business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

For one second, think of the most inconceivable headline you could read this morning here on It could involve, say, Walmart going out of business, Coke and Pepsi merging or high fat diets getting the blessing of the surgeon general as the best step toward good health.

What about this: Wegmans has been sold!

Relax. None of these things have happened. (And this is not one of Kevin Coupe’s April Fool’s stories that amuse so many and irritate a few.)

But imagine how shocked you would be if they did.

At the moment, many of us look at Wegmans as the embodiment of excellence in this industry. In so many ways, its standards of excellence go beyond a company of its size. It’s okay for a regional company like Wegmans to build a deserved reputation for in-store excellence, premium fresh foods and a clear focus on customer needs. It’s a little more shocking that the family-owned company is also known for supply chain excellence, technological creativity and, of course, a stunning track record in personnel issues.

Kevin had a great story about Wegmans on MNB yesterday, recounting how actor Alec Baldwin told David Letterman how his mom refuses to move away from snowy upstate New York. Sure her sons my be fabulously wealthy and living the good life in Southern California; Mrs. Baldwin will not dare move far from Wegmans.

Now that’s a legend! And it’s why we’d be so shocked to find the company was being sold. (Which, I repeat, it is NOT.)

My point is this. At the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) show last week I was accosted by multiple visitors from abroad who heard news almost as shocking to them; that Ukrop’s was sold.

Their disbelief was easy to understand. For many years Ukrop’s, the family owned company out of Richmond, VA, was the epitome of excellence. For many years, other retailers talked of Ukrop’s prowess in prepared foods in almost reverential tones, saying its level of performance was simply impossible for anyone else to approach. Ukrop’s was seen as a model of a family owned business, innovating, changing and staying seemingly one step ahead of far larger competitors.

In fact, years ago at one FMI conference Wall Street analyst lavished praise on the company even though it was one that Wall Street could not buy, sell or trade. Its reputation was that stellar.

So the international visitors were rightfully shocked. The story of Ukrop’s demise - it was bought out by Ahold earlier this year if you happened to miss all the stories on this website - is that stunning. The reasons for the turn of fate are varied, depending on whom you ask. Every possible cause has been given from the lack of a new generation of family leadership to a growing disconnect with Richmond shoppers annoyed with Ukrop’s principled tradition of closing on Sunday and refusing to sell wine and spirits.

For those abroad and at home, it should also be a cautionary tale about the fickle nature of excellence and a reminder that we all have to strive somehow to make tomorrow better than today no matter how lofty our performance. Pulling back and playing it safe is a strategy for an ending, not a future.

Sadly, the story comes from one of the nicest families in the supermarket industry and one of the best retail crews you will ever meet. And in many ways the story should be shared throughout our companies along side the tale of how A&P fell from holding a larger retail market share than Walmart to a regional player today.

We learn from the past or we repeat it…only with different players.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
KC's View:
Along these lines...

I was chatting with one CEO who is a longtime MNB reader while at FMI last week, and he said that if he had one criticism of the site, it is that sometimes I am “in love with love.” By that, he meant that sometimes I allow my feeling for a company - sometimes a respect for tradition and reputation, sometimes simply affection for a firm’s leadership - to cloud my judgement. Ukrop’s flaws, he said, could be seen years ago, but I’d been blind to them until almost the end.

On reflection, that seems like a fair criticism. Not sure how much I can do about it, except be more vigilant. But I thought it was worth mentioning, and Michael’s column gave me the opening.