Laurel Grocery Co.’s philosophy is “Think Retail,” which channels the sentiment from a statement on the original order guides from 1922: “A successful business is a business that helps others succeed.”
Laurel’s mission was to help smaller, privately-owned businesses thrive against chain grocery stores. A hundred years later, that mission continues today. And it’s among the many reasons the company has been named The Shelby Report’s Wholesaler of the Year for its Midwest and Southeast regions.
“You’ll see these ‘Think Retail’ signs around here and that is our mantra – think in terms of the retail store, our customer,” said Winston Griffin, chairman and CEO. “Whenever we’re doing any type of task here, count it in those terms.
“How is this benefiting the retail grocery store and thus the end consumer, their customer. So it’s just a way of always reminding people that we’re trying to do what’s best for our customer.”
Griffin said Laurel is always trying to help customers with any issues they may have. “We’re very customer focused and that’s a key service,” he said.
Griffin noted that the company’s competitors are all larger and selling the same things.
“What’s different is the service that you give and how personalized you can be. We’re not worried about our competitor, we’re just worried about our customers and taking care of them,” he said.
The London, Kentucky-based wholesaler serves more than 200 stores in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Indiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Georgia.
One way the company is helping its retailers stay ahead of their competition is by using technology and other advancements such as innovations in advertising and marketing – digital ads, digital coupons and websites. The company also offers retail accounting among its services and recently began a case-ready meat program. A warehouse bread program debuted in October.
Family is key
The fact that Laurel is family owned offers another connection with its customers, most of which are family-owned retailers. According to Griffin, the wholesaler and its retailers have the same issues, “just a little different volume level.”
He said Laurel’s customers love its annual food show and the customer trips Laurel plans, where team members and their retailers “go somewhere and all just relax.”
“That whole family connection goes across the organization, down to the customers,” Griffin said. “You treat them like family and everything works out great.”
The trips are planned to locations that are fun and relaxing. The focus is on fellowship and fun.
“My rule before we leave – and I tell all of our employees from Laurel that go to help – is if a customer wants to talk business, that’s OK. We’re not going to shut them down,” Griffin said. “But we don’t start the conversation with business. We start the conversation asking about their family, how are they doing, their health, where they go, any trips, fun things.
“We’re away from work on purpose. We’re trying to relax…we are not supplier/customer and there’s not that relationship. That’s what got us there.”
Griffin said he enjoys the trips because he gets to see everyone in a non-work environment and “just have that bond of being friends.”
Griffin has great respect for Laurel’s customers.
“The independent grocer is always a hard-working, fiercely competitive individual, because you have to be in that business…our customers are unique, because they’re all family owned, they’re all independents and they’re spread over a wide geographic region.
“So they have different issues. We have to be adept, and we are very nimble at helping an individual customer with any particular problem…we’re in the people business and it’s all about taking care of people. I feel for the family-owned retail store, because everywhere you look now, there’s options to buy food.
“If an independent grocery store is doing well, right now, they are tough as nails, because they have seen every type of competition that you can imagine. And they’re still there.”
He added that the reason the independents are surviving is because they are taking good care of their customers. “There’s no other explanation. They’re servicing their customers and understand the importance of that human connection. And that’s what keeps it going.”
Independent grocers also are very much part of their communities. Griffin compared them to a family that has been in town for a long time.
“That store sponsors youth sports or area events, has fundraisers in the parking lot, those kinds of things. That is the definition of family and community. They are still thriving in this country because of that whole family connection,” he said.
Those stores are not going anywhere, and Griffin said it’s essential to a company like Laurel that it continues to serve them as it has since the company began 100 years ago.
“We will advance technology as we need to, to keep up with whatever that store needs,” he said. “But it’s amazing the similarities to what my grandfather was doing – and to what I’m doing – just incredible. We are providing an essential service to family-owned stores and helping them in any way we can. That got us to where we are, and that will continue to keep us going down the road.”
Pearson on point
Laurel President David Pearson came to the wholesaler in 2011 with decades of industry experience. He had worked with Safeway for 20-plus years, followed by more than two deades with SuperValu.
Pearson said working for the Griffin and Chesnut families has “been a blessing.” Coming from national companies to a family-owned business was a welcome change.
Pearson recalled his first board meeting at Laurel. “I’ll never forget coming in and Winston’s mom came in and gave me a big hug and showed pictures. We talked about family and we just had a great time, having a board meeting and walking through everything,” he said. “It’s just so personal and friendly. And it was so different than having that corporation of multiple layers.”
Pearson appreciates the fact that he can get things done at Laurel without wading through those corporate layers.
“That’s part of the beauty of being at Laurel is you can make decisions,” he said. “If we have a retailer that has a situation, I can grab people. We discuss it and make a decision. We let them know right now. They’re not going to get an answer in a week, they’ll get an answer in an hour.”
Those are the things Pearson enjoys about Laurel. “It’s focused toward the retailer, which is what I’ve always been about.”
In Pearson’s final years at SuperValu the company was at $4 billion a year, but he was spending all his time with lawyers and accountants. “It just got paralyzing,” he said. “You got further and further away from the customers.”
Laurel was such a good fit for him because it was focused on its customers, not on Wall Street. “For me, it’s been just a lot of fun to be here and to run this company,” he said.
Another passion of Pearson’s is mentoring. He noted that Laurel had not been able to promote from within as much as preferred, but they are working to change that. While Laurel has many employees who have been with the company for decades, it is important they have someone ready to step into open positions when needed.
Pearson said he also is proud of the financial side of the company. On average, a wholesaler loses about 4 percent of its customers every year, which is an ongoing battle. Stabilizing that and building programs for retailers, he has worked with Kip Faulhaber, president of Laurel Retail and SVP of marketing and merchandising at Laurel Grocery, and his team.
According to Pearson, it was important to “fight the image” that Laurel was just a small wholesaler in Kentucky and show that it actually met and exceeded other wholesalers.
“Whether that’s in points of differentiation or programs, those are the things we try to do,” he said. “But what we really stand for, when you get down to the bottom of it, is the model – we’re a family business selling to family businesses. That’s who we are.”
When new customers join the Laurel family and they get their first truck from the wholesaler, they also get a Laurel sign containing signatures from all its employees. Pearson said they started doing this a couple of years ago “just to try to let the customer know that we care about them, we think about them. It’s a good way to kick off a relationship.”
Pearson still visits Laurel’s retailers regularly. “I will tell you when I go to visit retailers, it’s the best time I have. It’s my background and I love it,” he said. “My blood just goes a little faster…the retailers love it when you’re out there.
“There’s no other wholesale grocery company I know of where the president goes out and visits the retailer, asks about their family or spends two or three hours with them just talking about the business and family. I think that’s one of the big things that differentiates us from everybody else.”
Pearson said while some wholesalers are “running from the retailers, we want to run toward the retailers.” Laurel has beefed up its field staff, recently bringing in more people.
“We’re adding and investing in more field staff so we can get to see stores more frequently and spend more time with them to help guide them, teach and help them,” he said. “Those are the sorts of things that, from my perspective, are dissipating from every other wholesaler. How we differentiate is saying we’re here to help you and we’re going to help you more.”
Everything Laurel does is guided by the question: Is it good for our retailers? “We just have to believe in helping our customers and, in helping our customers we help ourselves. That’s our working philosophy,” Pearson said.
When the pandemic hit, Pearson said the company had to pivot in finding ways to communicate with retailers. He credited Faulhaber with scheduling a live weekly webinar to inform customers what was going on with the supply chain and what products Laurel had available. Food safety and updates from the CDC were included.
“It’s about giving direction and help and assistance, whether it’s the pandemic or whether it’s just keeping them educated when things go wrong or being out there visiting, for me to hear personally what a retailer has to say,” Pearson said.
Being available when customers are in crisis also is important to the Laurel team. Pearson said that is part of making sure everyone is “completely focused on the customer all the time, No. 1, without fail.”
He recalled a situation where he got a call at 4:30 a.m. from a customer concerned about flooding. Laurel had a truck there by 6 a.m. to get product out of the store. “There’s nobody else doing those sorts of things,” he added.
That kind of customer focus is remembered and appreciated by the retailers. “I tell everybody here that we will be measured by how we react when the retailer’s in trouble and needs help,” Pearson said.
For more information, visit laurelgrocery.com.
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