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April 21, 2016

Reception Honors Establishment of Zoffer Chair in Leadership and Ethics

There is an ethical dilemma that takes place at Giant Eagle every day.  Should the grocery store sell cigarettes? Tobacco is perfectly legal.  The adults who enjoy it know the health risks.  Tobacco sales create revenues, which helps Giant Eagle meet its fiduciary responsibility to shareholders.

But by the same token cigarettes cause cancer.  They damage the health of Giant Eagle customers.  And Giant Eagle wants its customers to be healthy.

What would you do in this situation?

David Shapira, executive chairman of Giant Eagle, Inc., uses this example of an ethical dilemma in the classroom at the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration. He has been a guest lecturer for years, and earlier this academic year he was named the school’s inaugural Visiting H. J. Zoffer Chair in Leadership and Ethics. The chair will help the school to advance excellence in teaching, research, and service in the interrelated areas of ethics and leadership.

A special reception to celebrate the establishment of the Zoffer chair and Shapira’s appointment was recently held in the William Pitt Union. More than 100 people were in attendance, including students, faculty, staff, senior University administrators, executives and board members of Giant Eagle, and Michele Tocci, president of the David Berg Foundation, the largest supporter of the Zoffer Chair. Tocci traveled from New York City to participate in the reception.

At the reception, Shapira gave a short talk that outlined his behavioral approach to ethics. In addition to his story about the ethical dilemma of selling cigarettes, he talked about how steps to prioritize safety, foster greater diversity, and embrace positive thinking have transformed Giant Eagle.

Shapira, a Pittsburgh native, joined Giant Eagle in 1970, a company founded by his grandfather and five others.  He helped grow Giant Eagle from a local chain of 50 grocery stores to an industry leader, today employing more than 34,000 people in more than 420 locations, with annual revenues exceeding $9.5 billion.  

Shapira learned the safety lesson from his peers in Alcoa and EQT.  He took a page from their playbook by beginning every important company meeting with an update on safety strategies.

“Our safety record has shown steady improvement ever since we put this in,” Shapira told the audience.

Giant Eagle also strives to create an inclusive culture, he says, by showing respect to every single person in the company, from the cashier to the person in upper management. “The real reason to have diversity,” Shapira said, “is to get a diversity of opinion. Diversity becomes an enormous asset. None of us knows everything.”

Shapira encouraged the audience to take a big-picture view toward ethics. “Ethics is everywhere. It’s in every human interaction.”

The Zoffer Chair is named in honor of Dean Emeritus H.J. “Jerry” Zoffer, a former dean of the business school from 1968 to 1996 who remains active on the faculty.  Under Zoffer’s leadership, the business school became a world leader in the study of business ethics, leadership, and corporate social responsibility.

The legacy continues today through the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership.  Led by its mission of adding value to organizations through ethical leadership, the Berg Center supports a portfolio of academic programs, faculty and doctoral research projects, and community engagement activities with businesses and nonprofits.

So how, exactly, did Shapira answer the ethical dilemma he raised of whether to sell or not to sell cigarettes in Giant Eagle stores?

His advice was to make a decision by following an ethical framework.  In this particular case, by choosing one set of ethics (responsibility to shareholders, giving customers freedom of choice, etc.), one will violate another set of ethics (selling harmful products).

“What’s important is that you think carefully about it, and then you make a decision, recognizing that there are two ethics, and you will violate one of them.  And you get on with your life.”

Thanks to the establishment of the H.J. Zoffer Chair in Leadership and Ethics , future generations of Pitt Business students will be equipped to diagnose ethical dilemmas and then respond properly.

David Shapira
David Shapira