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Noddle Engineered Transformation at Supervalu

Noddle Engineered Transformation at Supervalu

In 2006, when Supervalu announced that it was going to acquire most of the Albertsons chain, the move was hailed by some analysts as a brilliant stroke of deal-making.

The acquisition more than doubled Supervalu's size and propelled it from being half dependent on supplying independent supermarkets to a new stature as a national food retailer. Given retail's higher margins and the increasing pressure on smaller operators, the move to become 80% retail and 20% wholesale better positioned Supervalu for long-term growth and profit potential.

Jeff Noddle, who engineered the acquisition as Supervalu's chairman and chief executive officer, was praised as a smart strategist who was able to buy Albertsons' best-performing locations at what amounted to about $10 million per store.

As he publicly announced his plans to retire as CEO last week after 33 years at the company, he leaves a legacy of acute transformation at Supervalu, which traces its own roots back 139 years.

Ironically, some analysts said it was Noddle's background as a wholesaler that may have made him the wrong person to run the new company going forward, however. With the acquired retail business in need of attention and additional work needed to blend it with the legacy supermarket operations around the country, Supervalu may be better served by fresh thinking on the retail side.

Supervalu's retail sales have been lagging those of its rivals, and its banners have given up market share.

According to the company, Noddle himself participated in the selection of his successor, Craig Herkert, who spent 23 years at the Albertsons and American Stores companies before joining Wal-Mart Stores' International division in 2000.

Noddle also spent time on the retail side of the business, although he garners the most credit for the work he did on the wholesale side. He had grown up working in a local grocery store in Omaha, Neb., and he remained committed to helping small operators succeed.

At an industry conference several years ago, a reporter asked him why he wasn't attending a reception with several top executives from the nation's biggest chains instead of where he was, which was mingling with a group of independent-store operators.

“Right here is where I want to be,” he said.

Noddle also applied his transformative abilities as chairman of Food Marketing Institute from 2005-2007, leading the association to revamp its annual exhibition structure and create the FutureConnect leadership development conference. The first FutureConnect event was scheduled to have taken place last week in Dallas and would have ended on the same day that Supervalu announced Noddle's plans to step down as CEO. The conference has been postponed indefinitely because of concerns over the flu outbreak.

The times are challenging for both FMI and Supervalu, but Noddle's legacy will be one of taking bold steps to move both organizations in the right direction.

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