NASH FINCH NAMES COVINGTON CEO

MINNEAPOLIS - Nash Finch here is in a prime position to grow its business and continue to pursue acquisitions, the company's new president and chief executive officer told SN.Alec Covington, 49, a longtime veteran of the food wholesaling business and former crosstown rival of Nash Finch at Supervalu, said Nash Finch has the opportunity to capitalize on independent supermarkets' need for more wholesaling

MINNEAPOLIS - Nash Finch here is in a prime position to grow its business and continue to pursue acquisitions, the company's new president and chief executive officer told SN.

Alec Covington, 49, a longtime veteran of the food wholesaling business and former crosstown rival of Nash Finch at Supervalu, said Nash Finch has the opportunity to capitalize on independent supermarkets' need for more wholesaling choices.

"Good entrepreneurs - good independent retailers who have a direct connection to the consumer and strong value proposition - will be fine. What they need is a good support mechanism," said Covington, who currently is president and CEO of Tree of Life, the St. Augustine, Fla.-based natural-products distributor. "I think we've learned how to do that from a natural, organic and specialty side at Tree of Life, and Nash Finch has the ability to do it more from a traditional grocery products standpoint."

Covington is scheduled to assume his new duties at Nash Finch on May 1. He succeeds Ron Marshall, who left in February to pursue other interests.

At Tree of Life, which serves a broad base of independent retailers, industry observers said Covington was able to reorganize the company to become profitable and position it for future growth.

"It was a struggling company a couple of years ago, so his first goal I think was to make it profitable, and he achieved that," said Scott Van Winkle, managing director, Canaccord Adams, Boston. "The heavy lifting is done."

Van Winkle said that although Covington did not focus on top-line growth at Tree of Life, he left his successor in a better position to do so.

Wessanen, Tree of Life's Amstelveen, Netherlands-based parent company, last week named another Supervalu veteran, Richard Lane, to succeed Covington as president and CEO of Wessanen North America. Lane currently is president of Supervalu's Eastern Division, which serves about 700 retail outlets. He previously held posts with Frito-Lay, Pepsico Food Systems and Ameriserve.

Covington noted that he had helped recruit Lane to Supervalu several years ago.

At Nash Finch, Covington said he thinks the company has a solid core in both its retail and wholesale divisions, despite recent setbacks on both sides with declining sales at company-owned supermarkets and struggles in the integration of two warehouses Nash Finch recently acquired from Milwaukee-based Roundy's Supermarkets.

"I think Nash Finch has a good base of business," he said. "We need to focus on growth in the future - we need to build on what already has been built there."

He said he thinks Nash Finch's most recent earnings report reveals that the integration problems the company had reported with the Roundy's warehouses "may have been less than what they anticipated, because the numbers came through pretty well."

He admitted he does not yet have his arms around Nash Finch's retail operations, although he is optimistic about the company's prospects in that area as well.

"There's a lot more I don't know about the retail side of Nash Finch's business than I do know, but what I do know is that in every group of retail stores that I've managed in my life, there are always some that are in challenging markets or have challenges within their respective operations. I don't think I'm going to find anything different than that when I get to Nash Finch. There's a core group there that I think are strong, and there are probably some opportunities to improve that business and support it better."

Jose Tamez, managing partner at executive search firm Austin-Michael, San Antonio, said he thinks Covington has enough experience in retail to handle the challenges at Nash Finch.

"His acumen on the retail side has grown to be very strong," Tamez said, describing Covington as one of the "top five difference makers" in the industry today. "Every place he's been, he's left it in much better shape than when he started," he said.

Covington was president and CEO of AmeriCold Logistics, Atlanta, before joining Tree of Life. He also had been president of Supervalu's wholesale division, and served as president of Richfood, Richmond, Va.