A TALE OF THREE SUPERMARKET BROTHERS

The supermarket industry employs more than 3 million people. So the odds of any one individual starting as a youth in store-level work and rising to the top of the industry are exceedingly long.Given that, how long are the odds that three brothers who started in their hometown of Omaha, Neb., as high-school-aged store workers at an independent would each rise to topside positions? The odds are so

The supermarket industry employs more than 3 million people. So the odds of any one individual starting as a youth in store-level work and rising to the top of the industry are exceedingly long.

Given that, how long are the odds that three brothers who started in their hometown of Omaha, Neb., as high-school-aged store workers at an independent would each rise to topside positions? The odds are so long they defy calculation. But somehow it all came through for the three Noddle brothers, Harlin, Allen and Jeff.

The most recent news about one of them came lately when Jeff, the youngest of the brothers, became chief executive of wholesaler Supervalu. Jeff told me a little about his brothers and quite a lot about his outlook for Supervalu when we spoke in Minneapolis on the first full day he spent in the new job. (For his view on strategy, see this week's news feature, referenced on Page 1.)

The tale of the brothers is an especially gratifying one since now so many supermarket companies are run by, say, investment bankers, accountants, lawyers and manufacturers -- seemingly everyone but those rooted in the business.

The long train of career events for the three Noddle brothers started when, as a youth, Harlin got a job at Hinky Dinky Supermarkets, Omaha, Jeff told me.

"It was our oldest brother who started in the business first. Allen and I came following along like sheep because we needed summer jobs while we were in high school and later while in college. I started bagging groceries and worked in the warehouse one summer. I did about everything."

Harlin later joined Supermarkets Interstate, a company that split off from Hinky Dinky to operate supermarkets adjacent to discount stores. Harlin left there to establish Noddle Development Co., Omaha, a successful enterprise that he chairs to this day. It does store-site work and the like.

Jeff, too, went with Supermarkets Interstate for several years. In 1976, he was recruited to join Supervalu's Illinois operation as director of retail operations, later head of marketing.

Allen, meanwhile, remained with Hinky Dinky, then moved to Giant Food Stores, Carlisle, Pa., just prior to the time it was acquired by the worldwide Dutch retailer Ahold in1981. He was president and CEO of Giant for many years, and later held executive posts at Ahold. He is currently Ahold's executive vice president responsible for operations in Asia and Latin America, based in Amsterdam. He has plans to retire early in 2002, and is to return to this country.

Jeff's career at Supervalu involved many assignments and many moves around the country. One post took him out on a long tightrope in the mid-1980s. It involved a Supervalu distribution center in Miami, of which he was division president. It was acquired from Pantry Pride, then sold two years later to Fleming Cos. As part of the sale, warehouse workers had to be laid off. Jeff and a management team stayed on for a couple of months to find each worker a job, even though he couldn't be sure the depot shutdown wouldn't spell the end of his own career.

"You look back at a career and see things you feel good about, and that was one," Jeff said. "We finished the work properly."

Jeff will face many tough decisions at Supervalu and since Supervalu isn't unique, some will involve personnel.

But at least his thinking will be informed by experience beyond that of an investment banker.