COVINGTON, Ind. -- Jeff Clark has built Covington Foods -- the family business his late parents, Don and Peggy Clark, started in 1959 -- into an $80 million operation by sticking to their sense of hometown pride and attention to customer satisfaction.
Clark's effort and his award as one of IGA's retailers of the year is a fitting tribute to his parents' retail legacy. In 1997, the Clarks -- two hardworking IGA retailers -- were tragically killed in a plane crash and Jeff, their only son, had to take over the business, becoming Covington Foods' president and chief executive officer.
When it came to retail knowledge, Clark, 40, was well-prepared. He recalled working in the IGA Covington store at age 11, filling milk and facing the bread for 50 cents an hour. It was a time, said Clark, "when we were in the business of selling ingredients. Today, we are a meals solutions business."
Covington Foods owns and operates three IGA stores in the Indiana farming communities of Covington and Attica, and another IGA in rural Catlin, Ill. Clark also operates three County Markets, a discount grocery format, as well as a True Value Hardware store.
The IGAs are the only grocery stores in town and serve small communities with 3,000 to 3,500 people. However, Clark said convenience and Dollar General stores are slowly cutting into some of his food sales.
"Our biggest challenge going forward is to remain competitive against the new challengers such as the Dollar General stores and Casey's [a convenience format]," he noted.
Clark sees an advantage over any competition by flying the IGA banner, especially in rural locations. "A lot of people have grown up with IGA in their hometowns and recognize IGA as a community store. They don't see it as a big chain," he said.
Each of Clark's IGA stores is an integral part of the community it serves. Besides running IGA-sponsored events, Clark backs a host of charity-related activities such as local school projects, toys for kids at Christmas and senior citizen centers.
Never satisfied with the status quo, Clark strives to raise the bar on his retail operation. In 2002, he expanded the Attica store to 25,000 square feet. The original store was built in 1964 and relocated in 1979. The expanded, remodeled store boasts larger perimeter departments and has a strong focus on fresh foods and superior customer service. "We are always trying to make ourselves better," Clark said.
The three most important retail qualities that Clark stresses to his 270 employees and store managers are clean stores, friendly employees and reasonable prices. "I can't stress enough the importance of having clean stores and friendly employees. It's important to get to know our customers on a name basis."
Needless to say, when it comes to cleanliness and other operational areas, Clark's IGAs consistently achieve 5-star scores in IGA's operational assessment evaluations.