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When the board of directors of Seattle-based Associated Grocers needed a new president and c.e.o., it headed south, straight down to beautiful San Juan Capistrano, Calif., home of one our industry's most dynamic leaders, John Runyan.
Now Runyan's got a new home. A veteran food industry executive who devoted over three decades of his career to the Fleming Cos. prior to retiring and launching his own consulting firm, Runyan officially took over the helm at AG Seattle last month.
Like so many in the supermarket business who respect Runyan and enjoy his friendship, I was eager to congratulate him on his new venture. Not surprisingly, when we caught up during his first week on the job at AG, I found his passion for retailers to be stronger than ever, and his commitment to growing family-owned supermarkets in the Pacific Northwest unchanged.
Runyan began his food industry career at age 12, when he was hired as a bottle boy and bagger at a local supermarket. While attending college, he worked for an IGA retailer who owned several stores, and eventually joined the company's management team. In pursuing a grocery career, he was inspired by his father, the late Jack Runyan, who, according to the younger Runyan, "retired from the business three times" prior to his passing at the age of 91.
"My passion for this business definitely comes from my family," reflects Runyan. "My father was in the food business all his life. In fact, when he got started as a meat guy, he worked for Ned Fleming's father, O.A. Fleming in Topeka, Kan. Back then the company was called Fleming-Wilson Mercantile Co. There was no staff office -- everything was in one building and under one roof.
"When I was a little kid, we'd always head to the office after Sunday mass, and I'd sit beside my dad and listen to him dictate notes and memos into those blue recorder phones. Then I'd follow him into the warehouse. He walked the entire warehouse every Sunday. He taught me at a young and impressionable age what it means to be committed to your work."
After earning his college degree in 1963, Runyan joined Fleming and was appointed to progressively higher positions, including buyer/merchandiser, military/ export manager, sales manager, California division president, corporate v.p. of Fleming's western region, s.v.p. of operations, and group president for price-impact stores.
He retired from Fleming in January 2001, and then established JSR&R Co., a California-based consulting firm serving wholesale and retail clients both in the United States and abroad. Concurrently Runyan was retained by Chicago-based IGA, Inc. to serve for 18 months as senior adviser to its chairman and c.e.o., Dr. Tom Haggai.
While his father remains the most influential person in his life, other inspirations include former Fleming executives Dean Werries and Jerry Austin, along with IGA's Haggai. "I can't tell you how blessed I feel to have worked alongside some of the finest people in this industry," he notes. "They were wonderful mentors."
Among the lessons learned: "I can remember a few times when Dean Werries, former president and c.e.o. of Fleming, saved me from being too aggressive. He probably wished he had a choker chain around my neck when I was a young, cocky, 'work day and night' kind of guy." Runyan continues to 'repay' his mentors by encouraging others to consider the food business as a career.
"We have to do whatever we can for younger people, to show them what an honest and reliable industry this is," he notes. "I hope every single day that I'm able to help a young person value and respect this business as much as I do."
Into the future
Another person for whom Runyan is extremely thankful is his wife of 15 years, Linda. "My gosh, Linda will be sainted one of these days," he says. "She is very supportive and understanding of my passion for the food industry, and she's excited about our new venture in Seattle. Without a doubt, she's the best thing that ever happened to me -- and all I can say about getting her to marry me is that I must be one heck of a salesman!"
Runyan apparently had to initially sell himself on the idea of leading Associated Grocers into the future. "First, let me say that when I first was contacted by the AG board and was told that I was one of multiple candidates the board was considering for the position, I wasn't sure I was interested," he explains. "I was very pleased and happy working [as a consultant] with my many wholesale and retail clients. But after meeting with chairman Ron Brake and the AG board, and reflecting on the many years that I enjoyed working with retailers in the Northwest, I informed Ron that I was interested in the position."
When asked why he believes the AG board ultimately chose him to serve as president and c.e.o., Runyan responds in characteristic fashion. "You'd have to ask Ron Brake and his board why they chose me, because during the interview process I told them that they'd better be careful about what they wished for, because they just might get it. There was no pretending: I was John Runyan, and I spoke exactly what I felt."
He continues: "Anyone who knows me understands that I don't have much gray in between black and white. Just because I say something doesn't mean that it's right, but it's the way that I feel. Have I made mistakes in the past? You bet -- and I'll continue to do so. But I don't sit and dwell on it; I move on."
My talk with Runyan calls to mind words often spoken by his friend John Olszeski, my father and mentor: "You can't drive into the future looking into the rearview mirror."
"Perfectly stated," says Runyan. "I can't tell you how excited I feel to be part of this great organization. Keep in mind that right now I've only been here a few days, and I can hardly find my way to the bathroom! Be sure to give us a call down the road, and this team will be happy to share with you the results of one fantastic year." We'll do just that.
Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].