Self-effacing executive pledges no major changes


September 21, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

A Praetorian Guard of stuffed bears line the floor of Peter Manos' office in the gleaming new Landover headquarters of Giant Food Inc.

The collection of a dozen or so costumed bears started with Humphrey Beargart, a birthday gift from Mr. Manos' employees. The next year, along came Lauren Bearcall and a tradition was born.

It's easy to see why stuffed bears seemed like the perfect gift for Mr. Manos, the veteran Giant executive who earlier this month was named president and designated as successor to the company's living-legend chief executive, 79-year-old Israel "Izzy" Cohen.

Mr. Manos is a big teddy bear of a man -- a rotund, white-haired 55-year-old who would rather crawl in a cave than sit for an interview about himself. But dealing with the press comes with the territory now, so he goes about it in a dutiful, wary -- but friendly -- way.

He can't outline a bold new vision for Giant. Mr. Cohen, who built the company into the dominant grocery chain in the Baltimore-Washington area, is still in charge of vision. And he could very well stay in charge until he's 89 -- no specific date has been set for the change in leadership.

"The only thing that I would like to do is continue the greatness of this company," Mr. Manos says.

The comment is typical of the interview. Mr. Manos is gun-shy in the wake of some mildly embarrassing stories about his appointment in the Washington press. He does the best he can to downplay the significance of his ordination as Mr. Cohen's successor. "Doesn't feel any different, still doing the same thing," he says. "My mother is very happy."

Indeed, Mr. Manos remains in his role as chief of Giant's food operations, overseeing the company's perishable-food operations, purchasing and private-label manufacturing. Officially, his duties have not changed. He's just shed the "senior vice" in front of "president."

The role of designated successor to a larger-than-life chief executive is a difficult one. The history of business is replete with stories of executives who have been tapped as CEO-in-waiting, only to be jettisoned when the incumbent feels threatened by the living reminder of his coming obsolescence.

With Izzy Cohen, who resisted naming a successor for years, as the leader, the challenge is obvious. When Mr. Manos' new role was announced at Giant's annual meeting Sept. 10, Mr. Cohen accompanied him to a meeting with reporters afterward. Mr. Cohen bantered with the press, gently poking fun at his heir apparent while Mr. Manos laughed at all the right times and never returned a volley -- like Ed McMahon to Mr. Cohen's Johnny Carson.

The succession, when it happens, will bring no dramatic changes, Mr. Manos says. "Izzy and I think alike on most of the decisions we make," he insists.

He quickly adds: "I'm no Izzy Cohen. I don't profess to be. I'm Pete Manos."

Giant has been at the forefront of Mr. Manos' life for most of his adulthood. He came to the company as a $60-a-week accounting clerk in 1960, when Giant was a company with $148 million in annual sales.

He quickly switched over to the grocery purchasing side, eventually joining the company's senior corporate ranks in 1981.

Dave Finkelstein, chief executive of the Kluge Finkelstein & Co. food brokerage company in Columbia, says the Pete Manos he knows is a "very bright, people-oriented" person.

Mr. Finkelstein has no doubt that Mr. Manos is an excellent choice. "He's a very fair, open-minded guy and his door is always open to anybody who wants to discuss what's good for Giant."

But some observers aren't convinced those qualities add up to CEO material.

Kenneth Gassman, an analyst with Davenport & Co. in Richmond, Va., followed Giant closely up until about a year ago when he decided Giant no longer fit his profile of a growth company.

"It's time to see some new blood, some new management come in," Mr. Gassman said. "I'm not sure Pete Manos is the man. Izzy has this global vision. I'm not sure Pete does."

Mr. Manos is well aware that Giant's earnings are not what they used to be. After posting some of the best profit increases in the industry during the 1980s, Giant has skidded to year-to-year earnings declines in five straight quarters. The stock trades for about half its price of the late 1980s.

Giant, he vows, will hold on to its market share, even at the cost of short-term profits.

Then, for just a minute, the self-effacing exterior falls away and the underlying resolve shows through: "There's going to be some fallout," he insists, "and it's not going to be Giant Food."

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