As Oro Valley Safeway Manager Mike Hennings prepares for retirement after 42 years with the company, he says the career is all he’s ever known.
Indeed, it’s one he dedicated the majority of his life to. A week after he turned 16, he began his first entry-level shift. He was promoted to second assistant at 19, first assistant by 21, and by 24 – young as he was – he became a general manager, a position he has maintained at various local Safeway locations during the past 33 years.
Now 57 years old, having managed approximately 1,500 employees in his time, it’s obvious Hennings has done something right. He came to know – and quickly – a successful and effective routine that saw him rise through the ranks.
Much of that had to do with treating employees as equals, and a constant willingness to lead by example.
If there was a spill on aisle 12, Hennings is there mopping it up.
If there was a rattlesnake behind the store - Hennings is the one removing it.
A customer complaint - Hennings had a natural way of diffusing the situation and making a new friend.
Even the most frustrating situations don’t get the best of Hennings.
“I’ve never seen him lose his temper in 17 years,” said longtime coworker Evelyn Green.
While it’s obvious Hennings has perfected his career in management, to those who have come to know him best, he is far more than a boss, and he knows far more about life than just his career.
He is a rare kind of generous. He is a life coach. He is a friend.
“He has counseled a lot of employees through hard times,” said Green. “He always listens and guides them to the right resources. He’s just a very kind man.”
Green was on the receiving end of Hennings’ kindness after she lost her husband last November to lung cancer.
“He was a great support. He helped me get through my days, and it was so great to have someone that understood how I felt,” she said.
Hennings understood that feeling because just a few years prior, his wife, Karen, passed away from leukemia. The two had been married since the time Hennings was 25 years old.
During the latter term of her illness, Hennings was making daily visits to the hospital, where he would spend all day and night massaging his wife’s atrophying legs and arms while she lay in a six-week coma.
“He would take such good care of her,” said Safeway customer Jeannette Eaton, a mutual friend of Hennings and his wife.
Though Karen would eventually wake from the coma and live two more years with the help of steroids, the devastation that came with her eventual death was a lot to deal with for Hennings.
“I still get choked up about it. I was so fortunate to have her,” said Hennings, who emphasizes the reason he got through it was due to the support he received from his coworkers, customers, and loved ones.
“We worked together through all of that,” said Green. “It was a very difficult time. I would watch him cry.”
As life continued, following his wife’s death, Hennings frequently recalls something his wife said to him before she passed that he continues to instill in his everyday actions.
“She told me I had to move on – that I had to find happiness,” he said.
In part, doing so was simply continuing to partake in the things he loved, one of which was being indulged in his job, where he regularly works 60-80 hours a week, and has worked as many as 67 days straight.
“He had his sadness and you could see and tell that, but work was a foundation that helped him keep his balance,” said Green.
“Work was my therapy,” said Hennings.
Happiness also came in continuing to contribute to the community in which he has spent much of his life.
During his years with Safeway, Hennings has been responsible for hosting numerous store fundraisers selling used books, then quietly donating the proceeds to such institutions as Ironwood Ridge High School, Painted Sky Elementary, Canyon Del Oro High School, and little league organizations around town.
“He’s into everything,” said Eaton. “The store does so many things with the community, and with his leadership, that’s why.”
Though at the time of his wife’s death he never thought it possible, Hennings has since remarried – coincidentally to another woman named Karen.
“All of my customers and employees had to approve first,” joked Hennings.
But jokes aside, there is no disguising the fact Hennings has formed close relationships with those he’s managed and served – relationships that will last long after he retires on June 22.
It’s those types of relationships that Hennings has grown used to forming during his tenure with Safeway, such as with one couple who frequently shopped with him years ago.
“There was an older couple at my store when I worked at Prince and Campbell who was without kids,” said Hennings. “I used to take them home all the time. They made me the executor of their estate because they trusted me so much. It was a great honor.”
In another instance, Hennings had a former employee return after almost 20 years to pay him a visit. Hennings recognized the old friend immediately.
“He said, ‘My son needs a job, and I first thought about you, and the kind of impact you had on me when I was 16 years old, and I want you to have that same impact on my son,’” said Hennings. “I think that was the biggest compliment I’ve ever gotten. He told me how I helped him develop the skills he needed to be successful in life. As I look back on my career, being a manager has been a privilege.”
For those who have known him, the privilege has been all theirs.
As Hennings makes his way down the aisles of the Oro Valley Safeway he’s come to know so well, it’s not without stopping to hello to his employees and customers, to ask how their lives are going, to strengthen the bond that so rarely comes in the employee-manager relationship.
“For me, it’s awful that he’s retiring,” said Eaton, who regularly chats with Hennings while enjoying Starbucks at the store. “He gave it his all. I’m really going to miss him.”
Green and so many others feel the same.
“My personal time was always with my husband, and my work time was with Mike,” said Green. “I think I’m taking it more in that way because my personal person is gone, and now my work person is going to be gone. But, it’s wonderful for him. He’s worked so hard.”
But Hennings won’t be gone altogether – he says he’ll be back to shop and visit the store he’s come to love during the last 12 years.
Beyond that, Hennings plans to take part in some art collecting and traveling with his wife. At just 57 years old though, the possibilities are endless.
“I know there is another adventure out there for me – I just know it,” said Hennings.