After being involved in the supermarket industry for almost half a century, Bill Grize knows something about what makes for longevity.
The outgoing president and chief executive officer of Ahold USA, Quincy, Mass., is urging the industry to take a longer-term view of their businesses in order to sustain them.
"There are reasons that some companies have been around for a very long time," said Grize, whose 46 years of involvement in this industry have taken him from the meat department to the CEO's office. "The main reason for company longevity is that some leaders were thinking multi-generationally. Those are the kinds of people who make better decisions, and their companies will stay around longer."
Grize displayed his trademark high energy and gregariousness during an interview with SN as he outlined his vision for the industry and recounted career highlights on the eve of his retirement. He officially retires from his position at the end of March. Grize will continue to help Ahold in an advisory capacity and will be involved with Ahold's U.S. Foodservice advisory board. The CEOs of Ahold's two U.S. retail "arenas" will report directly to Anders Moberg, president and CEO of the Zaandam, Netherlands-based parent company.
Growing with Stop & Shop
Grize's career, most of it at Stop & Shop, has spanned much of the modern history of the supermarket business. Early on, he got to know Stop & Shop's legendary leader Sidney Rabb, whom he considers one of his key mentors. Later, Grize was instrumental at Stop & Shop in the implementation of scanning in the 1970s, and helped lead state lobbying efforts for the bottle bill in the 1980s. He was a key player in integrating Stop & Shop with Ahold in the 1990s and in helping Ahold's chains react to the growing strength of Wal-Mart Stores and alternative formats. Earlier this year, Grize was given the Food Marketing Institute's Sidney R. Rabb award for service to "consumers, the community and the industry."
Asked which types of supermarket companies tend to exhibit the longest-term view of their businesses, Grize conceded that often regional, independent retailers have that trait. He cited such visionary leaders as Rabb, Robert Wegman, George Jenkins, Charles Butt and Fred Meijer.
"But while it's often independents, it doesn't mean a big company can't do the same really great things," he stressed.
His definition of long-term thinking stretches the concept beyond what most executives think of today.
"I've asked our people, what's long term to you?" he said. "They would say, five years, or maybe three years. Try 50. Now let's think of what's sustainable over a 30- to 50-year period. The only things I can think of are people, culture and knowledge transfer. Those things are sustainable over decades. People are far and away the No. 1 differentiator and actuator of good results."
At 59, Grize is young to have worked so long in the supermarket business. That's because his early time in the business spanned most of his teen school years. This included a stint focusing on meat sales for an independent retailer. After these early experiences, he joined Stop & Shop and was given in-store duties. He soon moved on to a succession of diverse assignments with the retailer. It began with an extended role in human resources, after which he became a district manager, a vice president of operations and a general sales manager in the company's Connecticut division. Later, he went to the Boston office as executive vice president of sales. He became president in 1995 and CEO in 1997. He then became head of Ahold USA in 2000.
Learning from Mentors
Grize is willing to discuss highlights and accomplishments of his career, but prefers to return to the subject of people when considering his most lasting accomplishments. He has always focused on the importance of the company's employees and gives most of the credit for success to those around him.
"The most important part of my story isn't me at all," he emphasized. "It's the people I've been surrounded with. I've been blessed. They've supported me, pushed me, encouraged me."
In particular, Grize points to mentors such as Rabb, whose teachings he experienced firsthand. Rabb instructed Grize on the importance of thoroughly understanding customers, respecting people, being honest and ethical, and giving back to communities.
"I met Sidney Rabb when I went on store manager training at Stop & Shop in 1968," he recalled. "I was so impressed with what he stood for. He built the business and understood the value of people better than anyone I've ever met. He spent time talking to everyone in the store, and I do that to this day. He taught me fundamentals and values, and made us believe in ourselves."
Another key Grize mentor at Stop & Shop was Lew Schaeneman, former chairman and CEO, who instructed his team in important management lessons. "Lew taught us the importance of surrounding ourselves with people who complement our skills," he said. "People that surround themselves with people just like them don't end up with one plus one equals more than two. They generally end up with one plus one equals less than two."
Grize spent almost 10 years working closely with Schaeneman and Robert Tobin at Stop & Shop in Boston, a working relationship that grew into a family-like bond, he said.
In recent years, Grize has worked to "bridge the gap internally between our old and great values and what we had to do more recently to be a successful company, while always returning to the core values."
Leadership Skills Tested
His leadership skills were severely tested following Ahold's financial crisis beginning in 2003 that stemmed from an accounting scandal in the company's food-service operation. The incident precipitated a downward spiral in the company's fortunes and a wave of divestitures of properties.
"It was gut-wrenching," Grize said. "I couldn't have stopped what happened, but my biggest regret is that it did happen and that thousands of hard-working people were splattered with paint from the same brush. That bothered me immensely."
However, Grize said the company's associates "did a wonderful job of keeping that separate from customers and focusing on the business."
Grize now points to "a sense of reinvigoration at the company," for which he credits "the real heroes: the people who kept this together as we tried to figure out what to do to get our financial ship right."
Grize leaves Ahold without having determined what he will focus on next. He knows he will spend time with his wife and other members of his family, which now include three grandchildren, and hopes to enjoy some personal travel. As for possible future business roles, he said he's received a lot of offers but is holding off on rushing into any decisions.
He is satisfied that his last few years at Ahold led to some important accomplishments at the U.S. retail operation, such as eliminating costs and a layer of management, divesting two U.S. chains, combining retail companies to achieve a leaner organization, and concluding two sets of contract negotiations.