Nevadan At Work: Don't look for Cardenas official in his office; he'll be on shop floor

With office windows affording a view of only an empty corridor, Felipe "Phil" Avila has lined the walls with enough photos to qualify as a New York deli.

Avila has framed and hung a myriad of snapshots: trips to Europe; a day with the Thunderbirds precision flying team; handshakes with politicians; dinner with bosses; and shots of his sons when Dodger Stadium was practically a second home.

If the pictures are meant to impress visitors, they are in the wrong place. Avila's true office is the sales floor of any of the three Cardenas Markets in Las Vegas, where he is almost surgically attached to his BlackBerry and a clipboard holding corporate reports.

Ontario, Cailf.-based Cardenas came to town in 2009 with an unusual style: taking over stores abandoned by others as obsolete, then remodeling them to appeal to a predominantly Hispanic clientele. As a corporate newcomer, Cardenas hired Avila as district director, tapping his affinity for mixing with employees and customers and his community and business connections.

Avila is tapped into his company and his community. He speaks frequently to elementary school classes, is active in the Latin Chamber of Commerce and works closely with the Mexican Consulate in Las Vegas. He also works with the Manny Mota International Foundation, a nonprofit group providing educational, health and recreational opportunities for disadvantaged youth and their families in the United States and the Dominican Republic. Manny Mota, a current coach and former player with the Los Angeles Dodgers, started the nonprofit group.

The Cardenas Markets position was something of a late-career comeback for Avila. In 2008, he took a job as a top manager for the Super Mercado del Pueblo stores in Las Vegas, only to discover they were in dire financial condition. One of his office ornaments is a newspaper story in which he was quoted on competition among Hispanic food stores, with all references to his position at the now-defunct Super Mercado blacked out in magic marker.

A friend helped him make the shift to Cardenas just as it was opening. He was 60 then.

"When I took over at Cardenas markets, my son said, 'Dad, I'm very proud of you. At your age, instead of going down, you are going up, and not too many people can say that,' " Avila said.

Question: How much time to you spend on the floor?

Answer: I spend 80 percent of my time down there. I am not an office person. I like to be out front with the people.

Question: Some people would say that as a district manager, you should spend more time at the desk because of the responsibility.

Answer: Not me. I get the reports from the computers and I look at the numbers and I know what's going on from that standpoint. But I like to be in front. That's my bag. People see me working and come up to me and say, "Are you a box boy?" And I say, "Yes, I'm a box boy." They see me in produce and other parts of the store. I like to be with people.

Question: As a manager, what do you learn that way?

Answer: Actually, you learn everything. When you are around the store, you see how it looks, why some merchandise didn't come in like it was supposed to. I try to find out everything. I try to talk to people in every department.

Question: That's your real office?

Answer: That's my life.

Question: At your other jobs, you had a lot of autonomy. How is it with Cardenas?

Answer: Cardenas has 27 markets in California. It's a big company now with a lot of people. My responsibility is to follow the rules of Cardenas Markets. It is a very different way than what I used to do at other stores.

I had a lot more freedom at the other places. They have so many people handling different parts of the operation. All I have to do (now) is follow the rules for Cardenas.

Question: Sometimes managers have a hard time with that type of change. What's your secret for making it work?

Answer: I'm an easygoing person. I respect everyone around me. It took a while to adjust because I was not used to the rules and working for a company with so many stores.

But I don't change anything, just follow the rules. That's exactly what a friend told me.

Question: What drives you to spend a lot of time on community affairs?

Answer: Maybe my personality fits the role. I like to help. I like to help a lot of people to become professional. When I was a kid, other people helped me a lot and I will never forget that.

Question: What happened then?

Answer: My father died when I was 7 years old. My mother never remarried and we were two boys and two girls. They were very hard times. My mother used to clean houses. So when I became 16, I quit school to help my mom so she didn't have to work anymore. After that, she didn't have to work again and I supported the family. I started by selling oranges and juice in downtown L.A. In other places, I used to sell oranges door to door, 50 cents a bucket. I also started working at Food Bargain. The family that owned it gave me a lot of help.

Question: What made you uproot from Los Angeles?

Answer: I came here at first for six months. Tony Alamo (an owner of Liborio Markets, where Avila was a manager) was so great to me that he is responsible for me staying.

Question: You are now 62 and had open-heart surgery three years ago. How much longer do you plan to keep going on the job?

Answer: As long as I can. I grew up in the grocery business and I'm going to die in the grocery business.

I don't think about slowing down. There are so many things to do I don't have time to think like that.

One of the things that keeps me going is my family. When I had the operation and my grandson was 7 years old, they were taking me to the surgery room. He came running up and said to me, "Grandpa, be strong." I'm never going to forget those words. So now, whenever I have any energy problems, I remember those words.

Contact reporter Tim O'Reiley at or 702-387-5290.