Taking Stock

Print Friendly

Jim Donald Prepared For Challenges As New Albertsons Chief Executive

Six months ago, I jokingly asked Jim Donald if he was crazy for accepting the job as Albertsons’ president and chief operating officer. The job was an important one and Donald, who’s held many high-profile jobs in his nearly 50-year industry career, wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. But he hadn’t had a full-time job since 2015, when he retired as CEO of Extended Stay America, having taken that once bankrupt lodging chain into profitability and publicly-traded status.

He certainly didn’t need the money or any more prestige and seemed very content to stay active on his terms – serving on boards and giving speeches that emphasized his “everyman” philosophy of business and life.

Then his lifelong friend Bob Miller called. Miller, who helped guide Donald’s career at Albertsons for many years (he joined the company as a night receiver in his native Florida in 1976 after beginning as a part-timer at Publix in 1968), asked Jim to return to the Boise, ID-based supermarket chain, as the company readied to consummate its merger with Rite Aid.

I had dinner with Jim in New Orleans in June and he said that the primary reason he jumped back in the saddle was to help Miller guide Albertsons through the merger process.

You know part of the rest of the story. Unhappy Rite Aid shareholders killed the deal forcing both sides to call off the merger and leaving Albertsons as still a standalone company with nearly $60 billion in annual sales, almost 280,000 associates, more than 2,300 supermarkets and an owner, Cerberus Capital Management, eager to divest its equity in a company that it’s controlled since 2006.

Miller, 74, has arguably had the most notable supermarket career of any industry executive over the past 50 years. He loves the grocery business and the people who currently work with him or who have previously worked for him greatly admire his character, loyalty and talent. If the Rite Aid merger had succeeded, Miller would have become chairman and another member of his “family tree,” Rite Aid CEO John Standley would have been led the combined $83 billion entity.

Now, Miller has become chairman of Albertsons and Donald will helm the company and serve as its day-to-day chief.

I talked to Donald a couple of times in mid-September and told him my thoughts about doing this piece. Just as it was 25 years ago when he became president of Safeway’s eastern division, the pushback was immediate. “Go away, you’ve written enough already. Find somebody else to write about,” he bellowed.

I reminded him that I’ve heard his act before and that I could be as stubborn and caustic as he was. After a few more minutes of sparring, he said “what do you wanna know?”

I asked him about his perceptions about Albertsons since he returned in March and his future aspirations and goals.

“It’s not about me,” he instructed. “It’s about the team we have here and the talent that’s been assembled. That’s what excites me.”

The 64-year old, whose notable other stops have been at Walmart (where he helped develop the SuperCenter format under the tutelage of Sam Walton) and as Starbucks CEO, touted his team as the “most merchant-oriented” in the industry. He planned to emphasize the legacy of Albertsons 21 banners (many are over 100 years old) and capitalize on the chain’s share of market leadership in over 66 percent of its marketing areas.

Other areas where Donald believes he can lead Albertsons forward are in further development of its own brands (“we want to be the industry’s undisputed leader”), leveraging the assets of its 24 distribution centers and 19 manufacturing plants and utilizing the benefits of its decentralized structure which allows those closest to Albertsons’ consumers to make the proper marketing and merchandising decisions.

Over the past two years, the big merchant has spent considerable time and capital building its e-commerce business. Donald noted that he believes Albertsons is now at a point where the company can effectively blend its brick and mortar physical stores with its diverse e-commerce offerings to create the right environment for its consumers.

He stressed that it is extremely important for Albertsons to “create an environment for our customers to shop when, where and how they want to and to continue to provide an opportunity and development for our associates at every level.”

I asked Jim to reflect on some of his business philosophies that have guided him along an exceptional career path.

Again, he credited many of his achievements to the people who work with him. “I really enjoy seeing the successes that people can attain with the right leadership. I take satisfaction from people embracing risk-taking when given the opportunity,” he proclaimed. “I’m a firm believer that the more that you give the better the returns will be, both with people and in business overall. When leaders go last, results always go up.”

His basketball skills might have waned a bit and his 18-hour days are not as frequent, but I’m still betting on Jim Donald.