CEO reflects on 80th anniversary, ‘helping the independent’ grocer
by Mary Margaret Stewart,
This year marks Salt Lake City, Utah-based Associated Food Stores’ 80th anniversary. In addition, the company has been named The Shelby Report’s 2020 West Wholesaler of the Year.
And while those are major milestones, CEO Neal Berube said the key to AFS’ success is “fairly simple.”
“I think the members of Associated and the team at Associated during this whole time have been committed. They’ve been committed to their communities. They’ve been committed to each other,” Berube said. “Our team has been committed to doing all they can to serve the independent retailer.”
As Berube sees it, part of that eight-decade commitment is contingent on staying grounded in what Associated, as a retailer-owned wholesaler, needs to thrive.
“We’ve stayed focused on helping the independent retailer be successful. And everything we do is focused on this,” he said. “When you’re laser-focused like our team, it does increase the chances for being around not only 80 years, but much longer.
“And I would be remiss if I didn’t give a lot of credit to our retailers. We’re only as successful as they are. And when you look at the independent retailer, they continue to be successful for many reasons.
“One is the relationships they’ve made. They’re truly local, and they do everything they can to support their communities. They know their customers. And that’s helped them remain strong.”
Berube pointed to another strength of Associated and its retailers – resilience.
“During these 80 years, there’s been unimaginable challenges,” he said. “And just the resilient nature of the owners and our team…to put it in simple terms, the independent retailer and Associated Food Stores’ family are tough. If they get knocked down, they get right back up. And they’re stronger because of it.”
And family is definitely a key part of the Associated Food Stores’ culture, a facet on which Berube stands tall.
“What I’m most proud of is to see the growth of many of our team members,” he said. “How they’ve excelled in their assignments; how they’ve grown to be kinder and better people; and how their leadership has helped others develop…to see that Associated cares so much about its team and watching them grow.”
Second to pillars of the business – commitment, strength, resilience and family – Berube highlighted some of the major physical milestones of the company.
“Our first acquisition of retail stores was back in 1999. We acquired two of our largest retailers in a defensive move because they had decided to exit the business, and we purchased those two entities,” he said.
“Since then, we’ve purchased others. But I think getting into the retail operations business helped us be more sensitive to our member retailers – understanding their needs. And it just provided a great opportunity for Associated to grow and have some influence in its procurement activities.
“There are a few other wholesalers that own and operate retail, but it’s been a major milestone in our company.”
Another piece of Associated’s history is the construction in 2001 of its distribution center in the city of Farr West, Utah. Berube said that the wholesaler consolidated numerous warehouses into one central location to build a million-square-foot warehouse.
There were also some firsts nationally that came from Associated, like a bag-and-go application.
“We didn’t get a lot of publicity on it – that was back when some of the larger entities, particularly Amazon, were getting all the publicity – but our team went to work on that and it is important,” Berube said.
And some of the milestones that stick with the company today date back to the early start of the company.
“Our first president, Don Lloyd, was instrumental in creating the first bar codes that are being used for scanning,” Berube said. “If you think about it, if we were still using the old grease pens today, we’d be in a world of hurt, right?
“I’ve seen a lot. It’s hard to list all of our many accomplishments, but when you look at where we are today from a digital perspective, with digital coupons, e-commerce and our loyalty programs – those are all milestones for AFS along the way.”