Start with Safety: From Selling Fish to Total Loss with Meredith Plaxco at PetSmart

EDITOR’S NOTE: Meredith Plaxco, LPC, is vice president of loss prevention and safety at PetSmart. She has spent more than twenty years with the company in multiple departments from store operations to corporate communications to loss prevention and safety. She is an active member of the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) Asset Protection Leaders Council.


JIM: Meredith, thank you so much for joining us on this interview. We’re very pleased to have you. I personally have heard from several different people how impressed they have been with you and have urged Jack and me to get you on the docket. We finally have done so, and we’re looking forward to our chat today.

MEREDITH: Thank you for the compliment, Jim. If there’s one positive from the pandemic, it has brought the loss prevention, asset protection, and safety community together to solve problems. I think we’ve had a lot of opportunity to get to know each other and serve in new ways, and I appreciate the incredible support from my LP and safety peers.

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JIM: Let’s start by your telling us how you first came to PetSmart and how your career has progressed?

MEREDITH: My career and experience story is a bit of a boomerang and latticework. I began my career at PetSmart in the stores in the late ’90s. It was my first “real” job. I started in the fish department when I was a teenager because of my love of pets and worked my way up through almost every role in the store.

I then left PetSmart in the early 2000s for a few years to get some experience in multilocation leadership in the veterinary field managing animal hospitals. I worked in the field and corporate office there for several years as a district manager in operational leadership, business development, and communications, which was my educational background. I was also able to get some mergers and acquisitions experience at that company before returning to PetSmart.

When I returned to PetSmart, I resumed roles in field operations before transitioning to the corporate office in project management roles supporting the store operations team. My time in store operations eventually led to an opportunity managing internal communications on the corporate communications team, which leveraged my education and passion for associate engagement. That was actually my introduction to the loss prevention and safety world.

In the corp. comm. role, I supported many partners across the business on issues that often engaged the LP and safety team. Whether it was business continuity, something in the media, or something we were doing to keep associates safer, the corp. comm. team was involved. Over time I realized that it wasn’t enough for me to be thinking about those issues only through the lens of how we communicate for execution/action and for brand presence in the media. More and more, my desire was to spend time shaping strategies upstream to protect people, pets, and profit, and I missed my roots in having accountability for outcomes, behaviors, and the P&L. Lastly, when I thought about the role that I was playing in corporate communications, while it did touch every aspect of the organization, I wanted to do that in a more meaningful way, that could impact lives and company success, and make associates even prouder to work for PetSmart. Impacting safety, security, and asset protection really allows you to do that.

While that was my career latticework in a nutshell, I only started in loss prevention about seven years ago. I didn’t start out as a lifer in the LP and safety space, but I’m definitely sold now. I joke sometimes that in LP and safety, I feel like I’ve “found my people” and truly belong.

JIM: You have a very robust, extensive background in non‑LP. How did the move into LP happen, and did you move directly into the VP role?

MEREDITH: I know others have earned stripes in more traditional ways, but I focused on learning the majority of what our LP team does on a daily basis in variety of different leadership roles on the team before I assumed the VP role.

I first joined the pet‑safety side of what we do, working as part of a team that helps make PetSmart the safest destination for pets. That was my initial focus, and I was able to do that by applying a lot of what I had learned in operations, as well as what I had learned in leading veterinarians for several years. I was able to partner with a number of subject‑matter experts to change our procedures in a way that strengthened what was already a safe, wonderful experience for pets and launched a powerful culture by focusing on engagement, mutual accountability, education, and leading indicators or behaviors to help prevent trends.

Then my career turned to do something similar on the people‑safety side, as we call it. The team’s approach was creating a culture of commitment versus compliance—eliminating certain phrases from your mind, such as “safe environment” (aka compliance table stakes) or “safety is a priority” (aka something that can be deprioritized) in order to evolve to those being minimum expectations, in exchange for creating a sustainable, safe experience built on a culture of mutual accountability for safety, then quality, then quantity, and only ever in that order. We call our cultural mission “Keeping the Pack Safe.”

Those experiences, which touched both pet safety and people safety, added to that what we refer to today as Total Retail Loss, made way for leadership opportunities and my first director role where we took value of the LP and safety team and actually made it broader, incorporating other aspects of our business and having a cross‑functional approach to not just preventing injuries and loss, but also improving margin. Our goal was shifting the mindset of LP and safety from being a cost center, or solely cost avoidance, to really helping PetSmart be more profitable. And we call that cultural mission “Protecting Profit.”

JIM: That’s a very forward‑looking business approach.

MEREDITH: We don’t want to be the captains of “no.” Our approach has been, “How can we help our partners walk the tight rope safely? How can we help our partners and others within our business create the most competitive landscape, not being bubble wrapped, but being prudent in our safety approach, creating both a safe experience, while securing our assets, protecting profits, and keeping the pack safe?”

After working in this space for quite a while, we transitioned to building the team out as we added analysts, project managers, program managers, all to stand up what started as just a simple framework of not just reacting and inspecting, but also inspiring and preventing trends. We thought, let’s actually maximize what we can do within the business. That began a role of director of LP and safety, operations, and strategy. That was my first director position. That role allowed me to build out more of the functionality within the team that could truly demonstrate that when we shift from being a reactive organization and get into some of those great discussions where we’re helping to educate partners, and helping them achieve mutual goals, that’s where we can add the most value. So we added an enterprise‑solutions arm that was holistically focused on standing up cross‑functional steering committees and solutioning for our key performance indicators (KPIs) that we own with our cross‑functional partners to actually prevent trends.

JIM: What do you mean by “preventing trends?”

MEREDITH: When we are looking at leading indicators, as opposed to only looking at lagging indicators, can those indicators tell us when loss is going to happen? What are the indicators that tell you injuries are going to happen? What is that algorithm, and how can we leverage data to help us understand that? That’s where we had some more significant unlocks.

Now for the last several years, in terms of the way we look at our resources, we actually are resourcing that way as well. We are focused on putting enough resources in the space of preventing trends and getting ahead of things versus reacting to them. What’s allowed us to do that, to scale that way, is both utilizing technology, including artificial intelligence, advanced analytics, and cameras, but also reviewing our operations through that lens of, “Are we going to continue to add resources to something that’s reactive? Or are we truly going to understand the problem and help our business partners meet their goals and prevent the problem from happening in the first place?”

By doing that and earning some good wins for the team and for the organization, I was given a few other opportunities where my role was expanded to not only the home office strategy and operations team supporting the enterprise, but then to lead the field loss prevention and safety team. Over a period of time, we identified some ways we could do some things more efficiently and actually were able to repurpose some resources and created meaningful career paths for our team members. In doing so, we were able to build on our success and create sustainable results. As we continued on that path, I was able to raise my hand for some things that we hadn’t taken on in the past and create new aspects of functionality within the team.

JIM: What were those new functions you assumed?

MEREDITH: One was standing up a true crisis management and threats intelligence virtual global security operations center. We hadn’t formalized that in the past, in terms of our role in crisis management and business continuity. So without adding resources, we instituted that functionality using incident management software, role clarity, and standardized communication and crisis response team activation frameworks—a throwback to my old role in communications.

By doing that, we were able to create a systematic way for us to quickly identify incidents, no matter the scale, and make sure they got the right leadership around them and were able to be resolved quickly to avoid business disruption, which creates value for your partners.

JIM: Can you talk a little more about those aspects of your operations and communications experience that have transferred over to LP to make you a more effective LP leader?

MEREDITH: I think there are a few things that possibly give me some different perspective. One of them is the willingness to ask questions when you don’t know all the answers because you don’t yet have all the competencies that might come from a long‑term LP career.

In my corporate communications career, part of my role was executive speech writing, which requires you to ask a lot of questions. You have to have strong judgment and the ability to quickly be able to distill something you don’t know anything about into something meaningful, that can inspire what you want a group to do, know, or feel. If you’re trying to have a successful prevention strategy, and your approach to prevention can’t be easily communicated, able to draw inspiration from, or be easily executed, you’re dead in the water.

So I think being willing to be comfortable being uncomfortable, so to speak, is an asset. And being cognizant that you have to share and effectively communicate what you produce is a positive aspect I brought from the communications world that definitely is helpful.

Then from the operations space, anyone who has worked in ops has got to have that grit to keep going when it’s hard. You have to be able to demonstrate that you’ll roll up your sleeves and do whatever it takes. Operations also certainly gives you a better lens for how what you do affects associates. Whatever you’re rolling out, what does it mean to the cashier? Or what does it mean to the distribution center associate who’s working in the pick mod? If you don’t intimately understand those aspects of things, and you’re not willing to show up for your partners and do the hard, nonglamorous stuff, you may not be as successful in your relationships or your strategies as you could be.

JIM: With your experience in mind, Meredith, have you turned to operations or non‑LP disciplines within PetSmart to fill some of your LP positions?

MEREDITH: Absolutely. And furthermore, they’ve often made the strongest team members. If I think about our strategy operations and compliance team, and the field and distribution center LP and safety team, more and more team members are from operations rather than from traditional LP and safety careers.

JIM: Talk about the structure of your organization—how many direct reports you have, what functions you are responsible for within the organization.

MEREDITH: Our pillars of responsibility are around safety, which includes people safety and pet safety, in terms of injury prevention. Asset protection encompasses total loss, threat intelligence, enterprise physical security, crisis operations, emergency management, and regulatory safety compliance. And then investigations incorporates safety incidents, elevated threats, acts of violence, and theft and fraud, both in the bricks‑and‑mortar and e‑commerce spaces.

In terms of our functionality and how it’s broken up, I have a team of about forty with four functions with direct reports that oversee those functions. We have a director over investigations and physical security, a director over distribution center LP and safety, a director over field LP and safety, and a director over our strategy, operations, and compliance team. Those directors are leaders of leaders—either they have senior business partners or leaders of people laddering up to them in each of those disciplines.

JIM: Are there any specific programs that have been put in place since you’ve been in this role that you are particularly proud of?

MEREDITH: The first program that comes to mind is our LP and safety awareness program in our stores and our distribution centers (DCs). It is a monthly program that incorporates a very short video that impacts either from an emotional perspective or from a “what if you don’t do it,” pragmatic standpoint, whether the topic is injury prevention or aspects of total loss, accuracy, or emergency preparedness—things like that. We select the topics and highlight those in stores and DCs using monthly posters based on highest frequency or highest severity of different loss types so that we can continue driving improvement in the KPIs.

Another exciting piece of the monthly LP and safety awareness program are the monthly LP and safety scenarios. These moments are where the really good stuff happens. This is for our leaders who are talking with associates in our stores and in our distribution centers about potential incidents and what they would do, and it gets brought to life in a great natural, conversational format. Just like most retailers, we don’t always have the luxury of everybody stopping what they’re doing and coming together as a group—certainly not during COVID‑19. So a lot of those conversations are quick, one‑minute, touch bases throughout the shift. It gives leaders the ability to engage with associates and truly validate understanding.

When we look at our monthly awareness program through the lens of continuous improvement, we’ve actually been able to identify, with statistical significance, that the program has had a great impact on trend favorability in our results. The fact that the program centers around commitment versus compliance, around those “aha” moments, has been a huge success for us.

Another program we’re really proud of is what we call our safety observation program. This is a walk that leaders do within our facilities that encompasses different questions asked at different times of the day. With these questions and the behaviors that leaders are observing, it is intended to recognize associates who are doing things well to help prevent injury to one another. We call that aspect of our culture for safety “keeping the pack safe.” Everyone is accountable to each other. But in those safety‑related observation conversations, they are recognizing as well as coaching in the moment to prevent a potential injury from occurring.

When you think about continuous improvement, it has everything to do with the behavior every single time and the “why” behind it. That’s why the moments that the leaders are actually observing associates do what they’re doing and helping them get better each time are so powerful. The leaders do these different walks three times a day, again, with different questions based on what’s happening at that point in our business day. And there have been some great learnings that have come out of it.

Those two programs have likely had the biggest impact in a number of ways.

JIM: Is there anything else that comes to mind?

MEREDITH: I would have to say our culture. We set an expectation of “Start with Safety” for all associates in all we do from grooming a dog to determining strategies for how our stores and DCs operate. We use the phrase “Start with Safety“ and intentionally don’t say, “Safety is a priority.” Because as soon as you say, “Safety is a priority,” it implies that safety is something that can be deprioritized. “Start with Safety” means there is no task that is so important that you can’t take the time to complete it safely. Our approach to any task is safety, then quality, then quantity in that order. Safety is part of “the how” to our success. If you are a field leader, you start visits with safety. If you’re an executive having a meeting, you address safety. Belonging is core to who we are at PetSmart and consistent with ensuring all perspectives are represented to ensure an initiative’s success. LP and safety support strategy and initiative planning so that we can help that initiative win for both safety and protecting profit.

JIM: How have you measured the impact on what you have done with safety?

MEREDITH: As I mentioned earlier, we talk about leading indicators. So we look at things such as training completion. How many times is it taking associates to complete their required training for a certain task or job? We look at their completion of the education for the monthly LP and safety awareness program. We look at some of our trends in our business in our exposure. Exposure is defined by your typical hours worked or, in our case, pets that we take care of. Helping to understand how things are trending and making sure that we’re having the impact on the commitment side is how we look at it first and then of course through the traditional lens of workers comp claims and losses. The team has seen a significant continuously favorable trend in performance since the adoption of LP and safety awareness programs.

Similarly, on the total loss side of things with shrink, we look at trends for how different write‑off codes are being utilized to see where loss is coming from. That’s a bit of a lagging indicator. But on the idea of perpetual inventory accuracy, what can we do to impact product, whether it’s product that’s been lost or what we’re seeing in real‑time in terms of the digital and other types of theft and fraud, by getting to the root causes before they become a trend?

What are we seeing as far as product movement, things that aren’t initially showing up as theft? Are they really theft based on how we can look at our data? Those are some of the things. I gave you both safety and loss. But the way we think about leading indicators to prevent trends (aka predictive analytics) has become really key to our success.

Relevant to your question, I mentioned to you before that our team has stood up steering committees. We have a People Safety Steering Committee that meets quarterly, a Pet Safety Steering Committee that meets quarterly, and a Total Loss Steering Committee meeting that is held quarterly. In each of those, we have members of our senior leadership team, our C‑suite, leaders across finance, store operations, merchandising, supply chain, LP and safety, HR, and legal, you name it, that all have stakes in the game.

As we review those leading indicators, we can have forward‑looking conversations as opposed to just celebrating how great we are. Let’s talk about the forward‑looking trends, and are we great at preventing those trends? Those have been very productive conversations.

JIM: Of those cross‑functional initiatives that are in place now, are they in place because your past experience made it easier to see what that was necessary to do in the organization?

MEREDITH: When I joined the team in 2014, part of what made it so appealing was I saw areas where I could add value in the team’s approach to obtaining results, starting with how we looked at our approach for strategy planning, prevention programs, and relationships and influencing. Frankly, things were somewhat siloed. That change has been exciting, to actually have stakeholders participate in everything up to and including when we formulate the concepts for our prevention videos. We have a partner from every area of the business that participates in that to make sure that (a) our brand is represented well but also and most importantly (b) that it’s something that associates will care about. “Why do they care?” is the question that we always ask.

When we think about making things relevant and using relationships as a way to do that, there’s certainly a business case for it. Because with diversity of thought, you get a much better answer. But in addition to that, you actually have the opportunity to establish some mutual goals and create some skin in the game with partners who will now be advocates for improving results in your space because they see how it impacts the business first hand.

JACK: You’ve mentioned total loss multiple times. Total Retail Loss is a relatively new concept in our industry. I’m curious where you are in the process of implementing that, and what challenges are you experiencing communicating the concept to your peers in the organization?

MEREDITH: We have been on the journey since before I joined the team, but since framing it up as a business case for sustainable loss controls and inventory accuracy, it has been a no‑brainer. Part of the reason is if you are looking only at shrink, really what you’re doing is just squeezing the balloon. This is how we explain it to partners. Let’s say we focus only on shrink, and we measure stores and distribution centers to that. That will just squeeze the balloon potentially, and you’ll see loss in another area that you’re not paying attention to. But if you broaden it to take a total loss approach, to include things like your damages, item removals, day‑to‑day inventory adjustments, theft, and e‑commerce fraud, for example, you get a true picture of net loss. You get a true picture of your loss, but also you get a true picture of accuracy, and that impacts the customer.

Total loss is about making things better for the customer as much, obviously, as it’s about protecting profits and so on. I think taking that total loss approach to get a really clear picture of total loss has been a really inclusive way to enlist the support and advocacy of your partners, improving their results as well.

JIM: Let me shift gears a bit away from your job to things you do within the industry. You are on the Retail Industry Leaders Association’s (RILA’s) Asset Protection Leaders Council (APLC), which has been very active throughout the pandemic with weekly calls. Talk about the importance of those calls, and has it made a difference for you in understanding others’ challenges and maybe how it translates to your business?

MEREDITH: Yes, absolutely they have been valuable. There are two sides of the coin in my mind. On one hand, you are attending because you want your own questions answered. You are dealing with, potentially, a common issue that is new to you. Certainly in a pandemic environment—I’m sure to some degree—we all had some version of a crisis plan, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted what we’ve all experienced.

On the other side of it, you may not always know what questions you should be asking. So you’re really grateful that your peers are also being willing to be vulnerable and say, “I’m experiencing this.” Just hearing someone say that has allowed us to ask better questions. Having that great support from RILA has really helped us make sure that we’re making the best decisions at the right times. The relationships within that group have created a very safe space to allow us to be vulnerable and productive. Lisa LaBruno has done a phenomenal job facilitating the APLC meetings.

JIM: Let’s turn to the Loss Prevention Foundation. I know you have your LPC certification. What caused you to seek your LPC, and what values have you drawn from it?

MEREDITH: When I think about the time that I was determining whether I wanted to pursue the LPC, I was looking for some fresh perspective that would help me ask better questions across relevant LP and safety disciplines, including, of course, asset protection, total loss, safety, business continuity, both on the bricks‑and‑mortar side and digitally, to help in developing the team. I think the fresh perspective helped to reframe the way that we were looking at some things. To get a more standard perspective as opposed to perhaps an opinion or amalgamation of various perspectives from the team. I wanted to add something new and industry‑tested in order to shape our long‑term strategy. And loss prevention certification really helped to do that.

JIM: Are there some individuals in the industry who, when they speak, you pay more attention to than others, some you’ve come to admire?

MEREDITH: There are some really great leaders on the APLC calls. As I just mentioned, Lisa LaBruno, EVP for RILA, has been a force of nature in our industry. In terms of my peers, there’s a few that stand out. Julie Giblin at Ulta Beauty and David Lund at DICK’S Sporting Goods routinely rise to the occasion offering great insights. Seth Hughes at REI is a fantastic leader who offers some great, innovative thought as well. Rob LaCommare at Big Lots has also been able to provide quite a bit of wisdom and great insights for the team.

JIM: Have there been some personal mentors in your life who have helped you move along in your career?

MEREDITH: There have been a few. One that is still in the LP and safety space is Jason Coren at Amazon who leads their workplace health and safety division. Jason used to be the VP of LP and safety at PetSmart some years ago. He was the one who originally helped connect the dots for me to want to learn more about LP and safety when I was working on the corp. comms. team. When we were collaborating on issues, he would ask me, “Don’t you think you could do more? Don’t you want to help prevent some of this stuff? Isn’t there something more you’d like to do? And maybe that something else is on the safety team.” He helped me think about my career and ask, “Why not?” and “When am I at my best, and how could that benefit PetSmart?” and I really appreciated that.

There was another leader in the mergers and acquisition space in the veterinary world who was a leader of the company I was working for. He was willing to invest in me as a district manager. I knew nothing about mergers and acquisitions, but I was confident in leadership, operations, and things like that. He was willing to spend time with me and essentially give me a mergers and acquisitions 101 education. I will always be grateful for that experience.

Those are invaluable lessons to anyone, and I’m grateful that I got the chance to be exposed to two people who are really great at it.

JIM: Every year we make improvements in the diversity of leadership in asset protection and loss prevention. Going back twenty or thirty years ago, it was very exclusively a white boys club. Today, more and more women are rising to leadership roles. Is there something important for women to understand in terms of helping them strive to reach those positions?

MEREDITH: Honestly, I think it’s advice for anyone, not just women. First of all, be a value‑added partner. Ask yourself how you’re helping your partners and peers win and be successful. Why that’s important is by demonstrating that you’re there to really understand your partners’ and the team’s challenges and be advocates in their spaces—that will help you build relationships and influence in an organic way. At its simplest, it comes down to three simple things anyone can do: know the future (benchmark and know your industry), drive value not costs (think in terms of ROI, do more with less), and keep it simple (refine and make things easy for others to execute and advocate for).

Anybody can be a leader, whether you have direct reports or not. If you focus on these things and do them consistently, you will amass the credibility to build mutually beneficial goals, and those partners become advocates.

Lastly, a simple phonetic acronym as a leader for how I spend my time that’s served me well is PEBLS. P is for “people” because people always come first in every decision. E is for “ethics” because your integrity is your currency, and LP and safety hold the highest bar next to legal and HR. B is for “budget” because your job is to have plans to deliver to plan again and again. L is for “long‑range planning” because investments, whether budgetary or how you leverage resources, should be intentional dominoes that set you up for sustainable results long term. And finally, S is for “strategy execution.” Put simply, have a plan for doing what you said you would.

When I’m asked what women leaders need to know to be successful, I get a little bit frustrated with that question if I’m being honest. Because nobody says, “Hey, what’s it take to be a great male leader?” It doesn’t help the gender bias that’s out there, is my point. But to your point, even going back less than ten years, frankly, when I joined the department, I was one of just three women, so there’s clearly work to do in diversity and inclusion and just basic representation. My challenge to leaders in LP and safety is this: amplify diverse voices and perspectives. For example, in meetings, if someone isn’t speaking up directly, ask them what their reaction to the topic is. Also when hiring, intentionally interview diverse candidates, and when two are close in credentials, pick the diverse candidate. More diverse perspectives coupled with inclusivity are always better for the organization.

Let me add this: if you’re the only woman in a meeting with all males, and you think you’re being excluded, first be willing to ask yourself if you are choosing not to be vulnerable. If you’re choosing not to add something or ask questions, that sometimes can be self‑inflicted exclusion. Don’t give anyone the power of excluding you. It starts with being true to yourself first and doing the hard work of being vulnerable to ask questions, consistently delivering and building relationships so that you have sponsors. But if you feel you truly are being intentionally left out, speak up. You owe it to yourself and to the organization to help make sure every voice is included.

JIM: Thank you, Meredith. This has been a very enjoyable and enlightening conversation.

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