The folks at C&S Wholesale Grocers live by five words: quality in everything we do. That quality pervades every link in this innovative supply chain solutions provider that, in the words of Chairman and CEO Rick Cohen, “prides itself on being the least-cost provider with the highest level of customer service.” It’s that quality, innovation, attention to detail and laser focus on its customers that has helped Keene, N.H.-based C&S survive and thrive for nearly a century in business. It’s also what helped earn the company Progressive Grocer’s 2013 Wholesaler of the Year Award.
“C&S focuses on solving its customers’ problems,” says Cohen, third-generation leader of this family-run enterprise. “We have the infrastructure to support the needs of a wide variety of customers, from the largest and most sophisticated customers, to small independent customers. We focus on being synergistic and cost-effective, and aim to complement the existing infrastructure of ourcustomers. We concentrate on providing the best value for our customers, from our multiple product categories to our broad perspective on the marketplace, and we are always focused on our customers’ success.”
The company’s stated mission — “to consistently deliver the very best service and value to our customers” — is perhaps not unique among business enterprises. But its results and level of success certainly place C&S in the upper eschelon of today’s grocery industry operators.
All Customers Large and Small
While C&S primarily provides grocery wholesaling and distribution services to the retail grocery industry, the company also provides third-party logistics solutions to large food manufacturers, licenses certain trademarks for use in the retail grocery business and is developing advanced technologies. C&S also offers independent retailers a full range of best-in-class store management services to help them run their businesses efficiently and profitably. Committed to serving both large and small customers with the same energy and dedication to superior customer service and ever cognizant that independent customersare a highly important piece of its business, C&S maintains a leadership group dedicated solely to independent sales and service. “The needs of our independent customers differ from those of our larger customers,” says Richard Wyckoff, EVP of sales and marketing. “Consequently, C&S offers a variety of services that fit these various business needs.”
C&S’ size and scale allow it to provide business arrangements that meet the specific needs of independent grocers while leveraging its strengths to obtain the best value and service rates for those stores. This flexibility, coupled with superior customer service, is what C&S says strategically differentiates it in the wholesale marketplace. A fixture on the shelves of many of its independent customers is C&S’ Best Yet private label, a brand dating back to 1893 that extends across multiple product segments.
With a portfolio of about 1,500 products, the Best Yet brand program is available to more than 700 independent retailers nationally. C&S also owns the Piggly Wiggly brand displayed in more than 500 Piggly Wiggly-bannered independents in the Southeast, with a portfolio encompassing some 1,200 products. “We provide best-in-class product assortment to maximize consumer satisfaction, and take pride in our ownership and development of world-class brands,” declares Bob Palmer, EVP, chief procurement and systems officer.
Marketing support includes in-store signage, “Compare and Save” tags, “Consumer Cash Back” and “Double Your Money Back” guarantee programs, and “Community Cash Back,” a rewards program for local community nonprofit organizations.
“Given the size, sophistication and unique requirements of many of our customers, we strive to meet each customer’s particular needs and devise tailored solutions,” says Michael Newbold, chief administrative officer. As represented by companies such as A&P and Ahold, C&S provides a full assortment of services across many of their banners. As with Target, C&S provides a more limited assortment of services but within a widergeographic area, serving 700 stores nationally. The company’s services to Target led to C&S being awarded that company’s vendor partner of the year in 2009.
For certain independent retail partners, C&S provides additional services, including financial accounting and management of various retail banners. C&S also provides advice on retail category management, technology and support, and has a dedicated field team of account managers and specialists to provide in-store support, all to enhance retail store profitability.
C&S is continually exploring new ways to provide efficiencies at the warehouse level, “with initiatives ranging from training warehouse selectors to the utilization of new selection technologies,” says Scott Charlton, EVP of operations.
The company uses voice selection technology in several warehouses to improve selector efficiency, and sophisticated routing software to establish the most cost-effective distribution routes. Additionally, C&S provides “exceptional customer service for the greatest value in the marketplace,” Wyckoff says. “Not only do we pride ourselves as the best cost solution for customers, but C&S offers superior customer service coupled with over 100 years of industry experience.”
The company maintains an experienced and qualified workforce focused on the needs of the customer. In addition, regularly scheduled business meetings with customers allow C&S to better understand their business models and anticipate their needs. Last year, C&S introduced the My Store customer portal, which provides realtime updates on information valuable to independent operators. My Store streamlines interactions with C&S by providing a single location to access all information, including real-time delivery detail, statements, orders and credits.
C&S also leverages technology in transportation, fuel use and other key operational parameters, and allows its transportation team to evolve delivery systems in a manner that provides for the greatest efficiency. All C&S trailers carry GPS tracking devices to best optimize trailer use across its network. Further, C&S is constantly investing in its operational processes to enhance its level of service to current and future customers. The company is looking to expand within its current markets as well as contiguous areas, aiming to grow steadily along with its customers and expand to new categories.
With change being one of the industry’s few constants, including demographics and taste profi les, C&S keeps a close eye on the market to prepare timely and effective responses that include the most relevant and sought-after products. Independent retailers are under pressure as the grocery industry consolidates, so in response, independents have carved out niches in the marketplace and seek assistance from C&S on additional innovations.
Among such assistance offered by C&S: building websites and developing social media, providing the My Store platform to help manage supply chains more efficiently, and assisting with merchandising and category management to optimize each individual store format. With more channels getting into the food business, further ramping up competition, C&S aims to help retailers innovate so they can be the preferred destination for all of their consumers’ shopping needs. Demographic changes in the marketplace have significantly affected the grocery industry from a wholesaler’s perspective. “We’ve seen the aging population requesting more ‘mealready’ foods, the urban population requesting more grab-and-go foods, and have seen the emergence of new ethnic taste profi les and flavors, where retailers must provide unique and relevant products and packaging to meet these evolving tastes,” the C&S team observes. “C&S prides itself on being in touch with the ever-changing marketplace, and responding to these new needs of our retail partners.”
C&S works with manufacturing partners to respond to retailers’ requirements, aiming toget new items onto shelves quickly so retailers can maximize sales. Whether the demand is for specialty foods or natural products, whenever the taste profile shifts, C&S’ goal is to be the first to provide those products for its retail partners. With the emergence of different formats, including smaller stores, C&S aims to provide independents and large chains alike with customized services that meet specific business objectives.
The C&S management team believes that the company’s people are its greatest resource and a competitive advantage. By focusing on cross-training and motivating employees, the team truly believes success is achieved when “everyone is involved in everything.” Bruce Johnson, EVP of human resources, further explains: “C&S acknowledges that all of its success is a function of our team success, collaborative efforts with all of our employees, and our investments in each other.”
Beginning in 2001, Perry Cohen — Rick’s daughter — joined C&S and launched the corporate giving program as well as its innovative “Business Analyst” (BA) initiative designed to develop future leaders for C&S. “We hire 10 to 15 BAs every year, most of whom come directly out of very highly regarded schools, with a select few internal associates being promoted into the program,” explains Perry Cohen, VP of learning and development. BAs go through three six-month rotations in various departments across the organization. The goal is that, at the end of 18 months, the company has exposed its future leaders to a broader understanding of the organization from the ground up. In fact, C&S can claim that several of its BAs have risen through the ranks to director or VP.
Building on the BA program’s success, in 2007 C&S developed a sister program called OLID (“Operations Leader in Development”), a 12-month training program for warehouse operations, transportation and procurement.
C&S further encourages employee development through a week-long program designed to teach new managers how to build leadership skills and establish personal relationships with other company leaders. C&S’ own folks are driving new sustainability efforts in the areas of waste reduction and recycling, among them office paper, cardboard, plastic wrap and electronics. Energy efficiency measures in C&S warehouses include automatic light-dimming systems, dock doors with high R-value and U-factors, and long-lasting plastic pallets in place of wooden ones.
Clean, renewable hydropower provides more than 40 percent of the energy at the C&S distributions centers in the Buffalo, N.Y., area. Additionally, the company is studying the feasibility of buying green power for additional locations to reduce the environmental impact of its electricity use and evaluating the use of compressed natural gas to fuel portions of its vehicle fleet.
Culture of Philanthropy
C&S sponsors many volunteer programs and engages in extensive corporate giving campaigns and mini-grant programs. Each year, C&S donates thousands of tons of food to community pantries, food kitchens and relief organisations across the nation. C&S also helps fund hundreds of civic, charitable and community organizations, from wellknown groups like United Way to small, innovative programs with more heart than cash. Additionally, C&S employees volunteer their time and energy to a wide variety of community organizations.
“Any company can make a profit, but not every company can make a difference,” the C&S team asserts. “C&S is committed to doing both.”
C&S’ mission is to establish goals, collaborate with customers and associates, operate with the highest sense of urgency, and consistently exceed customers’ expectations. As the C&S management team enthusiastically declares: “We’re proud to work at a company that invests in strengthening families and the places we call home.”