Reggie Griffin likes to say he didn’t do too much but rather just surrounded himself with a very good team during his more than 40 years at Kroger. But suppliers and fellow retailers know better.
The Kroger Co. has received very high marks from the produce industry over the years as far as being an innovative retailer that has a great relationship with its suppliers and was not afraid to think outside the box.
Under Mr. Griffin’s watch, the company very successfully incorporated the 900-storeFred Meyer group into the Kroger family more than a decade ago, serving as a prime example of how mergers can work.
That experience, and how Mr. Griffin talks about it, might be the best example of his philosophy and style.
“I was very much involved in that but I didn’t do it alone,” he said. “We had a lot of good people working on that, including my boss at the time.”
Mr. Griffin continued, “You have to remember, we were a 1,300-store chain buying a 900-store chain of very good stores. As our CEO used to say, ‘we don’t buy fixer-uppers.’“
The longtime produce executive said that the Fred Meyer group included the upscale Fred Meyer namesake stores that operated mostly in Portland, OR, along with QFI, “which operated in some very upscale neighborhoods in Seattle, and Ralphs, which was considered a very good chain in Southern California. Those people knew what they weredoing and we weren’t just going to come in and tell them that starting Monday you are going to do it our way.”
At the same time, Mr. Griffin, who was the corporate director of procurement for produce and floral when the sale occurred, was proud of what Kroger could offer in those departments.
“We went slowly,” he recounted. “We had a very professional procurement team at Wesco and we told Ralphs and the other operations that we could help them out. We urged them to give us a try and start using us a bit. To their credit, they tried us and liked what they saw. Within about a year, they were buying everything through us.”
Mr. Griffin points to this ability to collaborate when he is pressed to discuss his strengths as a retailer. “I have been involved in running the produce side of retail for 40 years, but you will never see anywhere that I said I achieved anything by myself. Everywhere I went I had a very strong team.”
Mr. Griffin said that his humble demeanor was honed over years of working produce and making his fair share of mistakes.
“At one point in my career I’m sure I had some arrogance, but by the time I reached the corporate level, I had learned from my mistakes,” he said. “You try to squeeze people and you’ll end up waking up one day with no suppliers.”
He began his career at Kroger as a high school junior in 1969 at the tender of age of 16, with no thought that he would retire from the same company 42 years later.
“My long-range thinking as a kid was to earn enough money to afford to go out on a date on Friday night,” he joked.
But that first job, which involved bagging groceries about half the time, also introduced him to his produce career. “I spent about half the time in the produce department trimming lettuce and stocking produce.”
He kept that job in his hometown of Paris, TN, as he moved through high school and started college. In fact, his college career took him to several campuses and several Kroger jobs as he tried to juggle college with a career and an early marriage.
After having been promoted to an assistant produce manager, he entered the company’s management training program in 1975 with a son on the way and his first marriage underway. It was time to get serious and he did. Though, at the time, the young Mr. Griffin wasn’t sure he would spend his life in the produce industry with Kroger.
A couple of years later, however, he had gone through a divorce and finished his education, earning a degree in marketing at Memphis State University. He also had been promoted several times and was now a produce buyer, stationed in Memphis, TN.
“At that time I got my résumé together and started looking around for a job when I realized I had it pretty good right where I was,” he said.
Soon thereafter he was promoted to head produce buyer in the Dallas division of Kroger and spent most of the next two decades in Texas in several different positions. However, his initial stay in the Lone Star State was relatively brief.
“I was only in Dallas for nine months before they sent me out to California as assistant produce merchandiser for the Market Basket chain,” said Mr. Griffin.
Though not everyone was aware of it, Kroger owned Market Basket. The move to Market Basket proved fortuitous as Mr. Griffin met his wife Sandra who was working at Market Basket at the time.
“I married Sandra, who had three kids, in August of 1981,” Mr. Griffin said. “Add my son and we had four kids. We had a bit of a transition year that first year but after that we created quite a good life for ourselves. My wife didn’t work after that outside the home as she has spent the rest of our lives raising our children and getting us through life, for which she does not get enough credit. I like to say that the American farmer and the American housewife are the two most underappreciated careers we have in this country.”
Kroger soon sold Market Basket and the Griffins were headed back to Texas, in Houston this time, where Mr. Griffin once again served as an assistant produce merchandiser. After a while he was named district manager, where he handled eight stores from Laredo on the border to Corpus Christi.
The Kroger district manager had lots of responsibility, including profit and loss oversight. He said two of those stores were Kroger’s version of the Walmart Supercenter, before Walmart had launched that concept.
“Those were 98,000-square-foot stores that sold televisions and food and everything else,” he said. “I think we were a little ahead of our time.”
After serving in that capacity for a while, he came back to Houston as the head of that division’s produce and floral operations. He stayed in that position until he was promoted to the corporate offices in Cincinnati in 1999.
“In total, I was in Texas for about 20 years,” he said. “We enjoyed our time there. I like Texas, it has a lot to offer.”
In Cincinnati, Mr. Griffin served as the corporate director of procurement for two years before ascending to the top produce post as corporate vice president of floral and marketing. He held that position until he retired from the company at the end of 2011, with 42 years under his belt.
As previously mentioned, the longtime produce retailer isn’t keen about discussing his strengths or innovative ideas. He acknowledged, after questioning, that he was instrumental in moving Kroger into a ripe program with avocados.
“We first did it in Houston, where we had a lot of good competition that we watched,” he said. “Once we switched to a ready-to-eat program, it was unbelievable how fast avocados moved. We didn’t know what to do. We just couldn’t believe it. So when I moved to corporate, we did institute the program throughout the chain.”
Noting that some retailers still don’t have a ready-to-eat program for avocados, Mr. Griffin said that it is a mistake, as sales increase exponentially once ripe fruit is on the shelves.
However, he is not one to take shots at other retailers. In fact, he believes the state of produce retailing today is at a very high level.
“Produce is in a very good position right now,” said Mr. Griffin. “For years you made a lot of margin in produce, which allowed you to do some things in other departments. But now that produce is more prominent and the star of the store, pricing is a bit more competitive.”
He said that the prominent role has given the produce department the position of the “darling of the grocery store” and caused retail chains to feature the department as much as they can.
“Look at H.E.B or Wegman’s or Publix — they are all sparkle in fresh,” he said.
In addition, he said that non-traditional food retailers such as Target and Walgreen’s are adding fresh SKUs in an effort to capitalize on the trend.
Mr. Griffin said that old retail drivers such as location and price are still important, “but a lot of shoppers drive by a lot of grocery stores to shop at Whole Foods. Convenience is important, but it’s not everything.”
After taking a year off, which he promised his wife he would do (he played 175 rounds of golf), Mr. Griffin has launched Reggie Griffin Strategies, a company he describes as a boutique consulting firm. He is working with the supply side on concepts such as strategic direction and allocation of resources, helping firms to position themselves correctly. But again, he is modest in describing his attributes.
“I spent decades working for a pretty doggone good grocer,” said Mr. Griffin. “There are some brilliant executives at Kroger. In fact, Kroger has had 37 consecutive quarters of same-store growth. That tells you there are some really smart people there that I have learned from.”
He believes that he can specifically help the supply side reach “the ultimate customer.” He said “a lot of companies do a good job of serving the person with the purchase order, but often times there is a disconnect between the supplier and that ultimate customer — the consumer.”
Mr. Griffin believes that he can help bridge that gap and work with the supply side to show how they can best leverage the money they do have available to increase sales to that ultimate buyer — whether it be a supermarket shopper or a customer at a restaurant.