Back in the day when mom-and-pop stores were named after their owners, 12-year-old Jack Brown landed his first job in the grocery business.

It was the 1950s, and Mr. Berk of Berk’s Market Spot in San Bernardino had taken a liking to Brown. The preteen wanted a job to help his mom, a widow who worked six days a week selling wedding dresses in town.

Berk told him he could be a box boy.

“I was so thrilled to go tell my mom I had a job,” Brown recalls.

Sixty-six years later, Brown’s supermarket career remains rooted in the same place he started. Five miles from Berk’s market is the headquarters of Stater Bros., where, from 1981 until this month, Brown served as chief executive.

At age 77, Brown said it was time for him to step down. Industry veteran Pete Van Helden, acting as chief operating officer since 2013, became CEO on Jan. 4.

But don’t say Brown is retiring.

Helden is in charge of day-to-day operations, but he still reports to Brown, who’ll be watching closely from his home in Redlands.

“I want to see how they’ll do on their own,” said Brown, who remains chairman of the company’s board of directors.

Brown hand-selected Van Helden, who previously worked for Supervalu, because of his long pedigree in the industry. He also liked that Van Helden had started at the bottom – just like him.

For Brown, there’s no better way to learn the business than by bagging someone’s groceries.

“You learn the business from the foundation up,” he said. “You learn about taking care of customers. You learn about taking care of each other.”

With a career that’s spanned seven decades, Brown has seen grocery strikes, lockouts, mergers and acquisitions. Yet through it all, Stater Bros. has stayed above the fray. Under his leadership, the company has grown to 18,000 employees from 3,300. Annual sales have grown to $4.3 billion at 169 stores from $475 million at 79 stores.

In his final year as CEO, he’s seen Fresh & Easy and Haggen supermarkets fail and two giants merge: Vons and Albertsons. Though fragmented, rivals have continued to flood the intensely competitive Southern California market, from big-box discounters like Target to ethnic markets such as Northgate. And extreme discounters are on the way, with Grocery Outlet and Aldi gearing up expansion this year.

In an interview, Brown talked to the Register about his career and the changing grocery industry.

Q. You started working at a young age. Why?

A. My father died when I was 8. We had no support. I knew I had to help my mom. I watched her work six days a week from 8 to 6 selling dresses. If you were going to get married in the ’50s and ’60s, Mom was going to be the one who sold you the dress. She loved planning weddings for young girls. Mom helped them stretch their budget so they looked like Cinderella.

My work ethic came from watching Mom. She was truly a role model for working women.

Q. What did you learn from the first job as a box boy?

A. One of the first things I was assigned to do was wash the sidewalk. You cleaned it off because your customers were coming. First impression. You got ready for the customers. And that’s something that stayed with me my entire life.

When I get out of my car, I look around at my store for anything adrift. I want to know what our customers see as they come to our store.

Q. You say stores should have vitality. What do you mean by that?

A. A store to me is almost a living, breathing person. When you walk in a store, no matter what it is, a music store, a dress store, you feel if you want to be there or not. Same thing is true in Stater Bros. I want you to know all of our people are well groomed, clean-cut, they wear their uniforms, and they are there to serve you.

Q. What is your philosophy on promotions?

A. I want people to know there’s always a promotion down the road if they work very hard and take care of our customers. I call it “blue sky.” I want there to always be a blue sky. We get people hired as janitors (who) end up being truck drivers or in our distribution center. I always want people to have hope.

Folks, in life, need food, shelter and love. But I think people need hope. You have to hope there’s something better coming, and that’s what my mother taught me, and that’s what I’ve tried to do for 65 years, since I bagged my first groceries.

Q. What is your greatest accomplishments at Stater Bros.?

A. We’ve never had a layoff in 36 years.

Q. You say Fresh & Easy and Haggen never found their niche. What is the Stater Bros. niche? 

A. Our customers are hardworking. Patriotic and generous people. We generally collect more for charities per store than any other chain in California. (Roughly $15 million a year.)

Q. How has Stater Bros. changed with the times?

A. We’ve gone from 22,000-square-foot stores to 46,000 square feet. We have the largest produce department of any chain. We have more than 800 items in produce. Most chains have 450. We’ve added hot bakeries and hot deli. We change deli food twice a day, because what you want for lunch might not be what you have for dinner. We have a full-service butcher. We’ve added 1,000 organic items, compared to 100 over the last five years.

Q. Is the key to success being a one-stop shop? Is that what people want?

A. We think the idea is to build a store that serves the neighborhood. People want to find a supermarket they like, and where they get a fair price and quality merchandise and good service.

Q. With so many new rivals on the scene, who is your biggest?

A. Anyone who sells what I sell is my competitor. But that’s OK. Because I didn’t invite them. We will not let our customers be taken from us without a hell of a battle.

Q. Do you think it will be a big battle?

A. No. There will always be a competitive industry. The only thing I’ve known all my life is competition.

Q. During the 2003-04 grocery strike and lockout, you made the risky – some say brilliant – decision to keep stores open and accept whatever agreement the union made with the three major chains. Why did you do that?

A. It was doing the right thing for right reasons. The right thing was to continue to serve our customers and to keep our people employed.

Q. The strike took its toll on everyone, leaving the door open for independents and big-box competitors to join the grocery scene. Is this the most competitive you’ve ever seen?

A. Yes. All the competitive brands are huge companies. Kroger owns Ralphs. Albertsons, Vons, Safeway (are merged). Aldi is huge. Everybody owns somebody else except Stater Bros. All we have is each other and our customers. We don’t have a rich uncle. We’re the home team. (Note: In 1997, La Cadena Investments, headed by Brown, became the sole stockholder of Stater Bros.)

Q. In 1992, you won the prestigious Horatio Alger Award. Fellow recipient Maya Angelou gave you some good advice. What was it?

A. When we go, some people won’t know who we were and some people won’t know what we did. But everyone will remember how we treated them.

Q. And is that how you want to be remembered? You’ve treated people well?

A. If there’s an epitaph: He really cared, and he really tried.

Source: OC Register