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2012 Power 50: No. 20 Steven Spinner

Last year, United Natural Foods Inc. managed its rapid growth by making it easier for both suppliers to introduce new products and for retailers to stock and manage those products. Now, Steven Spinner is working hard to keep Providence, R.I.-based UNFI’s growth rate on track.

“In 2011, we grew over 20%. So far this year, we’ve grown over 15%,” UNFI’s president and chief executive officer said in mid-June. “We like growing at that rate. The biggest challenge for us is building enough capacity to support that growth. We’ve got three construction projects under way in order to allow us to continue to grow at that rate.”

UNFI is merging three buildings in Denver and building distribution centers in New England and southern New Jersey.

The growth will help support new retail partners like Safeway, which UNFI took over of its natural, organic and specialty products in October 2011.

“We are always working with retailers to either expand current relationships or take on new ones,” Spinner said. “We tend not to announce them. But Safeway was pretty significant.”

Spinner pointed to fresh produce, specialty cheese and antibiotic-free proteins as successful and where he expects to see the most future growth. “We’ve also had success in expanding our current relationships with a broader mix of SKUs as well as attracting new retail customers,” he said.

To manage its partnerships and growing number of SKUs, UNFI finished a two-year project streamlining new products and suppliers to its distribution network with a single contact.

“By doing that, we’ve collapsed the amount of time it takes to onboard new suppliers and new items,” Spinner said. “There’s also a lot more access to data through supplier portals, so suppliers can now get inventory information by distribution center across the country.”

For retailers, iUNFI helps with restocking among other functions, and Wowzaville helps independents stock their shelves with the most in-products for their ZIP codes.

“At the core of our business is the independent retailer. We are always trying to find ways to help the retailer compete primarily against the mass channel,” Spinner said.

Finally, Spinner wants UNFI to be extremely good to the environment and focus on philanthropy. As such, it has founded the UNFI Foundation, focused on organizational grants.

“The tag line we use to promote the organization is: Promoting healthy, organic and sustainable food systems,” Spinner said. “Our primary objective is exactly what’s in the tag line.”

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