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After Four Decades, Superior Shines As Example Of The American Dream

Superior Grocers company

Last updated on January 22nd, 2021 at 12:37 pm

Immigrant-led company ‘ready to go forward faster’

Interviews with members of the company’s leadership team were conducted by Shelby Publishing EVP Bob Reeves and compiled by Shelby’s Mary Margaret Stewart.

With 47 stores and plans for many more, Superior Grocers is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2021. And what’s kept the company successful is its core values – integrity, service, passion and excellence. President Rich Wardwell said those four tenets hang in all of the stores and offices, reminding everyone every day what’s important.

“These are [Mimi Song’s] core values with the group’s input. We as a team came together and made sure that we brought back all those – messaged them and live by them,” Wardwell said.

The company started in the spring of 1981 on the backs of Mimi Song, her sister, Marie Song, and James Oh. After working close to 24/7 to get their footing, they began to grow the business. Until 1995, there were four Superior locations. By 2001, there were 18.

Enrique Montes, VP of HR, says that one piece of Superior’s continued success is the company’s go-to-market strategy.

“We were in areas where other companies didn’t want to be at. They felt that we couldn’t be successful there,” he said. “Mimi proved to the competitors that went away from those areas that their customers are like anybody else. And they need to be serviced. As long as you do it right, you will be successful, too. And I think that really was the key.”

Flexibility, commitment have been key to company success

According to former CFO Joe Cooney, one of the secrets to Superior’s success lies in its flexibility.

“On the operation side, they just keep tinkering. It’ll be a little remodel here, and then it’ll be a ‘maybe if we expand produce’ or ‘maybe we need to add hot foods or remove hot foods’ – just make adjustments so that it just fits the demographics as best as it can,” Cooney said.

“Not every location is in exactly the same type of area. Even though we do tend to be in the predominantly Hispanic market, there’s some mixed areas. Even within Hispanic communities, you have differences from community to community.”

Added Wardwell, “We grew from a club store on the center store side of grocery, and we’ve elevated into fresh-made tortillas and fresh-made cakes. Then our produce –we’ve moved into organics, we’ve moved into packaging, we’ve moved into dried chilies, we’ve moved into just a wider assortment in produce.

“Our meat department has evolved…we’re looking at the cuts, we have choice beef in the markets, we have our own marinade, we have our own Superior ranch and brought pre-packaged meat, pre-done. We’ve elevated.”

On top of offerings, Superior dove into e-commerce about two years ago. It took off in 2020.

“I watch [online shopping] every week, and I get a report…in our stores, you see the peaks and valleys…it was climbing every week, and we were getting more and more activity,” Wardwell said. “And then, when the [COVID-19] pandemic hit, it just like went off the chart. And it’s never come back down.”

As grocers nationwide have seen, social media’s importance has grown exponentially over the years. That’s another piece of the puzzle where Superior has remained flexible.

“Whether it’s television, radio, digital marketing – we’ve really grown leaps and bounds in social media,” said Dale Nakata, VP of marketing.

“We basically started from nothing…about a year ago, we brought on somebody to manage the social media. I recently promoted him to digital marketing manager because it’s really expanded through our website and other vehicles. It really surprised me, the impact of it.

“Grocery marketing has changed a lot. A lot of that isn’t driven by so much the competitors, a lot of it is driven by having the challenges of the supply chains that we’ve had since COVID started. You can’t put out something that you can’t deliver. We’ve really changed the way we’ve gone to market in that respect.”

One thing that has remained constant, though, is Mimi Song’s commitment to holding her company up.

“Mimi’s willing to stick with things being privately owned,” Cooney said. “She has the wherewithal and the decision making – the ability to say, ‘No, I’m not going to give up on it.’ And you can’t do that if you’ve got Wall Street wanting to return every quarter.”

Opportunity abounds, ‘it’s up to you to take it’

Montes joined Superior in 1997, right out of college. When he interviewed, though, the fact that it was close to his home wasn’t the only appeal.

“One of the things that attracted me to Superior was the demographics of the employee base that we had, that I could personally relate to…it’s always about your performance, not your ethnic background,” Montes said. “It’s just about if you’re working hard, you get opportunities here at Superior. And that’s still the case to this day.”

Montes, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, said his time at Superior has helped him build who he is today.

“I work with a different, diverse employee base that we have, I clearly relate to them. I can clearly understand some of their concerns and their issues because I’ve been through some of the same concerns and the issues,” he said.

Montes has been with the company for 20-plus years now. And he said that Superior “really does give opportunities to everyone.”

“When I came into this company, it was three people in HR and eight stores. And here I am, 23 years later,” he said. “I’m the VP of HR. Yes, I do say that it’s been hard work on my end and dedication and good work ethic, but also the company has given the opportunity to grow from within. I’m just an example.”

VP of Meat Mari Mani is another example. Never did Mani think she was going to grow as much as she has at Superior. She immigrated from Mexico with her family in high school.

“I like to get messy and to do things. The grocery business is hard work, but it’s not so hard when you come from another country,” Mani said. “In Mexico, it was much harder.”

Mani’s journey began by getting hired without submitting an application (see related story here). Today, she’s in charge of the company’s meat department. She said she was driven to stick with Superior after witnessing the supportive environment.

Added Montes, “Even at the store level, one of the biggest things that I always promote is…the opportunity is for everyone. It’s up to you to take it…not for any other reason besides the fact that you come here, you do your job, and you get an opportunity to get promoted.

“I’ve been here for all this time, but it’s been like a different company. At one point, it was 10 stores…and then we moved to 20 stores…it’s always been a challenge, even now. I mean, we’re always looking at how we can do things better.

“It’s been the same company, but in different stages. It’s been so exciting. To me, I think that’s what I enjoy – learning in that process throughout.”

Chain ‘grew just by being in the right space’

Wardwell started with Superior in 2015. He was brought on as VP of operations with a fresh set of eyes and ideas, reinvigorating the drive forward to make Superior No. 1.

“I don’t know if I changed the direction of the company. I wouldn’t take that credit,” Wardwell said. “I was fortunate enough to sit next to Mimi and talk to her. And I asked her a lot of questions.

“I asked her early on, ‘What makes you most proud of Superior?’ She said, ‘I love when people come in and tell me we have the cleanest stores. I love when people come in and tell me we have great value. And I love when people tell me I have great employees.’

“It’s pretty simple, but I think we had lost that messaging to the employees. So bringing the store directors in and reiterating that and putting our core values out there – holding people to a standard that sometimes strays if you’re not more focused on it every day – and just preach that. You want your ownership to be proud of their stores.”

Wardwell said he’s still learning every day, striving to make a positive impact on the company.

“I’m still learning. I spent more time in [our competitors’ stores] that first year, two years, three years – heck, I still do – than I did in Superior because I want to understand what everybody was doing, not just what we were doing.”

When Wardwell came on board, Superior executives made a direct decision to stop growth. But it was a calculated move.

“We made a collective decision to stop and make sure we have our infrastructure right for the next spurt – make sure we have our team in place, and make sure we have all the logistics and all those components.

“We didn’t open a store again until [2019]…we remodeled stores, but we didn’t open. Now, we have a small market format, which is called The Market. We opened that on Sept. 5, 2017.

“It went quite well. It’s been successful…we expanded it to the La Mirada area. We transferred one from a Superior to The Market, and we’re seeing growth in that one as well.

“We have plans to open up more through site studies. We hopefully have acquisitions on the horizon. Any opportunity that we get, we’re working with a lot of different agencies to make sure that we have our foot in the door in a lot of different communities…we’re ready to go forward faster.

“We’re poised for growth. We want to grow. There’s no growth plan to stop, but we’d like to be at 100 and then 200 and then 300. There’s just a hope to be the No. 1.”

Sam Kang, director of IT, confirmed that the company is set up to grow, ready to double in size with strong finances and “foresight, dedication and drive. Mimi has all of that, plus more.”

“What I would absolutely give Mimi credit for is, it is really hard to kind of change your skin, so to speak…to go from a mom-and-pop organization to a corporate-structured organization. The cultural change is the biggest challenge.

“We have processes in place, we have the right people in places…it grew just by being in the right space.”

One of the people Superior recently brought on is Blake Larson. He started as CFO when Cooney retired in 2018, bringing 20-plus years of experience at Superior Grocer’s wholesaler, Unified Grocers.

“What I saw and experienced when I was their wholesaler is just the passion for serving communities that weren’t really well served by other retail operations…to provide a service and to provide work opportunities for nearly 5,000 people and to support their families,” he explained. “To be able to sell the food products at the value for what they’re getting – good price for your money, the value offering.”

With two years under his belt, Larson said he’s excited for the growth to come at Superior.

“The I first thing I do when I get up in the morning is check our sales,” he said. “We have a daily sales report that comes in. So looking at that to get a pulse of how the day went the day before. Then, when I get here in the morning, I’m preparing my day…I want to make sure that we’re pushing for those major initiatives and responsibilities.

“[Wardwell] and I have a strategy meeting every other week. We meet to talk about the vision of the company, what we’re currently doing, what else we need to do. And in that meeting, we include other people as well, to make sure we’re getting a focused vision on how to move the company forward.”

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