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16) Jeff NoddleChairman, president and CEO, SupervaluWHY: Head of a big wholesaler/retailer with strong growth in both segments.WHAT'S NEXT: Supervalu buys Dominick's?The best business decision Jeff Noddle may have ever made was, in the immortal words of Kenny Rogers, knowing when to fold 'em. That's what Mike Wright, Noddle's predecessor as chairman and chief executive officer of Supervalu, Minneapolis,

16) Jeff Noddle

Chairman, president and CEO, Supervalu

WHY: Head of a big wholesaler/retailer with strong growth in both segments.

WHAT'S NEXT: Supervalu buys Dominick's?

The best business decision Jeff Noddle may have ever made was, in the immortal words of Kenny Rogers, knowing when to fold 'em. That's what Mike Wright, Noddle's predecessor as chairman and chief executive officer of Supervalu, Minneapolis, told SN.

Wright was remembering the company's negotiations in early 2001 with Kmart Corp., Troy, Mich., as the mass merchandiser was looking to choose which of two possible candidates, Supervalu or Fleming, Dallas, would become its sole grocery distributor. At stake was an estimated annual sales volume of $3.7 billion. Noddle, then Supervalu's president and chief operating officer, was the head the company's bargaining team, Wright said.

"He came back to me with the recommendation that we terminate the discussions," Wright recalled. "It was a real gut-wrenching decision for him."

But today Wright said he has no doubt it was the right move. Since Supervalu walked away from the deal, Kmart has been through a difficult bankruptcy, and Fleming (which won the Kmart business back in 2001) is currently in the midst of what promises to be an even more painful Chapter 11 reorganization. "That was a gutsy call," Wright said. "It really made a huge difference."

Noddle, who joined Supervalu in 1976 and was named president and chief operating officer in 2000, chief executive officer in 2001 and finally added the title of chairman in 2002, was the third of three siblings to become a CEO. Harlan Noddle, the oldest, is chairman and CEO, Noddle Development Co., Omaha, Neb., a builder of shopping centers. Allen Noddle is the former CEO of Giant Food and Ahold USA.

Allen told SN he attributes the trio's success to the traditional values of hard work, fairness and charity instilled by his immigrant father and first-generation American mother, which included keeping a strictly kosher household in Omaha.

Supervalu's future could be simply more of the same. In retail, the company is busy incorporating dollar-store merchandise in its limited-assortment Save-A-Lot stores. Supervalu is also trying to grow its distribution business by aggressively wooing former Fleming customers.

Or the company could try something new. The industry rumor mill -- abetted by some local newspapers -- has decided that Supervalu will soon make this year's big acquisition: Dominick's Supermarkets, the Chicago-area division of Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif. During a conference call earlier this month, Noddle pointedly refused to comment on that speculation.


17) Rick Cohen

CEO, C&S Wholesale Grocers and ES3

WHY: Tries to take his wholesaling innovations nationwide.

WHAT'S NEXT: Outsourcing deals with Kroger and Safeway.

Prior to July, Rick Cohen was considered a highly influential person in the food distribution industry as owner of C&S Holdings, which includes C&S Wholesale Grocers, the company founded in 1918 by his grandfather, Israel Cohen, and ES3, a third-party logistics outfit.

But since C&S, based in Brattleboro, Vt., launched its efforts to acquire the wholesaling business of Dallas-based Fleming Co., Cohen's profile has skyrocketed. Now the unassuming chief executive officer, who eschews publicity and speaking to the press, has become a true power player with the potential to reshape the food wholesaling business in the United States.

Leading up to his Fleming foray, Cohen, 51, who joined his father, Lester, in the business in 1974, has put together a formidable track record of success. According to Jack Haedicke, president, Arena Consulting Group, Eden Prairie, Minn., privately held C&S has been growing by about 30% annually for at least the past decade, going from about $300 million in yearly revenues to more than $18 billion if the Fleming deal is consummated.

The company that Cohen's flagship property, C&S Wholesale, is often compared to, because it shares C&S' obsession with efficiency and low cost, is none other than Wal-Mart. Cohen's philosophy is that "you're supposed to survive or thrive based on the efficiency of what you do," said Haedicke. "In that way, they're very similar to Wal-Mart." Haedicke, who worked for Cohen for a few years on the ES3 operation, said that C&S' efficiencies allow it to offer customers -- often retail chains -- costs that are at least 30% less than their own warehousing expenses.

While the disposition of Fleming's wholesale assets was still in play last week, if C&S winds up with a significant share of them, the result could be a far different wholesale landscape dominated by two players, C&S and Supervalu, observers said.

But even before the Fleming move, Cohen had made a name for himself in food distribution by inventing the idea that wholesalers could take on large retail chain accounts in addition to independents, said Gary Giblen, senior vice president and director of research for CL King Associates, New York. Today, at least 80% of C&S' volume comes from chains such as Pathmark, A&P and Stop & Shop, added Haedicke, noting that 80% of Supervalu's wholesale business is from independents.

"He served a crying need in New England by allowing chains to get around pretty militant warehousing unions by outsourcing to C&S," said Giblen. "And chains that were highly leveraged didn't mind selling DCs, getting cash, and not tying up working capital."

Giblen predicted that if it acquired Fleming assets, C&S would pursue outsourcing deals with companies like Kroger and Safeway, which have shown a proclivity toward outsourcing distribution.