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Employee Communication, Services, Community Service Are Key To Success

Mike Violette
Mike Violette speaking at the conference.

During ROFDA‘s spring conference this year, Mike Violette, president and CEO of Associated Grocers of New England, said his company is doing well in sales as well as in other cornerstones of his administration, such as employee communication, employee services and community service.

AG New England is the largest retailer-owned wholesale grocery distribution center in New England. It aims to serve the needs of independent retail grocers of every store size and format—multi-store independent supermarket groups, community supermarkets, country stores, convenience retailers and retail co-ops. Its marketing area comprises all of New England, Upstate New York, eastern Pennsylvania and northeast Maryland.

The company was founded in 1946 by a small group of independent grocers drawn together to combine their buying power in order to better serve their customers.

Violette mentioned this mission statement at the outset of his address as his company’s “words to live by.” AG New England’s mission statement is cast in granite on the grounds of its Pembroke, New Hampshire, headquarters: “As a retailer-owned wholesale cooperative, Associated Grocers of New England is dedicated to the success of its members and committed to serving the needs of independent grocers. We achieve our mission through integrity; a supportive employee environment; concern for the communities we serve; efficient and innovative operations; and a commitment to excellence.”

Violette, a third-generation retailer, has experience as an operator and store manager but also is experienced in distribution management.

His grandfather purchased a store in Maine in the 1930s, and his father opened a store (Violette’s Market) in Milford, New Hampshire, when Violette was a senior in high school. He obtained a business degree in college, then worked for his father. The store was named IGA Retailer of the Year in 1987, and then was sold in 1989. At that point, Violette worked for Wetterau (which later became Supervalu) as a retail specialist. Violette then worked for Shaw’s Supermarkets for two years as a store manager.

Through knowing Norm Turcotte, former AG New England president and CEO, Violette left Shaw’s in 1998 to become AG’s director of sales. Violette was recommended for the president and CEO role by Mike Bourgoine when Bourgoine retired two years ago.

AG New England built a new facility in Pembroke in 2006 and then added 105,000 s.f. of space to the building in 2014. Today, the facility is 480,000 s.f. and carries 26,000 SKUs. It has surpassed $550 million in sales with a staff of 900 associates.

Violette said sales have nearly doubled during his 20 years at AG New England, with strong consistent sales every year.

In addition to serving its retailer members, AG New England also operates corporate stores under three different formats: Harvest Market for fresh and specialty foods in Bedford, Hollis, and Wolfboro, New Hampshire; Sully’s, a full-service superette for convenience and prepared foods in Goffstown and Allenstown, New Hampshire; and Vista, focusing on value in blue-collar communities in Newport, Vermont; Laconia, New Hampshire; and Richmond, New Hampshire.

In January, AG New England purchased five stores in the Greater Burlington, Vermont, area that focus on fresh, specialty and organic and especially on local Vermont products.

Constant communication

One of Violette’s foundations as CEO is constant employee communication. That is “very important to me, and the two key parts are timeliness and consistency. I am very passionate about the importance of communication.”

He has set up mailboxes throughout the office and warehouse and invited associates to offer suggestions and concerns to him. He responds to each one and said excellent suggestions have been offered.

He also publishes “Mike’s Comments,” a weekly bulletin on sales and company activities, and offers “Open Mike” sessions—employee meetings where there are no managers or directors present. There is two-way interaction about company business and events.

“Sometimes I learn more than they learn,” he said.

Violette also holds similar meetings for his managers and is open to discussion and questions on company operations.

“I want to be approachable; I want to build a culture of courtesy and respect here,” he said.

Offering support

Violette is proud of the ways the company supports its employees, including a tuition reimbursement program offering discount tuition at Southern New Hampshire University and tuition reimbursements at other colleges and universities. The company also has established “AG University,” with courses taught by AG New England managers and other industry professionals.

The company also has set up an employee assistance program through its Helping Hands Assistance Fund funded by AG fundraising drives. The fund helps employees in financial emergencies. Employees donate unused vacation or time off to others in need.

AG New England departments also plan fun group activities for associates such as boat cruises, breakfasts and social events.

The company’s employees run a Community Action Activity Program that includes blood drives and other community services. This year, the program has raised $71,000, for a total of $1.1 million since its inception 15 years ago. The company also hosts a golf outing that benefits the New Hampshire Food Bank.

This past winter, AG New England joined a community effort to help purchase a fire department rescue truck in Johnson, Vermont. Flooding from an ice jam along the banks of the Lamoille River caused extensive disruption to the post office and local grocer Sterling Market.

While 14 inches of water wreaked havoc on the building, it could have been worse if not for the efforts of the Johnson Fire Department.

“Because of the tremendous efforts of many people, including the team of associates at store level and the dedicated men and women of the Johnson Fire Department, the store was able to reopen just one week after the flooding. I’m a very optimistic person, but even I would not have predicted this would happen within one week,” said Violette. “It just proves that a dedicated and determined group of people with a common goal can achieve great things. AG New England is thrilled to be a part of such a wonderful community, and we are proud to support the dedicated team of professional firefighters in Johnson, Vermont.”

Other AG New England services open to member retailers are a 401K program for member retailers; a low-interest equipment and equipment financing for equipment upgrades; a partnership with an insurance agency resulting in lower insurance costs; marketing and social media services; a company loss prevention program offering security camera and training videos; retail bookkeeping and technology services; and equipment and store design services and Harvest At Home in-house home meal design program.

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