An Independent Voice: The best year ever

Four independent grocers share their plans for 2011 and beyond.

By Jane Olszeski Tortola

Mark Batenic, Juvenal Chavez, Bill Orr and Rick Geyer are four hard-working independent grocers who employ thousands of associates at their stores throughout the country and have devoted a combined 125 years of service to the food industry.

While their titles, geographic locations and number of stores operated vary, one thing these respected grocers have in common is their focus on 2011 and making it one of the best years ever for their companies.

Recently, I touched base with these well-known supermarket executives and asked them to share what they predict to be their greatest challenges of the New Year, as well as their plans to improve their respective operations. Here’s what they had to say.

Let’s start with Mark Batenic, CEO of Chicago-based IGA, Inc., whose independent owners operate a total of 1,248 stores in the U.S.

“The greatest challenge for 2011 is for retailers to stay relevant,” says Batenic. “We cannot be complacent and we must listen to our customers. As we know, their needs change often and as consumers they face many distractions in their lives. We must make their store visits easy, exciting and fun.”

According to Batenic, plans well underway at IGA this year include a redesigned theme-based marketing calendar, continued emphasis on healthy eating and lifestyles and a step-up in electronic marketing. “Treat customers like you would treat a guest in your own home,” he says.

Juvenal Chavez, founder of Mi Pueblo San Jose, Inc. of California, is focused on his customers more than ever at his 19 locations.

“I believe this year will be no kinder to supermarket retailers than last year. In fact, we must be much better in tune with our business to insure we achieve needed growth,” he says. “Our job is to insure that we maintain leadership in servicing our customers and delivering a product that is better than expected.”

While it is important to set the bar high, he says independent grocers have to keep a sharp eye on the bottom line. “As operators, however, we must stay in constant touch with our margins and the cost of our operations,” he says. “With the high probability of inflation in the cost of goods, higher operating costs due to unfavorable government actions and the unhealthy state of our economy, we must consider in each decision we make this year the affect on our business and, more importantly, the impact on our customers.”

A 20-year veteran of the business, Chavez is convinced that the competitive advantage achieved by his company is the direct result of outstanding employee training. “Our people make Mi Pueblo the operator of choice for our customers,” he says.

Operating seven conventional supermarkets in Arkansas, Bill Orr’s top priority during 2011 is controlling expenses.

“Our biggest concern for the next several years is the unknown consequences of legislation such as tax rates and insurance availability, mandates and costs,” Orr says. “That presents great challenges when it comes to budgeting and planning. That being said, we will continue to focus on building an experienced, motivated employee base by providing meaningful training and workshops,” he explains.

A new Bill’s Fresh Market is currently under construction and will open in February, while the remodel of an existing store is on the drawing board for 2011.

“These additions will assist in building market share, provide convenience for customers, and allow us to spread the costs of controllable expenses such as advertising, donations and home office expenses amongst more locations.”

Like Batenic, Orr says that his 14-year-old company will also improve its electronic marketing offerings with better use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Lastly, I spoke with Rick Geyer, my colleague from Ohio, who, with his family, operates 11 stores, including seven conventional supermarkets, three Save-A-Lots and a retail beverage center.

Facing increased pricing pressure from intense competition, Geyer says, “It is always a concern as to how much you can spend in order to ‘ buy business’ and maintain profitability. Although there are significant challenges in the areas of expense control, productivity, health care legislation and gross profit achievement, maintaining our reputation for good customer service is paramount in our stores.”

Geyer is excited about participating this year in a Supervalu marketing program that will allow the 55-year-old company to better understand its customers at each location, along with the needs and concerns of its employees.

“We are far from cookie-cutter stores and I’m optimistic that this program will not only provide a means to measure associate performance and accountability, but it will provide better direction in maintaining our fair share of the market.”

Jane Olszeski Tortola is a freelance writer who devoted over three decades of her career to working in a family owned supermarket company founded by her late father.  She is a graduate of The Ohio State University and is active in a number of food industry organizations. She can be reached at


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