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Brown Credits Success To Lessons Learned From Father

Jim Brown

Jim Brown, owner of Doc’s Food Stores, headquartered in Bixby, Oklahoma, has been inducted into Shelby Publishing’s Food Industry Hall of Fame.

Brown has been working in the grocery business since he was knee-high. His father, Roy “Doc” Brown, owned and operated a grocery store in Bixby after moving to the small town just outside of Tulsa in 1946. 

Brown’s dad had a brief stint in the grocery business prior to working as an aviation mechanic. From there, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and was discharged in 1945. He and his wife, Betty, moved to Bixby to run the store, known at that time as The Packing House, when he was in his mid-20s. They had four children – the first in November 1946 – with Jim as the only boy.

On Sundays after church, Doc would bring Jim and his sisters to the store, which was closed. Before starting to write his order for the warehouse, his dad sat the children down on the floor and put them to work facing Pet milk cans.

“We’d have to turn them so the cows were all pointing forward…Then we’d get into it, and Dad would have to holler across four aisles.”

The weekly family trip would follow, as Brown’s parents drove to Tulsa to put the order in the mail slot at the warehouse.

His first real job at his father’s store was organizing pop bottles. “My first paycheck was a pop and some brownies. I worked cheap.”

Brown recalled wanting to buy a ring for his girlfriend when he was in second grade. He took returnable bottles from his house to a competitor and collected the money. “I went to the dime store to buy the ring. And I got caught. They say I was a mess.”

When he was about 9, Brown said he quit his job with his dad for one week to go work for the carnival when it came into town. His dad always got free ride tickets for letting the carnival folks get water and use the store bathroom.

Brown said a friend had told him the carnival was “paying big bucks.” He said they worked hard and got paid – in ride tickets. “I was sick. I had quit my only job. I told him, ‘Daddy, if you hire me back, I’ll never leave. And he hired me back and I never left.”

Growing up in Bixby, which had a population around 1,000 at the time, Brown said everyone knew him and his dad. They also had his dad’s phone number.

Around age 14, Brown said he had joined the sons of the local Baptist and Methodist preachers in a plan to egg and toilet paper someone’s house on Halloween. A deputy stopped them as they were walking down the sidewalk, carrying a bag filled with the evidence. He took them to jail, a small concrete building with a couple of cells, and told them they could get out if they called their parents.

“Both the preachers’ boys called their parents. I said, ‘Don’t call my dad.’ He had already told me if I ever got put in jail, don’t call him. I said I was going to have to wait it out.”

The deputy ended up calling Brown’s dad, and he was released.

Brown said his father was his greatest teacher.

He took over the business at age 35, following his dad’s death. He said every time he’d think about how tough things were, he would look at a photo of his dad in his mid-20s and think about what he went through.

“I had to tell myself, ‘Hey, you think you’ve got it tough. You’ve still got some business.’ He came with zero. He opened those doors at zero business.”

Brown recalled a time when he and his dad were in the store, and his dad asked him the name of a lady who was shopping. Then he asked him her husband’s name, her children’s names. When Brown replied he didn’t know, his dad asked him how he was ever going to run the store if he didn’t know his customers.

“I said, ‘Dad, I have enough trouble remembering my own name.’ He said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to hire people that are smarter than me that can do that.’ And he said, ‘You always have some wise answer.’”

His dad put Brown in the meat department in 1964. They had just moved into a larger store, at 9,000 square feet.

“He didn’t know anything about a meat market, and his butchers just controlled him.” Brown said when he eventually took over, he went through three butchers in the first six months, trying to find the right fit. After the last one left, Brown attended a meat seminar where he learned how to run the department.

“I’ve still got my notebook. I learned what that market manager was supposed to be doing, exactly. Know how to cut this, how to do this, how to schedule, all this good stuff. Because I’d had it.”

Brown said his dad wanted him to be in a position “where nobody could pull the wool over my eyes. They couldn’t lie to me. They couldn’t tell me, ‘You can’t do it that way.’ And that’s how I learned the grocery business.”

He attended Tulsa Junior College for a while at age 21, planning to obtain a college degree. While taking an economics class, he wanted to talk to his professor. At that time, Brown was married and had his son, Courtney, and was working 50 hours a week while taking classes.

“After talking to that economics professor, he didn’t understand real life…it doesn’t mean he wasn’t a smart man, but he didn’t know the business world. Everything was charts and graphs. He couldn’t relate to my questions. On the way home, I made the decision – I’m through with college.”

He told his dad he was going to stay in the grocery business, and “you’re the guy that’s going to have to teach me everything I need to know about the grocery business.”

Growing the business

In the late 1970s, Doc Brown bought some land next door to the store. He and Jim, who was 28 at the time, drew up plans for a 20,000-square-foot store. Brown said it was going to be his store, and he was anxious to get it built. 

While the contractor was supposed to be digging the footing for the new store, Brown and his wife and children went to visit family in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which they did about twice a year. He said while there, he always liked to visit Publix stores. “I just loved that company, just the whole concept.” He said the rumor was that store managers there could make around $100,000 a year at that time.

Brown recalled when they came back home, he drove by the job site and nothing had been done. “I didn’t sleep that night.”

He said he was sitting in the store parking lot the next day at 4 a.m., which was when his dad arrived. “Oh, I was mad. I said, ‘Where’s my store?’” He told his dad that he wasn’t staying in that little store, and he “had half a mind” to move his family to Florida and work for Publix.

“He said, ‘You really want this that bad?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’”

During construction, Brown went over there every evening and would clean up the job site. He helped smooth the concrete. “Those guys looked at me. I said, ‘I want it to be mine. It’s mine.’ And when they put up the beams, I asked the guy, ‘Can I have the wrench?’ I bolted those things down, tidied it all up. I wanted to make sure everything was perfect.”

The larger store was completed in 1980. Brown brought scanning and deli bakeries to the store. 

His father died in 1985. In 1986, he remodeled the store and put in a deli bakery. He noted that he had traveled to different parts of the country, looking at deli bakeries. They put in three different sizes of salads and installed a self-service counter. “I just couldn’t see our customers wanting to wait in line to get things, so I called it an Oklahoma deli.”

He said the concept was a hit. During the grand opening after the remodel, the store sold more than 1,000 loaves of French bread. He said when the bakery crew ended their shift, some of the grocery crew stayed over to work. 

“We just couldn’t bake it and sell it fast enough. It was just nuts. We had some good times. We worked hard.”

On the scanning side, he said he took the cash register and the scanner to the senior citizens center near the store during lunch one day. He had some of the seniors to try scanning some items.

“I told those people that you’re going to learn something today that your kids don’t even know about…and I had elderly people get up and scan this stuff and show them how it works. One woman said, ‘You’re going to get rid of all your cashiers and we’re going to have to scan our own groceries.’ Now, how far in the future was that? I said, ‘No, I’m not.’”

Brown said when his father was in the hospital to have surgery, he took that opportunity to buy a computer for the company. He said he had spent two years researching the best computer and software to buy for his needs. Once he got it up and running, he took over keeping the books in addition to running the store. 

“I knew nothing about it. I had to learn.”

Brown said he knew his father wouldn’t pay the $12,000 for the computer and software, so he sold his 1982 Corvette. He paid off the note on his car and took out another loan to buy the equipment and set up a separate company, JRB Unlimited. He charged Doc’s a service fee for rental of the system and a bookkeeping fee. 

Brown recalled that he later got challenged by the IRS during an audit. The agent questioned him about working for Doc’s Food Stores and charging the fee under JRB, asking him how he justified doing both. 

“I said, ‘Well, I work about 80 hours a week. Which 40 do you want me to put toward which company?’ He just shook his head.”

Later, in 1999, he moved the financials to FMS. Brown said he was spending so much time generating reports that he didn’t have time to read them.

“I got FMS and I got set up…that gave me more time to grow the business, work on the business.” 

In 1986, Brown also had opened a hardware store next door to the grocery store. He sold it around 1990. “That was an education…that taught me to stay with what you know.”

He also had a pharmacy for a time, which he opened with a partner. “That lasted about five years. That was not a good experience, but it was a good tax write-off.” He added that he learned, “I had to stay in my lane. Stay with what you know.”

Turning point

A turning point in Brown’s career came when he switched wholesalers to AWG in 1992. When he made the change, his late wife, Eva Jane, reminded him they still had money in their account at the previous wholesaler. Brown said he told her the opportunities they would have with AWG would be worth losing that money.

He said the tremendous help he received from AWG helped him to grow his company. In 1997, Brown bought a store in Glenpool, which helped him put a squeeze on his closest competitor.

Super H had moved close to Brown’s store, and the two were “just kicking each other’s brains out. I tell people, I wasn’t smart enough to know I was broke. I didn’t have no place to go. So I just kept opening the door and going to work.”

He said for three years, Super H tried to buy his store and he tried to buy theirs. When the Bixby Super H store became available in summer 1999, Brown bought it with some help from his friend Steve Davis, who is now his controller. One of the conditions was that Brown could buy from AWG instead of the wholesaler Super H had been using. When he got confirmation the sale would go through, Brown said called Leland Clark at AWG, who was over new business.

“I called Lee when it was 15 ‘til 5 on a Friday [June 25]…Leland answered the phone. And I knew it was going to be OK, because there isn’t a corporate guy in the world that answers his phone after 4:30. I told Leland the whole deal. He said I can’t officially tell you ‘yes’ today, but I can tell you it’s going to be ‘yes’…We opened that store Nov. 9, 1999.”

When they started their opening week in November, “We did $98,000, when less than $100,000 a week was what was being done in the two stores when both were open. We opened the doors at $118,000. And it didn’t take it away from Glenpool.”

When the Super H closed, business at Brown’s Glenpool store went up 10-12 percent.

Another important chapter in his life as an independent grocer was the purchase of Warehouse Market stores. In 2017, Brown said he and Davis were looking at stores to buy in an effort to grow the company. A representative of the family who had owned Warehouse Market contacted Brown to see if he was interested in buying the stores. 

Brown and Davis became partners in the deal, but Brown said if they couldn’t get to keep the Warehouse Market name, they would walk away. “I’m not going to rename them…they’ve been in business since 1938.”

Davis, Brown’s controller, negotiated the deal and they got to keep the name. The deal, which was a stock purchase, closed in December 2017. “It was kind of like the deal of a lifetime. When I bought them, I had just turned 67.”

Brown said he met a man on an AWG cruise who asked him if he was “the crazy man who bought 10 stores and two warehouses?” The man, who was 63, owned two stores in inner city Kansas City, and was ready to get out of the business. Brown said he asked the man, ‘Is it fair to say that you don’t love what you do?” 

“He said you’re 100 percent correct. I said, ‘Well, I love what I do,’” adding that there was no way he was walking away from that deal. “You wait all your life for a deal like this – 10 stores, two warehouses, 17 tractor-trailers, 650 employees. I mean, how do you walk away from that?”

He went into the deal knowing that he wouldn’t keep all the stores. “If I’d been 57 years old, I’d still have all 10 of those stores.” Brown and Davis sold six of the stores. “I kept the four runts of the litter.”

Brown then remodeled his store on Third and Lewis streets, north of Tulsa University, in an area that was starting to develop. Davis had cautioned him not to “make it too fancy.” 

“It just went boom.” Davis told him by putting in new equipment in the back, installing LED lighting and other energy-efficient upgrades, the reduction in the energy costs paid the note on the remodel.

Never take customers for granted

Brown said his philosophy is “go spend money to make money.” He loves his employees and his customers, “and I love giving them nice things. I love spoiling them, even to a fault.”

He noted they had just finished remodeling the Newkirk store for the third or fourth time since he had bought it. “It just keeps growing, and I keep plowing money back into it.”

Jim Brown said the people in the small towns where his stores are located appreciate having a nice place to shop. “They know they’re blessed. They don’t take it for granted.”

He shared that after purchasing a store in Watonga, he didn’t do a full remodel but cleaned the floors, fixed the lights, reset the shelves and put in some new merchandise. But he did fix the parking lot, which had grass growing up between the cracks. 

Afterward, a lady came up to his meat market manager and thanked him for the new parking lot. The mother of one of the employees came in and thought they had remodeled the store, “when all we did was made all the lights burn and cleaned the floor. She thought we were done. I said, ‘Tell her we ain’t done yet.’”

Brown shared that there have been several experiences that really changed him, including a lesson he learned after opening a new 20,000-square-foot store. It wasn’t set right, so he decided he was going to move things around. “I moved major sections from one side of the store to the other.” 

He said a lady came in and commented on everything being moved. “She said, ‘If I’ve got to learn a new store, I might as well go across the street and learn that new one…I haven’t got time to learn this store right now.’” She gave him her list and he walked with her to get her groceries, so she could learn the new layout.

“What I learned from her is you don’t move the furniture in the house without getting some new furniture. If you’re going to reset your store, if you’re really going to be disruptive in their life, give them some new check stands, give them some new frozen food, do something nice to offset what you’re doing so it’s not perceived as a negative.”

He also learned to have a map of the store in the shopping cart after making changes.

Brown recalled closing the Glenpool store for 30 days after he bought it, because “it was in terrible shape.” After working on the interior, the store reopened. A lady approached him, asking if he was the owner. “She started crying. She said, ‘I just want to thank you for bringing diapers to Glenpool that I can afford.’

She was having to go to a convenience store to buy diapers because they were cheaper than they were under the grocery store’s previous ownership. “It just sent chills down me. You know, a lady cries over diapers that she can afford? I mean, that’s how basic it was.”

Brown was the third owner of that store. He called a meeting of the employees and told them he appreciated that they stayed with him. He also told him they did not have a captive audience, that there were other options for their customers.

“I said, don’t ever take your customer for granted. Don’t ever think we have a captive audience. And I said, ‘I will succeed. Do you want to be a part of it?’”

To Brown, his company is “all about customer service.”

“Customer service has gotten to a point that it’s so easy to give customer service. A smile and a thank you, that’s customer service. You know when I was a kid growing up, a smile and a thank you, that was just automatic – that wasn’t customer service. You took [groceries] to the car, you put them exactly where they wanted it. You did everything just exactly where they wanted, when they wanted.”

Lessons from the pandemic

Although he has been in the grocery business for most of his life, Jim Brown said the COVID-19 pandemic was unlike anything the industry had experienced.

He was on a golf trip in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the outset. When he visited a local grocery store, he noticed there was no toilet paper on the shelves. “We really hadn’t experienced that quite yet.”

Talking to his son, Courtney, Brown asked about the daily sales numbers. “I said, I know what the inventory level is. I don’t know how you did it. He said, ‘Dad, it’s nuts. It’s absolutely crazy. Crazy.”

Courtney told him they were so busy, they couldn’t carry out groceries for their customers. “I said, just hang on the best you can.”

Brown noted that two things happened due to the pandemic. One was the reduction in the number of SKUs for some products. “The pandemic has pared that back, which we fought like crazy as retailers because, you know, Mrs. Jones wanted this, and Mrs. Smith wanted this, and you sold three a year but you still carried it. Because you’re going to take care of that customer. And so that helped us in brick and mortar.”

The other thing was the proliferation of online ordering. Brown said they had been offering the service in most of the Doc’s Foods stores, “and it just skyrocketed.” Just the previous quarter, Brown said his controller had told him he was losing money on online shopping. He replied that his competitors were doing it and he had to offer it, too. 

“He came back after the pandemic hit and said, ‘pretty good move, Jim.’”

The one thing that has been most difficult for everyone in the industry is the number of people lost in the workforce. “It’s so evident everywhere you go…it just sickens me, because sometimes we’ll have to close a deli-bakery at four o’clock in the afternoon because we don’t have anybody to run it…”

Jim Brown said he put in the company’s first self-checkouts this year when the new Okmulgee store opened and the old location closed. “I’m going to roll more of those out. I have to.”

He said one of his managers shared that he got a call on a Sunday that of the four cashiers scheduled to work, three of them had quit. He had to pull people from other departments just to check out groceries. “So we’re back to cross training, which we used to do all the time. There was no such thing as a specialized position. So we’re having to retrain our people across the board.”

Another thing to come out of the pandemic is the fact that “we don’t have to drive two hours for a two-hour meeting and drive back two hours.” Zoom and other technologies allow people to talk business remotely. Brown said he was doing video conferencing in 2009, by using WebEx. Every Thursday, he met with his managers. With two stores three hours away in western Oklahoma, it was not practical for them to drive in.

“I was doing Zoom meetings back in ’09…I tell people, I’m lazy. I’ve got to figure out a better way. I got to figure out an easy way to do things.”

Brown noted that the COVID pandemic “taught us a whole new way of doing things and valuing our time, actually, maybe becoming a little more productive.”

While noting there’s no substitute for “eyeball-to-eyeball meetings,” they aren’t always necessary.

Another life-changing occurrence during that time was the death of his first wife, who had leukemia and died of double pneumonia in 2019. Brown said he met his current wife, Susan, in February 2020. They married a year later.

“COVID taught me I didn’t have to go to the office every day. It gave me a transition break, so I could allow the company to start learning to do without me on an everyday, day-in basis.”

He said the pandemic brought on a time of change and transition. “What I’ve learned over the years is, it’s not always true the strongest survive, but I think sometimes it’s more the perseverance. Not so much strength as it is perseverance and adaptability. And I think that’s what we’re seeing in our industry.”

Brown shared the one time he closed a store, located in Oilton. He was losing money, but it was also a distraction for his employees.

“Sometimes, that negative overwhelms, and you can’t get back to doing what you should be doing and growing the business where you need to. We closed it, focused back on the good stuff. And the good stuff got better. It’s hard cutting your losses. I hated closing that store.”

He said the lessons he learned there stayed with him: he shouldn’t have changed the name and the customers didn’t like the changes he made. “They didn’t like it when I prettied it up.”

Future of the company

As Brown continues to pull back from leading the company, he said his goal is to see his son succeed. One of his regrets is that his father did not live long enough to see his success in the industry.

“I was 35 years old when he died. He had to apologize to me on his deathbed, because he knew Super H was coming…He said, ‘Son, I am not going to be here to help you.’ And he wasn’t.”

The company now has 12 stores, down from a high of 19 locations. 

“I want Courtney to go wherever he wants to take it.”

About the author

Treva Bennett

Senior Content Creator

After 32 years in the newspaper industry, she is enjoying her new career exploring the world of groceries at The Shelby Report.

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