2019 Indiana Market Profile
by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Midwest
Robert Wood evidently was meant to be a grocer. A grocer in Versailles.
He was a contractor for years, building foundations and bridges. His father had an implement dealership that he and his wife, Dotty, worked with for five years. After that, they started a bulk food business in a 3,000-s.f. space in Batesville.
“That’s the only ‘grocery’ experience I ever had,” Wood told The Shelby Report. “We sold that business and about the same time we bought this building.”
“This building” is the 26,000-s.f. Versailles Hometown IGA.
All of this happened seven years ago. Wood, who now is 64 years old, was familiar with the location. He had been the contractor for earthwork on the property years ago, so he helped build the Versailles store.
Those foundations and bridges he built could be metaphorical as well as literal. Wood has lived in the Versailles area all his life. He knows everyone.
The grocery store had been in Versailles a while, too. It was operated by the same family for 37 years when Wood purchased it. He bought it with one goal in mind. Actually, goal isn’t the right word. It was a mission. The Woods’ daughter, Bridget Back, is with the Bible-centered Child Evangelism Fellowship, which covers a large territory in the U.S.
“We had hoped the building would support that a little bit,” Wood said.
When he got ready to buy the store, Wood went the same bank he has used all his life. It was happy to lend him the money to buy the grocery store—as long as he didn’t run it.
Maybe the fact that the previous owners had managed the store all those years had something to do with the bank’s stance. Whatever the reason, the bank was concerned about Wood’s lack of grocery experience.
So, Wood brought in a grocery veteran who had been with a major grocer for many years and the store became a cost-plus concept.
“That went over like a lead balloon,” Wood said. “I was hearing people complaining. They want to know the price. They don’t want you to add 10 percent at the register.”
That lasted two years. The operator chose not to renew the lease. Concerned about what the community would do without its grocery store, Wood talked to the bank about operating it himself.
“At that point, they were ready to let us try. We had to do something,” he said. “The town depends on this store. We opened on Friday, Dec. 13, 2014.”
The Sunday of the first week the grocery store opened, the Woods were on their way home from church when they saw a “little lady riding her motorized cart to the store,” he said. “I looked over at my wife and said, ‘right there is the reason that you’ve got to keep a store in the town.’”
The business is a family affair. The Woods’ other daughter, Kelly Gutzwiller, helped them get the store open and is still active with the store. Their son, Daren, is part owner. He has his own firm, Light Tech General Contracting, that installs lights and security systems. At Versailles Hometown IGA, Daren saved the business $1,000 a month on its electric bill by retrofitting the lighting to LED. He also helps out when something breaks down at the store.
IGA a familiar name
Wood was familiar with IGA. He remembered there had been an IGA grocery store in Versailles when he was very young. A mutual friend brought Wood and a current IGA grocer together. The IGA grocer offered to help Wood as he got started. While The Shelby Report will not share exactly what that help was, it was substantial and important to the operation of both IGA stores.
“He was giving up a lot. It was like almost giving away your secrets,” Wood said. “He and I have become really good friends.”
Wood said Versailles Hometown IGA had been doing $50,000 to $55,000 in sales a week, or, as he put it, “not a whole lot for a 26,000-s.f. building.”
The first year after Wood began running it, sales were increasing by $10,000 a week until last year, when the increases dropped to $5,000 a week. Some weeks the store has accomplished more than $100,000 in sales.
“We are still in a growth pattern,” Wood said. “It has slowed down a little, but it is still a growth pattern. We have come close to doubling our sales. And I have no background whatsoever in the grocery business other than that little bitty store we had.”
The first year Wood was operating the grocery store, his bank, The Friendship State Bank—with locations in Batesville, Dillsboro, Friendship, Lawrenceburg, Madison, Rising Sun and Vevay—named Versailles Hometown IGA its business of the month.
He shares credit for the store’s success with its employees, like Rosella Elliott, who works in the produce department.
“We won the Idaho Potato Commission contest four years in a row. We’ve won two third-places and a second-place, and this year we won first place out of stores all over the U.S.,” Wood said. “We’ve had some pretty exciting things happen.”
Feeding the community—and the soul
In warm weather, Versailles Hometown IGA gets out the grill every other week. There is just something about grilling, Wood said. Shoppers can sit and eat at a picnic table outside. The store may start grilling every week because it is so popular.
Locals also love the daily lunch special. The store just added smoked pork to the menu.
“It is going over so big that we almost can’t keep up with it,” Wood said. “It shocked us all. We never had any clue it would be so sought after. Now, we are having to keep our smoker cranked up to keep up. It only holds 40 or 50 pounds at a time.”
It isn’t surprising to learn that Wood brought in bulk foods since he and Dotty ran that Batesville store for a while.
“That was one of those things that no big boy can compete with because that’s a hands-on job,” he said. “It’s hard to just go out there and hire somebody to do that. You have to know it a little bit yourself. It has really worked well. We’ve got one aisle devoted to it. I have people coming in here just for that. Anytime you get them in the door there are always opportunities.”
As every grocer knows, there are many factors the must come together to make a store successful. When Wood said he did not make the store the success it has become on his own, he meant that his employees do a great job. But he also meant something else.
“I’ve got a great God that takes care of us. We play Christian music in our store and we get more positive comments on that than anything else,” he said. “I’m putting them in order of the number of compliments. Our second-most commented-on thing is how clean the store is. Those are the two things that are really, really noticed. Probably third is our meat department.”
Wood has a GM, Doug West, who had overseen a different store many years ago. In fact, Dotty had worked for him in the past. He suggested to Wood that he might want to change the music played in the store from Christian to country or some other genre.
“Since that time, he has come to me and said, ‘you guys are right,’” Wood said. “I know that’s not a good worldly view for a lot of people. A lot of them are afraid to express their faith but I’m not.”
Wood is in the store six days a week—and he is on the floor, not in an office. His shoppers need to see him, he said.
“I’m either stocking shelves or ordering, and I talk quite a bit to customers,” he said. “They all keep wondering why I don’t retire. Well, truthfully, I’ve retired twice. Retirement will never be for me. When I can’t go any further or they put me in the ground that’ll be my retirement. I found that out.”
When he bought the former Supervalu seven years ago, Wood never thought he would be in the grocery business. He had an attractive offer presented to him if he chose not to be. A large grocery chain offered to lease the building and open a deep discount concept stocked mostly with own-brand products. Wood had never heard of the banner, so he visited stores that operate under it.
“They don’t have a hot deli, no fresh meat, not very much produce,” he said. “This is the only store in town. You can’t do that here.”
The person trying to talk him into the deal told Wood that he could meet him the next morning with a check for $1 million.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Well, that’s really good, but I still have to walk down the streets in our town,” Wood said. “These are the actual words he said to me: ‘Are you stupid or what?’
“Money is not everything,” Wood added. “If more people would get community-minded then things would be a lot better. We don’t try to make everything we can make. We have to make this work and we have to pay for it, but people don’t have to get rich. What’s rich?”
Versailles is home to about 2,400 people. There aren’t a lot of factories and it isn’t a high-income community. Wood said he is a little surprised how many people work out of town but wait to shop for groceries at home. But they know that if they don’t, they could lose Versailles Hometown IGA. Remember that the community nearly lost its grocery store twice before in the recent past.
“The second closing was the best thing that ever happened because when it closed the second time, we were down about three or four weeks,” Wood said. “I think it really became a goal. They didn’t want to lose it again. That helped a little, too.”
The store is successful enough that Wood worries that should a large chain grocery store located less than five miles away shutter operations, 20 percent to 30 percent of those shoppers would come to his store.
“How would do you do that overnight?” Wood said.
With the opportunities Wood already has had to retire, the question now is would he. He and Dotty have talked about it. He is not sure how long he will run the store but he would leave under one condition.
“I’ll be here until somebody who I’m satisfied can keep it going comes along,” Wood said. “They are going to have to be a good operator.”