is his birthday.
“I’m a numbers guy and this number has stuck with me,” he said.
There is a reason why. He has spent his entire working life at the company.
He graduated from Waverly-Shell Rock High School in 1979 but could not afford to continue his education, so he continued to take pride in his job at Hy-Vee.
“Jobs were hard to come by at the time,” he said. “I was glad to join and realize it was a good company and afforded me to be where I am today.”
Brock ascended the ranks at a steady pace, moving from a part-time produce clerk to produce manager, to shift manager, to second assistant manager, to assistant store director, to manager of perishables, to manager of store operations, to assistant manager of store operations, the position from which he’s retiring.
He transferred briefly to the store in Dubuque in 1980, where he was employed full-time, a big step forward during that recession.
“The economy was really tough and to find a full-time job was really rare,” he said.
Thriving at the store just 111 miles from his hometown could not erase Brock’s yearning to return home, so in 1981, he landed back at the Hy-Vee store in town, then located at the Willow Lawn Mall, behind today’s Pizza Ranch.
“The rest is history,” Brock says.
HOW HISTORY IS MADE
That history, blended with Brock’s own life, now sits on shelves and a bookcase in his home office, a repurposed bedroom.
Anniversary watches, still in the original cases, soft teddy bears peering out of coffee cups, name tags, plaques, mini grocery store carts, pictures, a sizeable rectangular framed infographic rendition of the founders, Charles Hyde and David Vredenburg, alongside three of the company presidents Dwight Vredenburg, Ron Pearson and Ric Jurgens, with key words capturing the company philosophy, are just a small fraction of the Hy-Vee paraphernalia he has assembled over the years.
Clips of news stories, pictures, promotion letters and old ads printed in the Waverly Newspapers, advertising ham and ribs for 79 cents a pound each in 1979, cover the carpeted floor of the room for now waiting to be properly filed.
A company history book with Brock on the cover sleeve, sits downstairs on the dining table, along with pictures of him with company presidents, marking various milestones with a handshake.
The most recent one, a digital greeting card, with fast forwarding functions, in which Randy Edeker, the current president, is congratulating Brock individually, as well as other employees, serves as a reminder of the technological progress that has taken place since 1930, when the company was founded.
It is also evidence of the historic pandemic times of the past year, which has challenged and changed the world and the grocery store business in dramatic ways. Had it not been for the coronavirus, the company would have held a banquet to deliver the milestone celebrations in person, but under the present conditions, a digital display did the job with safety protocols in place.
Reviewing all these pieces of the past, brings a little moisture to Brock’s eyes. They may be museum pieces to a stranger, but to him, they are the exhibits of his life.
For the next few months, he will finally have the time to putter around, pull the letters and the cards out of the envelopes, and ponder the history he has lived.
In his lifetime, the company has reached the one-billion-dollar mark.
“And now, we are at the 10-billion-dollar mark and 80,000-plus employees,” he said.
Brock envisions his home office as a family history display of sorts.
The shelf with the Hy-Vee trucks will stay in place on the full wall, as will the main display on the bookshelf against the half wall next to the closet door.
But the other two walls will be dedicated to Brock and Cathy’s sons, Blake, an agronomist in Pittsburg, and a graduate from Kirkwood Community College; and Nate, an architect and a graduate of Iowa State, now a resident of Kansas City, Missouri.
The sons’ accomplishments are clearly one of the main life successes of their parents, so Brock beams when he tells the story of how the boys have been able to go to good colleges, an affirmation of his and his wife’s efforts.
“We are so blessed,” he said.
A gregarious guy, Brock is a natural storyteller. His sharp memory enables him to go from story to story effortlessly and speak with self-deprecating humor and insight.
Asked if he considers himself a fixture in the store, he quipped:
“More like a rusty screw,” he said.
Reflecting on his life, Brock says that he owes his life’s success to his wife, Cathy, a nurse at Allen Hospital. The two dated for seven years before finally tying the knot on June 15, 1985, at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Waverly.
In his capacity, Brock has also been able to hire Cathy’s dad, Harry Wilson, a.k.a. “Grandpa Harry,” who has been doing part-time odds-and-ends jobs at the Waverly store for at least a decade.
“I call him a good hire,” he said. “Everybody knows Grandpa Harry. Who doesn’t know him would be the easier question.”
What Brock says he most appreciates about the company is that it gives its local management plenty of decision making power.
“The autonomy is like no other company in the country,” he said. “It’s like you are running your own business with the backing of a large corporation.”
With valuable experience under his belt, Brock has this advice for young talent seeking to enter the workforce.
“I instilled this in my kids — work ethic, dedication, loyalty — these are important principles,” he said.
He has worked for all the four Hy-Vee presidents, and seven store directors.
In 1988, the Waverly store moved from Willow Lawn to its current location in Village Square.
“It has been a pleasure to work with Brock these past three years,” said Tony Fuhrmeister, the store manager. “He is an outstanding leader at the store and in the Waverly community. He upholds the values and fundamentals that Hy-Vee was built on and is constantly mentoring our employees on how to take care of our customers. He has taken great pride in working for Hy-Vee and will be sorely missed. I congratulate him on a much deserved retirement.”
In his journey, Brock has been guided by what he describes as a tested work ethic Hy-Vee has embraced.
He heard it first when he worked HR duties at the store, but its wisdom has stayed with him throughout his career.
“Act like you own it,” he said, repeating the message he now lives by. “If you act like you own it — sometimes there are difficult decisions, decisions that are hard — but if you act like you own the place, that will get you through and you will get recognized, if not right away, you will get recognized, they will know who you are.”
A self-described company man, he says he is proud he has spent his entire working career at Hy-Vee.
He has not just been looking the part with his crisp white shirts, but living it as well.
“There’s only a handful of companies that make it to a 100 years, and Hy-Vee will be one of them, in my opinion,” he said. “They are very successful at what they do and I am blessed to be able to work for a company that has allowed me to retire at the age that I am.”