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Mary Ellen Burris

Mary Ellen Burris headshot

Affiliation: Alumna
Program: MS, Human Development (formerly Educational Psychology)
Employment: Senior Vice President of Consumer Affairs at Wegmans

Trust from customers takes many forms, and is a critical success factor in any enduring corporation. Mary Ellen Burris, an entrepreneur at heart, has been instrumental in setting the tone for success at Wegmans Food Markets.

When Mary Ellen Burris, senior vice president of consumer affairs at Wegmans, joined the supermarket chain 37 years ago, she took her knowledge of human development and education into the corporate world to help build a company that has become very successful today because of its attentiveness to and focus on customers.

“Adapting our practices to the changing needs and concerns of consumers is very important to the growing success of the company,” she says.

In addition to earning the trust and respect of Wegmans shoppers, Burris has also had a dramatic effect on the health and well being of millions of families’ shopping habits along the east coast.

Burris has been a powerful advocate for consumers since joining Wegmans in 1971. Today, she continues to represent the voice of customers for Wegmans, which has been consistently named one of the ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ by FORTUNE magazine for 11 consecutive years, ranking #1 in 2005 and #3 in 2008.

Burris began her career at Wegmans shortly after completing her master’s degree in educational psychology, now human development, from the Warner School of Education, formerly the College of Education. Prior to joining and creating the consumer affairs position at Wegmans, she worked for Cooperative Extension in New Jersey and later in upstate New York for a number of years. Before that, she was an educator in a New Jersey school, teaching food and nutrition for two years.

With customers and stores throughout the east coast—including New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, and Maryland, and soon to be expanding into new states—Burris leads all of Wegmans customer communications out of the company’s Rochester, New York headquarters.

After listening intently to consumers’ needs over the years, Burris has made it her priority to work inside the 71-store supermarket chain to help make the shopping experience better from within rather than teaching people how to accommodate to what already exists in the supermarket.

Burris can be found devoting her time to addressing concerns of rising food prices, food safety and quality issues, the obesity epidemic, and business practices that impact the environment, people, and the company.

“The most significant challenge today is food safety,” Burris says. “The endless recalls have made it obvious that identifying the root causes of contamination and tracing back to the source is very difficult.”

She also focuses much of her attention to helping people find ways to live healthier, better lives through the Wegmans eat well. live well. program, part of which is the challenge, an eight-week program that she helped initiate to motivate people to make healthy everyday food choices and find balance in their busy lives.

In her leadership role, Burris oversees all of Wegmans customer communications, which includes community relations, media relations, food safety and quality assurance, as well as the company’s nutritionists and registered dieticians. Few supermarkets have the customer focus that Wegmans does. Leading a department that is a relentless reminder of the customer has been a part of her growing success within the company. Her weekly column in Wegmans ad has helped shoppers learn about what goes on behind the scenes to provide the products and services that make the stores a great place to shop.

Wegmans set its goal to be the very best at serving the needs of its customers, and Burris recognizes that this success must be ignited from within. “We have to be sure that we are modeling care and respect, that we are empowering our people, and that we are making a difference in every community that we serve,” she explains.

An enormous effort has gone into having Wegmans employees understand what the company’s values are and how deviating from them will not lead to success.

“When your basic philosophy is that you can’t be the best at serving the needs of your customers unless you fulfill the needs of your own people, then leadership is about being sure that you’re in fact setting a vision and identifying and developing your people,” she says. “The critical factor for me is feedback—it’s listening and responding to the needs of your own people. And, that’s easy to do at Wegmans because it’s at the heart of our philosophy.”

Education is a part of Burris’ life, not surprising since her background is in education. In addition to sitting on the Warner School Dean’s Advisory Committee as an at-large member, she also finds herself frequently applying her background in education to her current career at Wegmans.

“Understanding why people do what they do has been hugely important in a job that requires you to understand the motivations and the behavior of the customers and buyers, as we call them,” she says. “Consumer affairs is like sitting on a fence. You are the place where the customer meets the company and sometimes the desires are not common so understanding human behavior and looking at things from not just two sides, but all sides, has been really critical to this role.”