Rick Cohen, the chairman and chief executive officer of privately held C&S Wholesale Grocers, Keene, N.H., keeps one of the lowest profiles in the food industry.
“He runs a private company in a private way,” according to one observer. “He doesn’t tout what he’s accomplished. He doesn’t speak at conferences or talk to the press. But he’s accomplished great things in his career.”
His chief accomplishment has been convincing some of the nation’s largest regional chains to switch from selfdistribution to C&S — and he did it by devising a unique approach to wholesaling.
“The C&S model is regarded as a real alternative to self-distribution, because it allows the retailer to maintain its relationship with vendors,” one industry executive explained.
“The retailer deals directly with the vendor on promotions, new products, price negotiations and order writing, just as he would if he were self-distributing; then, after accumulating orders from several of its retail customers, C&S goes to the vendor and asks what the vendor will give it beyond what the vendor has committed to the retailer, and C&S keeps that money.
“That’s a model Rick created that no one before him came up with, and he deserves a lot of credit for that innovation.”
Using that model, C&S has been able to sew up contracts with A&P, Ahold USA, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Big Y, DeMoulas Market Basket, Tops Markets and parts of Safeway and Target — all on the East Coast — plus Save Mart Supermarkets on the West Coast.
C&S does business out of 60 facilities in 14 states, with sales exceeding $20 billion, according to company estimates.
“Rick is an honorable person who runs an honest business,” one observer told SN, “but he’s also tough. And he’s a very smart guy when it comesto negotiations. It’s up to the retailer to do his homework and understand the issues he’s negotiating, because, believe me, Rick Cohen does.”
It’s been a relatively quiet year for C&S, with its top order of business involving negotiations with A&P for a new supply contract that aligns the existing A&P stores with the 141 Pathmark locations it acquired last year.
According to one industry source, the new A&P contract involves a more liberal clause than some of the wholesaler’s older contracts have — one that enables A&P to get inflationary benefits from forward and deal buys.
Eric Claus, president and CEO of A&P, said earlier this year the new contract allows the chain “to procure and distribute far more efficiently than in the past, improving service levels and a host of other issues that will help us maximize sales and better control inventories.”
Cohen’s business cards read, “Braggingly happy customers,” but that may not be enough for him. In receiving an award earlier this year, Cohen said, “We want to be the best supply company in the world, but we have to keep getting better. We don’t want to settle for just being good.”
— ELLIOT ZWIEBACH