From Food Lion to Publix, Saluting Pivotal Leaders Who Saw the Future

From Food Lion to Publix, Saluting Pivotal Leaders Who Saw the Future

What does it take to be worthy of the supermarket industry's version of baseball's Cooperstown?

A mighty bat and a crystal ball.

SN's Hall of Fame, now celebrating its fifth anniversary, has been a showcase for luminaries past and present — leaders who could see the future and boldly act on it. Inductees have represented an elite list of companies, including Kroger, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Publix and Costco.

The fifth anniversary (SN just named the 2011 inductees) is a good time to examine SN's Hall to better understand what distinguishes these executives.

Some were company founders who identified specific customer niches that weren't being adequately filled. Michael Cullen envisioned a new kind of one-stop-shopping, low-price format in creating what became the first modern American supermarket, King Kullen Grocery Co., in 1930. George Jenkins of Publix Super Markets and Joseph Albertson of Albertsons are among those who founded enterprises based on superior customer service. Sam Walton, Wal-Mart's founder, embraced an everyday-low-price concept with a laser-focus on efficiencies, creating a behemoth that would become a feared competitor to conventional food retailers.

Joe Coulombe originally created Trader Joe's for a customer segment that few had considered before. “Everyone from underpaid musicians to out-of-work Ph.D.s could come to Trader Joe's and find elements of the lifestyle they aspired to for not too much money,” he said.

A number of SN's Hall members made lasting marks on their companies and the industry because they understood how to transform their organizations. Joseph Hall took Kroger into the modern age after the Second World War by upgrading its divisional structure and retail formats. Robert Wegman distinguished and grew his family chain by focusing on experimentation, differentiation and one-stop shopping.

A few Hall members figured out how significant mergers could successfully jump-start their strategies. John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods, led a series of mergers to transform his tiny natural food retail business into a multinational chain. Jim Sinegal merged his Costco membership warehouse club with rival Price Club in 1993.

Many of the leadership characteristics mentioned here apply to the other Hall members not cited. SN's Hall is, if nothing else, a celebration of people who distinguished the food retailing business by acting boldly on their visions of the future. That's an important lesson to remember in the midst of a daunting economy when risk-taking is sometimes frowned upon as, well, too risky.

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