Emile R. Breaux will take over Monday as president and CEO of Associated Grocers, the fourth man to hold the top job at the Baton Rouge-based business in the past 55 years.
Breaux is replacing J.H. “Jay” Campbell, who has been president and CEO for the past 20 years. But Campbell isn’t retiring; he will move over to the newly created position of executive chairman, helping to guide the long-term strategy for Associated Grocers. He’ll also serve on AG’s board of directors.
“The opportunity to transition to someone who I think is very capable of managing this business operation but also to remain in with the company in a very new, very different capacity was exciting to me,” said Campbell, 63. He’s been with AG since January 1972.
Breaux, 51, has been with AG since June 1994 and has held a variety of positions, including information services, procurement, marketing and sales. He was serving as vice president of retail operations in early 2014 when he was designated as Campbell’s successor.
“For the most part, the casual observer won’t see any visible differences in the way this company operates,” said Breaux, sitting back in his office earlier this month. “Mr. Campbell and I have the same train of thought. There’s really nothing broken here.”
By naming Breaux as the next president and CEO, AG set up a lengthy transition process. That enabled Breaux to become as familiar with the company’s warehouse and distribution operations as he was with the retail side.
There was a learning curve involved in bringing Breaux up to speed with a whole side of AG’s business.
“Jay Campbell made this look really easy,” Breaux said. “His ability to assimilate really mind-numbing details and make good business decisions is a talent I need to develop over the next several years.”
Associated Grocers has annual sales of more than $700 million and more than 650 employees. Among the stores it supplies are Robert Fresh Market and Breaux Mart in New Orleans and Calandro’s, Matherne’s and Hi Nabor in Baton Rouge.
The company offers a range of services for more than 200 independent grocery stores stretching from east Texas to south Mississippi and up through central Louisiana. AG supplies food and products to stores, including customized software for supermarkets. It sells everything from refrigeration equipment to shelves. The company does payroll and accounting for stores, providing marketing and advertising support with sophisticated business analytics.
“We have our tentacles in various aspects of the business,” Campbell said. “Every time we go into a store, we look at what you are doing right there and how can we assist you.”
Most of the services AG offers are ad hoc, meaning store owners can use as few or as many as they want to.
Since taking over as head of Associated Grocers in February 1995, Campbell said he has seen a number of changes in the grocery business.
“The marketplace has changed, the demographics have changed, the consumer has changed, the competitors have changed,” Campbell said. “So it requires constant zigging and zagging to really meet the needs of a changing consumer out there and, frankly, a changing competitor out there.”
Campbell said he’s proudest of two achievements during his tenure as president and CEO.
The first is helping to enhance the image of the independent grocery store.
While few people visiting Baton Rouge or New Orleans would say a chain restaurant was the best place to eat in the city, the reputation once had been that national grocers such as Albertsons and Winn-Dixie were better than local supermarkets in terms of their locations and the quality of food they offered, Campbell said.
“We have members who do pretty outstanding things,” he said. “We helped them change their self-image, that they were an alternative to the national chains.”
Part of that involved making sure that AG stores got the highest-quality produce, meat, deli and bakery items. The other involved getting them to compete with national chains on more than just price.
“I would put up our locations, facilities and retail execution against anybody,” Campbell said. In Baton Rouge, AG stores such as Alexander’s Highland Market and LeBlanc’s Frais Marche serve as anchors for new and redeveloped shopping centers.
The other achievement Campbell said he is proud of is getting grocers to shift from being buyers of products to sellers. “We’ve gotten them out of the back of the store where they negotiate price to the front of the store where they’re selling products to consumers,” he said. Part of that involved getting the stores to embrace AG as their procurement arm.
“It’s all about how to make the customer experience more exciting. Some of our competitors do a dadgum good job of making you feel really good when you walk into their stores,” he said. “Our stores have the ability to do that. We need to embrace that opportunity to make customer feel very special when they walk into the store.”
Breaux said he plans to focus on two of AG’s subsidiary companies, existing businesses they acquired over the past few years. One is Dart Refrigeration, which is a full-service business, supplying, installing and providing ongoing maintenance for refrigeration equipment. The other is Table Fresh, which distributes prepared foods such as entrees and side dishes to AG stores and delis.
“Really, this is where retail shopping is going,” Breaux said. “We went from a mom buying sugar, flour and eggs to make a cake to picking up box cake mixes to buying a cake that’s already made.”
But Breaux said his main job comes down to making sure AG remains in a position to attract and retain good employees in order to better take care of its customers.
“For me, job one is to make sure our employees are confident that AG will be here, remaining strong, while we focus on serving our retailers so they can be successful in the marketplace, as well,” he said.
Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.