Savvy grocer leads 2-city consolidation

Supermarkets: Metro Food Markets is expected to maintain its identity as Bill White combines its administrative functions with Shoppers Food Warehouse.

April 21, 2000|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

As the new head of the consolidated Metro Food Markets and Shoppers Food Warehouse grocery chains, Bill White will inherit nearly two dozen stores in a tough marketplace.

Supervalu Inc., the Minneapolis-based parent of Metro and Shoppers Food, announced this week that it will combine administrative functions of the two chains under the leadership of White, the president of Shoppers Food.

Shoppers Food is the third-largest grocery chain in the Washington, D.C., market with 37 stores, and Metro is the Baltimore area's second-largest grocery chain with 21 stores.

Both chains have aggressive expansion plans for the next three years that would add six stores between them this year and up to 10 next year.

"Size is not as important as quality," said White, 57, who joined Shoppers Food as president three years ago after 35 years in the industry.

The agenda for the consolidated operation, White said, is to "build sales, control expenses and satisfy customers."

And there are lots of potential customers. The Washington market has a population of 5 million with $130 million spent on food weekly, White said, while the Baltimore area has 2.5 million people and weekly food expenditures of $70 million.

Jeff Metzger, publisher of the Columbia-based trade journal Food World, said the Baltimore market may be smaller, but it's more competitive than Washington.

"In the last few years, it has been harder for Metro to maintain its point of difference," Metzger said. "Metro's model doesn't have to be blown up, just tweaked a little."

In the Baltimore market, Giant Food Inc. has lowered prices on thousands of items and Super Fresh has opened about a half-dozen stores, Metzger said. Safeway also has added stores.

White reiterates Supervalu's philosophy that after the consolidation of the chains' operations, Metro and Shoppers Food will maintain their identities and their banners. Metro, which has styled itself as a "theater of food," directly competes with Giant and Safeway, while Shoppers Food is a warehouse-style chain that aims to undersell Giant and Safeway by 15 percent to 20 percent.

"The name on the building is not as important as the merchandising in the store," White said from his understated office in the Shoppers Food headquarters in a Lanham office park.

"We're going to take a look at the best practices of Shoppers Food, Metro and Supervalu, and adopt them overall," he said.

White also has to oversee the shuttering of Metro's Catonsville headquarters in the next 60 days or so.

Of the 66 employees based there, 26 people who work in operations will remain with the consolidated company. Another 40 employees in administrative and support positions will be offered other jobs in the company. Those who choose not to work directly in the stores, or cannot relocate or commute will be offered a severance package, White said.

jv0 White is looking to sublet Shoppers Food's 80,000 square feet of office space in Prince George's County so the company can relocate its headquarters to a more central location between the two cities to make it easier for employees, he said.

"If you don't keep employees happy and if you don't satisfy the customer, you won't be successful," White said. His distinct Boston accent lingers decades after leaving his hometown to climb the corporate ladder in the food retailing industry.

After graduating from high school, White spent four years in the Navy at air stations in Maine, New Jersey and Virginia.

After his stint in the military, White returned to Boston to start his food retailing career at the New England Stop & Shop chain, where he had worked part time in high school bagging groceries.

College was never in White's plans. "I started working when I was 10 years old. I had the mentality that I would graduate high school and get a job to support my family," he said.

White married at 19 and had three of his five children by age 25.

Without a college degree, "I learned to apply myself," he said. "I figured out what I wanted at each career level and I found mentors to provide me with the opportunities to grow.

"But I made sure my children got college degrees," said White, now the divorced father of five grown children.

White worked at Stop & Shop for 11 years and rose from clerk to store manager.

He left the company for a middle management job at Giant Foods in Carlisle, Pa., which is not affiliated with Landover-based Giant Food Inc. He started with the company as a district manager and worked his way up to vice president of operations.

After 17 years, he left to become president of Piggly Wiggly in Georgia for five years, and then president of Mega Foods in Phoenix -- which entered Chapter 11 during his tenure and was eventually sold -- for two years before he joined Shoppers Food.

"I saw Shoppers Food as a quality organization that could improve with professional management," White said.

White describes his management style as "no-nonsense, yet personable."

"When there's a problem, there needs to be research, a timetable and a budget," he said. "I then give people the necessary authority and I hold them accountable."

Once a week, he makes time to visit stores, where he is on a first-name basis with all the store managers. He sometimes visits on the weekend when he's not golfing at a Severna Park country club or powerboating on the Chesapeake Bay.

Metzger, of Food World, said White's diverse background at larger and smaller companies makes him ideal for what's ahead.

"He understands what needs to be done," Metzger said. "I think he's going to do a very good job, but there will be a tough few months ahead of him during the transition."

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