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I'll never forget the phone call I received on July 30, 1999 from John Lucot, one of Giant Eagle's top execs. My father, who was chairman of our four independently owned Giant Eagle supermarkets, had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and, needless to say, my family and our many associates were distraught.
Lucot called me that day to express his concern as a friend. At the same time, he offered to send one of his Giant Eagle regional managers to Hartville Foods to temporarily manage our company. He wanted my family to have as much time together as possible during those last few weeks.
So when Progressive Grocer selected Giant Eagle as its 2002 Retailer of TheYear, I must admit I was gratified. As a former Giant Eagle independent store owner, I have long been impressed with the company's leadership, its mission to become a world-class retailer, and its enduring personal touch.
Under the direction of chairman David Shapira and his astute team of senior executives, Giant Eagle has made a commitment to quality, service, and innovation throughout its organization and has as a result experienced extraordinary growth.
While nearly three years have passed since my family sold its Ohio supermarkets to corporate Giant Eagle, I am often asked about the Pittsburgh-based wholesaler. One thought repeatedly comes to mind: Giant Eagle is the most honorable company I have ever been associated with.
Also thankful to Giant Eagle are its current independent store owners who together operate 89 supermarkets. They've made it possible for the wholesaler to nearly double the size of its retail operation.
Two of those outstanding independents are Murrysville, Pa.'s Mike Ruane, and Ron Graff of Youngstown, Ohio, both of whom I visited last month.
Like most grocers, Ruane, 51, began working in the supermarket business as a teenager. After graduating from Pennsylvania's Edinboro University, he began working at Giant Eagle headquarters and eventually was promoted to regional manager. In this position, he worked closely with the company's independents.
"As a regional for Giant Eagle, I had a pretty good thing going," says Ruane. "But the lure of owning my own store was too great. In 1995, Giant Eagle offered me the Murrysville location that was being built from the ground up."
Ruane credits David Shapira's father, the late Saul Shapira, for initiating Giant Eagle's independent movement in the early 1980s. "Saul recognized the value of giving his employees the opportunity to be entrepreneurs," he says.
Add to his list another Shapira. "Many independents greatly respect the work of Danny Shapira, David's brother, who owns a successful law practice in Pittsburgh," says Ruane. "He's instrumental in the success of Giant Eagle's independents."
Though not Shapira family members, Ruane and his contemporaries are carriers of the Giant Eagle heritage. "People like myself, Ray Burgo, and John Lucot —we were 'street guys' in that we had the unique opportunity to work with Giant Eagle's founders," says Ruane. "They taught us this business from the bottom up.
"The original owners were extremely compassionate toward their employees and our families," Ruane continues. "Fortunately, that sentiment has under David's leadership been carried through to this next generation. Those strong family values? They rub off on your work force—if they're real."
He concludes, "While it's often difficult for outsiders to understand, there's a feeling of oneness here. We are Giant Eagle."
The Graffs of Ohio
Travel west to the Buckeye State and you will find that same sense of belonging at Ron Graff's Columbiana Foods. Graff is a 47-year veteran of the industry who began his career at 16 as a bagger at A&P.
In 1970, after spending nearly a decade with A&P, Graff was recruited by the S.M. Flickinger Company to serve as a regional manager at its Jamestown, N.Y. division. He and his family later moved to Ohio, where he directed the company's Super Duper operations and, in 1978, Graff opened his first supermarket, the Columbiana Super Duper.
By 1986, with his store growing and three of his children interested in the business, he was in search of additional locations. Located in nearby Calcutta, Ohio, was a former Kroger facility that caught his eye. When he inquired about the property, he discovered that Giant Eagle had already inked the deal.
Graff contacted Giant Eagle and proposed becoming one of its independent owners. He was awarded the Calcutta location. The Graff family sold its Super Duper operation in 1987 and now owns three successful Giant Eagles. In fact, they are today recognized as the market leader in the greater Youngstown area.
During my meeting with Graff and his second-generation leaders, including Bob Graff, Cheryl Saluga, and Ron Graff Jr., I discovered that an important family bond serves as the foundation on which their business was built.
"Anyone who works in a family business realizes the challenges," says Bob Graff, v.p. of operations. "But we've always been taught to respect each other's position within the company."
"That respect makes working together a lot easier," says Cheryl Saluga. "In managing the human resources for our company, I'm always seeking input from my dad and brothers as to how I can improve the department."
According to Ron Graff Sr., giving people the opportunity to learn is the right thing to do. "What I discovered early in my career is that if we don't make mistakes, we never learn," he says. "The entrepreneurial spirit says that we must continue to broaden our knowledge. As c.e.o., it's my job to give people the freedom to think and make decisions."
So who supports the company president? Meet Carol Graff, Ron's wife of 44 years. "Carol is the prayer warrior," says Ron Graff. "I guarantee that every single day she prays for the business, our employees, and our family. That's pretty powerful."
So's her influence on paychecks. "She's constantly checking with me to make sure I'm paying these kids enough," he laughs.
"Each one of us loves this business," says Ron Graff Jr., v.p. of perishables. "Our people and our customers make all the hard work worthwhile."
As I interviewed the family, a proud father sat quietly behind his desk and listened intently as his children discussed their respect for their family, their confidence in Giant Eagle, and their dreams for Columbiana Foods. What are his wishes for the future?
"My hope is that Bobby, Cheryl, and Ronnie will continue to have a vision for the business and that they will always support one another," he says. "They must communicate and work together as a team, never allowing anything, or anyone, to divide them. As long as family is the No. 1 priority, this business will continue to grow."
Independent owners like Ruane and Graff have, in building their own legacies, contributed greatly to Giant Eagle's reputation and extraordinary growth. As part of the Giant Eagle family, they too, have earned an impressive new title—Retailer of The Year.