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    Onstead Says He'll 'Hit the Ground Running' as CEO at Bi-Lo

    The industry vet told Progressive Grocer he expects next several months, under his stewardship, will determine the future course at Bi-Lo.

    Randall Onstead told Progressive Grocer yesterday that he "found things in good shape" when he took over as interim c.e.o. of Mauldin, S.C.-based Bi-Lo last week.

    "We're heading into a very important time of year in our business," the grocery veteran added in an interview yesterday, emphasizing that he plans to "hit the ground running" after the first of the year.

    Bi-Lo on Nov. 3 revealed that Brian Hotarek, its president and chief executive, would retire Dec. 31. The grocer's board of directors named Randall Onstead to replace Hotarek as interim ceo and chairman of the board.

    Onstead is the former chairman and ceo of Houston-based Randalls Food Markets Inc. with more than 27 years experience in the retail food industry. He has been a Bi-Lo board member since May 2008, and will continue as chairman after a replacement c.e.o. has been found.

    At present, however, the company is not searching for a permanent c.e.o. Bi-Lo will "locate a ceo" in the first half of 2009, Onstead said.

    Meanwhile, he sees several busy months ahead. "We will be doing things over the next few months that we believe will lay down the foundation for our future," the exec said, adding that time is of the essence since competition is strong in all Bi-Lo's markets, which he said is typical of the industry.

    Onstead said the grocery industry is roiling with change, but will weather the current economic storm.

    "I think the grocery industry is resilient," he said. "We have had a lot of changes recently. Customers have more opportunities to shop at multiple stores than in the past. Yet, the supermarket continues to be successful-but not without trying. We have to do everything that we can to keep prices low, quality high, and [to] differentiate ourselves from the myriad of competitors that exist today."

    Onstead said he believes competition makes a company better, but that the current climate is presenting operators with unique challenges above and beyond. "Weaker competitors tend to fall in tough economic times like we have today," he said. "We need to focus on our traffic count. You may have the same amount of customers, but your volume may drop as customers trade down, buying ingredients to cook from scratch rather than luxury foods."

    He thinks 2009 will be a time for all retailers to "work on their operations," with less capital spending. "Retailers will take a hard look at expenses, make sure operations are solid, hunker down to get through the year and look forward to brighter days ahead."

    Bi-Lo, a portfolio company of Lone Star U.S. Acquisitions, LLC, operates about 223 supermarkets in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.

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