Serving Up Big Bytes in Texas

How Robert Martinez went from bagging groceries to creating digital coupons for H-E-B customers

Robert Martinez H-E-B
Robert Martinez, Director of Informational Technology, H-E-B

For most people, first jobs are nothing glamorous. You sweep the floors, organize boxes of inventory, make sales, put customer purchases in bags, and carry the bags. First jobs teach discipline and how to navigate the workplace. While most of us don’t stay at our first company, those skills and relationships follow us into our budding careers. Sometimes, if we’re lucky and we work hard, we earn promotions and raises at that first job to become a valued team member. And sometimes, if we get the right training at the right company, we never have to leave. Robert Martinez began at H-E-B as a bagger, and today, he’s the director of information technology for the Texas-based retailer.

For his first shift, he was called in early on a Saturday for maintenance work. He cleaned the parking lot, put away shopping carts, and swept up the store. He wasn’t supposed to begin working until Wednesday, he says. Now, he’s the one who makes sure the company’s various software systems are running efficiently.

Growing up, Martinez wanted to be an investment banker, like Michael Douglas’s iconic character Gordon Gekko, in Wall Street. Powerful businessmen characters were wildly popular in the 1980s, and Martinez says the lavish lifestyle, with luxurious cars and big homes, appealed to him. Though, “obviously, they didn’t have great morals,” Martinez notes with a laugh. The decadent lifestyle starkly contrasted with his reality.

Martinez lived in Texas with his single mother and brother. She worked hard to provide for her family, but there wasn’t a lot of money. Martinez understood that he would have to make different choices to have a higher standard of living.

He focused on doing well in school and getting into college, and it worked: he graduated fourth in his high school class. Then, while attending the University of Texas–Austin and studying finance, Martinez continued to work at H-E-B and became a store manager.

If you’re not in the industry, being a manager at a retail store probably doesn’t sound like a big deal, Martinez says. In general, there’s this misconception that working in retail doesn’t really matter.

But being the store manager means that you’re handling inventory, processing millions in sales per year, creating schedules, and managing three hundred to five hundred employees, among other duties. “The person who leads the store is basically the CEO of it,” he says. Every person who does this, he adds, could run their own company after the experience.

He has since transferred that ability to run, manage, and organize agenda items to his current information technology work, which began in 2015. Martinez begins each day with a plan. Usually there are quite a few meetings; Martinez notes that having only five hours’ worth of meetings per week is light for him.

The plan for the day can go out the window, though, when systems crash or there’s another important issue that pops up. Fixing a system problem can take hours, Martinez says. Anyone who uses computer systems at work knows how essential it is to make sure they’re running efficiently.

He pivoted toward a more corporate role in 2007, after getting his master’s degree in business administration from Texas State University–San Marcos. He transferred to H-E-B’s corporate headquarters in San Antonio. It began with an internship. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Martinez says with a laugh.

More recently, with the IT team, he led an ambitious project to start offering digital coupons. Customers can sign up via H-E-B’s app or through its website, then they pick their coupons to use in an H-E-B store, and they can save money when they buy their items by giving their phone number or using the app at checkout. The concept is simple; the execution was more complex.

It took a lot of energy to get this done, Martinez says, but the outcome was extremely positive. Customers have saved almost $10 million since its inception. Martinez uses the program, too.

Projects such as this can take away from his family time. Martinez is married and has a three-and-a-half-year-old son. Even though his schedule can keep him away from family events, those at home are supportive of his career goals.

It’s about to get more difficult, too. Martinez has applied to a PhD program at the University of Oklahoma–Stillwater. He plans to work during his studies. “I’m basically signing up for no sleep for the next three years,” he says.

Learning new technical skills wasn’t Martinez’s biggest challenge—developing patience was. “I was young and motivated, I didn’t want to be told I wasn’t ready,” he says. But, “once I started focusing less on the title  and timelines and more on the work that came with it, I became more successful.”