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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: A world of winners

    IGA's 2007 International Retailers of the Year show that great independent supermarket operators can be found all over the globe.

    Focused, forward-thinking and competitive, they are a diverse group of outstanding corporate citizens, operating family-owned supermarkets around the globe. Typical of great leaders, they give credit to others for their own achievements, and are committed to enhancing the lives of their associates as well as their customers. They are, for IGA, the epitome of Hometown Proud.

    These independent retailers were honored as 2007 International Retailers of The Year, at the IGA Global Executive Conference in Miami. They are Australia's Ian Ashcroft; Gary and Terrie Baker and Dave Kaltenbach, all from Ohio; Kentucky's Gwendolyn Christon; Roderick Rynke, from Illinois; James Nilsson Jr., of Connecticut; and Woody Foster, hailing from the British West Indies.

    As we examine retailing trends from around the globe in this edition of Progressive Grocer, let's take a look at how two of these award-winning IGA operators -- one from Down Under and the other from the lush tropics of the Cayman Islands -- are like their counterparts in the United States in that every day they're competing to win.

    Ian Ashcroft Ashcroft's Supa IGA Plus Liquor Orange, New South Wales, Australia

    As a Melbourne-based Safeway executive at the young age of 28, Ian Ashcroft was presented with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to operate his own store, but it wasn't exactly a plum. While he fully understood that rebuilding a deteriorating supermarket, one that was generating weekly sales of just AUS $60,000, would be no easy task, he was nonetheless intrigued by the growing rural community in which the store was located, Orange, New South Wales.

    While his initial plan was to turn the store around in less than five years, it took twice that much time to reach his goal, admits Ashcroft.

    A major turning point occurred at the end of Ashcroft's fifth year in business, with the introduction of a "customer bonus club," a frequent shopper incentive program that was the first of its kind in the New South Wales market. The implementation had the welcome effect of increasing revenues immediately -- by more than 25 percent.

    Within just a couple of years of launching that program, the operation's growing top-line sales, coupled with careful monitoring of operating expenses, enabled Ashcroft to pay off his initial building lease. Thus, his business in the Land of Oz was on the rise.

    Today, as Ashcroft constantly reinvests in and improves his store, his business philosophy is, "We're so proud of our store, we guarantee it." That guarantee includes five promises to his customers: the fastest checkouts, freshest food, most ergonomically friendly "trolleys" (Australian for "grocery carts"), friendliest staff, and most convenient shopping environment in town.

    Those promises -- or, more precisely, the ways that his store consistently delivers on them -- have paid big dividends. The once-ailing 20,000-square-foot store, which became associated with IGA in 1998, now generates annual revenues in excess of AUS $20 million.

    "As a businessman, I have a simple code of ethics," says Ashcroft. "It's all about the customer and my staff. The offer we provide customers has to be as good as we are capable of providing. If you've done your job properly, they come back. If you haven't, they won't."

    Woody Foster Foster's Food Fair IGA Grand Cayman, British West Indies

    He was just 11 years old in 1980, when his family opened an IGA supermarket on the island of Grand Cayman. Like most second-generation grocers, Woody Foster's career officially began when he was a teenager, working in the store after school and during the weekends.

    Fascinated by the business from day one, he learned from his father, the late David Wade Foster, who was honored in 2001 as an IGA International Retailer of the Year.

    Today, with the help of his family, Foster has grown the family's original store into a business with five successful supermarkets.

    The Fosters have encountered a number of challenges along the way, especially Hurricane Ivan, which struck Grand Cayman Island in the fall of 2004, devastating both Foster's community and his business.

    "Ivan was absolutely our most trying time," recalls Foster. "We had to try to rebuild three stores at the same time the island was trying to rebuild itself."

    Even though he'd lost three of his stores to wind and water damage, Foster demonstrated his commitment to the local community by giving away more than $100,000 in food and water to local citizens. This stood in stark contrast to the actions of a competitor, which, despite having a store up and running, increased prices. Additionally, Foster's Food Fair IGA stores funded temporary schoolrooms for local students at a cost of KY $120,000.

    Not only has Foster invested in his community over the years, but he's invested in his 450 employees as well.

    Included in the company's training curriculum are modules devoted to customer service, food safety, and supervisory/management. In addition, on-the-job mentors assist all new associates, and a tuition reimbursement program supports those employees who decide to further their education.

    Also appreciated by associates is the company's profit-sharing program, through which every member of the company receives a share of operating profits twice a year.

    "Without a good base of staff and a good management team, you have nothing," explains Foster. "My dad didn't have a food or grocery background, but he hired the people he needed to be successful.

    "I don't have to be the smartest at what I do; I just have to surround myself with smart people to make sure we achieve success," concludes Foster.

    Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].

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