Behind the rapidly expanding brand of service and selection that marks the Harris Teeter supermarket chain is a passionate, yet disciplined organization headed by Thomas W. “Tad” Dickson, chairman, president and chief executive officer of its Charlotte, N.C.-based parent, Ruddick Corp.
Observers describe Dickson as bright and detail-oriented, guiding a company that even in rapid growth mode makes no moves without a strong understanding of the return it can expect, and guards its knowledge with similar caution. Dickson, through company officials, declined a request for an interview.
“They don’t talk about a lot of the initiatives they have in place. They’re secretive about them. They don’t want to reveal anything,” Karen Short, an analyst who follows Ruddick for Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co., New York, told SN. “But you can tell just by speaking to Tad that his attention to detail is very strong, and that there is always a focus on the return you get on every initiative. And their returns are as high as anybody in the food business.”
These initiatives are driven by proprietary research and knowledge.
“Harris Teeter is one of the very best in North America in studying their consume and their competition on a 360-degree basis. That benefits the business in allowing it to go to a new market and win against competition like Wegmans,” Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, New York, told SN. “They had [Food Lion CEO] Rick Anicetti put together a very credible
Bloom format against them. They had Fresh Market and Whole Foods and Lowes all build very good stores against them, but they’ve succeeded.”
Dickson has served as Ruddick’s CEO since 2002, and under his watch Harris Teeter has developed a clean, shoppable format that observers say clicks neatly between more elaborate and expensive competitors like Whole Foods on the high end, and conventional operators on the other end. Harris Teeter stores exceeded $3.1 billion in sales in fiscal 2007. Its 164 stores, as of the end of Ruddick’s last fiscal year, were averaging $403,000 in weekly sales, according to company figures.
“I think this company took great advantage of competitive openings in the market,” Chuck Cerankosky, an analyst at FTN Midwest, Cleveland, told SN. “Their price competitors — namely, Food Lion and Wal-Mart — were very focused on the price-sensitive niche in the Carolinas while Winn-Dixie vacated the market and Bi-Lo went through a problematic period. Where a lot of companies could have gotten complacent, these guys took full advantage of the opportunity by improving the look of the stores and expanding their base.”
Harris Teeter most recently has been marching north to metropolitan Washington, D.C., including stores opening for the first time in Maryland and southern Delaware. These forays have been successful, said Short, in part because of a distinguished brand, but also because, after a failed foray into Atlanta several years ago, Dickson has made certain that every site will be a winner.
“Since then Tad has played a role in every location, and he is very strict,” she said. “Their locations are all A-plus.”
— JON SPRINGER