Key development: More than $10 billion in new retail accounts.
What's next: Strengthening its new business in the Northeast and Southeast.
While Rick Cohen prefers to stay out of the spotlight, he's never too far from center stage.
The chief executive officer of C&S Wholesale Grocers, Keane, N.H., has directed his company to play a role in nearly all of the recent major dramas in the food retailing industry. In doing so, he's transformed the once-obscure C&S into an influential power player. C&S had estimated sales of $13.2 billion last year, and, with the addition of two major wholesale clients this year, could reach $20 billion annually and become the nation's largest wholesaler.
Industry observers often have described Cohen as "aggressive." Inside the company, he has the reputation of getting results.
"From watching everybody here, you understand there's a lot of, 'How can we make things better now?' and, 'What do we need to do to keep ourselves ahead of the game in the future?' A lot of that trickles down," a C&S employee told SN.
And once those decisions are made, they are usually followed through with unusual success at C&S, he added.
"When they say, 'We're going to be able to go out and dominate this particular market,' or, 'We're going to refine our strategies in this sector,' you look up a year later and realize they've actually done so."
C&S has certainly not suffered from a lack of accomplishments in recent years, often as a result of angling itself to benefit from the activity around it.
So far in 2005, the distributor has scored two major accounts -- Bi-Lo/Bruno's in the Southeast and A&P in the Northeast. Those two alone account for retail sales exceeding $10 billion. And when Bi-Lo said it would shed some of its stores, C&S simply took over the volume, building its own retail base in the Southeast -- Southern Family Markets -- which figures to be active in the roll-up of former Winn-Dixie customers in the South. According to one industry observer, that could lead to C&S eventually taking over all of Winn-Dixie's distribution.
And when a flurry of activity hit the Northeast this year, C&S was there as well. It bid -- albeit unsuccessfully -- for the Pathmark chain when it was for sale, but scored an estimated $5.8 billion in retail sales when it agreed to take over distribution for Pathmark's competitor, A&P. Should those retailers get together, as some have speculated, C&S would stand to gain too.
According to another C&S employee, Cohen "leads a company that is growing exponentially in a segment of the business that shrinks every year. It's changing the way the wholesale business is conducted."
Representatives for Bi-Lo and A&P cited expertise and cost savings in electing to outsource distribution to C&S while they focused on operating leaner companies emphasizing execution at the store. For C&S, the accounts will not only improve sales, but extend its geographic reach and further its goal of realizing synergies throughout the supply chain, Mark Gross, C&S' chief financial officer, told SN. This includes its basic wholesale and distribution business; ES3, its division providing collaborative warehouses for manufacturers; and now, a retail base focused on goods to the consumer.
Cohen has also grown his company's standing in the communities where it operates, observers say. C&S is very active in food donations and grants to local food banks through America's Second Harvest. Its efforts in hunger relief earned the company recognition from Food Marketing Institute's 2005 Neighborhood Partnership Program.
C&S also encourages employees to engage in volunteerism and giving, offering matching gifts to all employee contributions to the United Way.
"What I'm proudest of is how focused the company is on the community and fighting hunger," a C&S employee said.