Following in the footsteps of well-respected, community-minded individuals is nothing new to J.H. “Jay” Campbell.
He did it when he assumed the title of president/CEO of Associated Grocers Inc. in 1995, and he’ll do it again Aug. 21 when he receives the Baton Rouge Epicurean Society’s eighth annual Grace “Mama” Marino Lifetime Achievement Award dinner at L’Auberge Casino & Hotel.
Campbell got the news in early February, when members of the BRES board invited him to lunch at Gino’s Restaurant.
“They kind of snuck up on me with this thing,” Campbell says with a chuckle. “It’s quite interesting to be honored along with people who have shaped the prepared food world. Having Mama’s name on the award … that’s what Associated Grocers is all about — family-owned businesses.”
When Campbell and his wife of 31 years, Libby, go out to eat, they don’t go to chain restaurants but to family-owned restaurants “where the owner is there.”
A native of Shreveport, Campbell has fond memories of going out to eat as a child.
“I was real young, and I’d go with my aunt to eat at Morrison’s (Cafeteria) after church on Sunday,” he recalls. “I’d load up the tray; my eyes were bigger than my tummy. Eating out was a luxury back then. There weren’t fast-food restaurants like we have today.”
The first one he remembers was Grif’s and its 10-cent hamburger. It was soon followed by McDonald’s. “But the best hamburger was at a cafe located near Centenary College called Strawn’s,” says Campbell. “It’s still there and, when we go to Shreveport, we always have to go to Strawn’s.”
After graduating from high school, Campbell headed to Baton Rouge and LSU. He got his undergraduate degree in accounting in 1973; in 1976, he graduated from the LSU law school.
Needing a part-time job, he interviewed with Associated Grocers’ then-CEO Sam Politz and got a job as a bookkeeper in the retail accounting department. No stranger to hard work, Campbell worked his way to the top of the department and ran it while in law school.
“We still have that department today but it’s a lot more sophisticated,” he says.
It was in this capacity that he got to see another side of Politz and some of the other leaders of Associated Grocers.
“When you keep someone’s (financial) books and do their taxes, you get to know them quite intimately,” says Campbell. “I saw a level of character, the extraordinary sacrifice made so they could be of service to, and make their retailers’ lives better … Men worked here for decades. They were very committed to serving others.”
Politz was followed by Hillar Moore Jr., who became president/CEO in 1976. It was during Moore’s tenure that Campbell became internal legal counsel for Associated Grocers and began his climb up the corporate ladder. In 1985, he became Moore’s assistant, then treasurer, then chief operating officer.
“He and I became very close,” says Campbell. “He was very committed to the cause and mission of the company.”
It was through Moore that Campbell became involved with Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center.
“Jay is a dedicated, longtime supporter of Mary Bird Perkins and the fight against cancer. He served as a member of the center’s volunteer board of directors, and his leadership contributions were many and far-reaching,” says Todd Stevens, president/CEO. “As chairman of the board in 2003-2005, he played a vital role in launching the Mary Bird Perkins-LSU Medical Physics Program. Jay envisioned the partnership would provide enhanced education, important biomedical research, a positive economic impact and, most importantly, improved treatment for cancer patients. He was right, and today the medical physics program is one of the top programs in the United States.”
Campbell has also served on the board of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank. “Working in the food industry, Jay has a unique perspective on the issue of providing food that has allowed him to provide the Food Bank with great counsel, guidance, support and access to his staff of true food experts,” says President/CEO Mike Manning.
Campbell also tries to better the lives of Louisianans on the political front, serving on the boards of Louisiana Association of Business & Industry, Public Affairs Research Council and Council for a Better Louisiana.
“Jay has been on our board about four or five years, but I’ve known him much longer than that. Besides having a very keen business mind, he also has a real understanding of how government works and you don’t always find that with business people,” says CABL Executive Director Barry Erwin. “Obviously, for a group like CABL that’s an important trait to have.”
It’s for his volunteer efforts with groups like these that Campbell was honored with the Food Marketing Institute’s Herbert Hoover Award for Humanitarian Service a few months ago. Locally, his volunteer efforts have earned him the 2007 Volunteer Activists Award, Baton Rouge Speech & Hearing Foundation; 2005 Tribute to Excellence Award, Arthritis Association; 2004 Volunteer Executive of the Year, Volunteer Baton Rouge; and 2000 LSU E.J. Ourso College of Business Hall of Distinction.
Campbell attributes the support of his wife in his success both as a businessman and a community volunteer. The two met through a mutual friend at a dinner party.
“It was group of singles that got together once a month,” says Campbell. “A friend played matchmaker, but he had each of us dating someone else.”
The two quickly realized they had more in common with each other and began dating.
“The rest is history … a great history, by the way,” says Campbell. “On that first date we had the opportunity to learn more about each other and discovered we had a lot in common. We’re both Catholic, we were both raised by older parents who served in World War II, we’re both the second child with older sisters … it was quite amazing. The strongest connection was that we both shared the Catholic faith. It’s very important to us.”
“Jay’s faith is very visceral, very real,” says the Rev. Miles Walsh. “He’s not interested in doing anything for show but for his love for God. It’s what makes him so effective in both his business and personal relationships. He’s a giver, not a taker … a doer, not a bystander. His strong relationship with Libby gives him a lot of strength and confidence. She’s a large part of everything he does.”
Like most Louisiana families, food-centered events are an integral part of Campbell family life. All four of Campbell’s grandparents came from Lebanon and he claims to make a mean kibbeh. He’s also known for his mouth-watering buttermilk biscuits — a recipe he agreed to share.