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Neal Berube: ‘Emotional Support Was Every Bit As Important’

Neal Berube
Neal Berube, CEO of Associated Food Stores, a wholesaler in Salt Lake City, Utah.
by Mary Margaret Stewart, staff writer

In Neal Berube’s eyes, it’s been a year of learning, with 2020 shedding light on the weaknesses in the supply chain.

On the wholesaler side – whether it’s how many SKUs to carry, how to conduct business with vendors or how to distribute products – things are changing.

“We’ve learned about contingency plans, even though no one could have dreamed that we’d be facing what we’re facing,” said Berube, CEO of Associated Food Stores.

Luckily, Associated had a reliable team on which to lean when things picked up so quickly.

“We own and operate independent grocery stores in addition to supplying our members, and our team really didn’t miss a beat…we had a lot of committed team members who worked a lot of overtime to make things happen…sacrificing personal time to work at the warehouse,” he said.

“To put this in perspective, a good heavy day for us prior to this would be billing, maybe, 180,000 cases. Shortly after the pandemic started, we had our retailers ordering 725,000 cases.

“If you’re running a facility at say 90 to 95 percent capacity, and all of a sudden, you’re quadruple, there’s just no way you could even bring enough people in to a facility to fulfill those type of requests.”

And while requests were staggering, the wholesaler’s partners and members were on a spectrum of reacting to the stress on the industry’s supply.

“With our vendor partners, we obviously found that there were some more prepared for a band of this nature. Others were totally unprepared…we saw the same thing with our members; we saw some that were very, very understanding; we had some that were very, very frustrated because of our inability to meet the demand.”

All in all, though, Berube said Associated Food’s relationships with all involved parties have been fortified via the crisis, with increased communication making them stronger.

And reflecting back on the hectic nature of 2020, Berube is proudest of the passion and diligence of the team members “doing all they can to serve our retailers.”

“Early on in this pandemic, we had a very, very severe accident at our distribution center that resulted in the amputation of one of our team members’ leg just below the knee,” he said. “After his surgery, the very next day, he called and said, ‘I will be back, and I’ll be better than ever.’ He did come back, and as soon as he possibly could…he’s in our distribution center working today.

“I think that tells the story of the type of passion that our team has for doing their jobs, and I think that is very representative of the majority of our team. I call it the three C’s – they were committed, they were compassionate and they cared.”

As for the way that Associated Foods navigated the pandemic, Berube couldn’t be more proud. With company values always in sight, he said the mission statement was used in every decision, the No. 1 priority being safety of the team.

“We instigated very early on – in many cases, before the large chains – a policy that we paid our employees if they had symptoms of COVID or flu-like symptoms. We surely didn’t want them to have to sacrifice pay for safety,” he said.

Part of being able to lead a company through something as unprecedented as COVID-19 is having a support system. Berube leaned on his peers on the ROFDA board. They found time twice a week to talk out problems and successes over the phone. 

“I think the most important thing is that we had somebody that could understand our frustrations, because we were all facing many of the same situations,” he said. “It was basically a shoulder to lean on, a group of encouragement.

“Sure, we talked about technical things, but I think the important thing is that we rallied around each other, offered to do whatever we could to help each other…the emotional support was every bit as important as the technical support.”

And looking toward the future, Berube knows uncertainty may be the only certainty.

“There are still a lot of unknowns,” he explained. “As we talk to our vendor partners, they’ve given us recovery plans contingent upon having the human resources to produce product. But their contingency is, if we get an outbreak of COVID, that could impair our projections.

“As we speak, many states are seeing a spike. In Utah, we’ve set probably record after record the last week, to the point that we’ve been identified as a red state. And if we travel to certain states, we have to quarantine for 14 days.

“We anticipate that we’ll continue to see increased click-and-collect use, and we anticipate that people will still be a little bit shy about going to restaurants, so we’ll continue to see sales increases through the remainder of the year.

“Until a meaningful vaccination comes out, we’re just going to be facing uncertainty. And that’s what makes things difficult. Once you know what you’re facing, you can make a decision and move forward. It’s just not knowing what you’re going to face and having contingency plans in place.”

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