Taking Stock

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Chris Michael: A Stellar 41 Year Career Devoted To The Independent Retailer 

There was no retirement tour, no grand announcement of his stepping down, no fanfare about his many past accomplishments. That’s not surprising, because if you know Chris Michael, you know he wouldn’t have wanted any hoopla surrounding the recent announcement that after 41 years with Associated Wholesalers Inc. (AWI), he was leaving the company that became his life’s mission -a mission he carried out with passion, dedication and a burning desire to improve the status of his members and for that matter, all independent retailers.

Chris and I are the same age (63) and he was one of the first people I met when we formed Best-Met Publishing Co. in 1978. At that time, Chris served on AWI’s board as a second generation independent grocer whose family owned a supermarket in York, PA. One could tell almost immediately that Chris had the intellect, work ethic and leadership skills to take AWI to another level. By 1980, he was named president and CEO, replacing Harlan Helzer, who retired after many years of service. Chris Michael was only 29 years old when he was elected.

During his early tenure, he pushed AWI to merge with United Associated Grocers and, about a decade later under his guidance, the Central Pennsylvania cooperative wholesaler acquired another co-op, Affiliated Food Distributors, based in Scranton.

Always a risk taker, Chris saw an opportunity to broaden AWI’s reach in 2006. Acknowledging that the wholesale business was evolving and consolidating, he knew that to grow his company’s business he needed to find a different way to attract independent retailers. With the White Rose acquisition, AWI could offer independents a distribution alternative to the member-owned concept and at the same time expand the company’s footprint into the largest grocery market in the U.S.

On paper, the strategy seemed sound, although Chris told me at the time that blending different business models and cultures would be a challenge and that AWI would move cautiously to integrate the two businesses.

Objectively, that integration never worked out as planned. Perhaps the differences between the two wholesale firms – in customers bases, internal cultures and the sheer division of doing business on a daily basis in Robesonia, PA vs. Metro New York – was difficult to overcome.

So, as AWI attempts to restructure its business, it will do so without the man who was the linchpin in an earlier restructuring, bringing a somewhat sleepy group of Central PA wholesale grocers together to form the second largest grocery co-op in the Northeast.

Chris, we wish you and Linda all the best in retirement and in whatever future endeavors you might seek. Now’s the time to enjoy life and have fun. And also know that you made a difference.