SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — When Jack Brown joined Stater Bros. Markets in 1981, the chain had 79 supermarkets, 3,300 employees and about $475 million in annual sales.
When Jack Brown joined Stater Bros. Markets in 1981, the chain had 79 supermarkets, 3,300 employees and about $475 million in annual sales.
Under Brown’s leadership (he has served as the company’s president and chief executive officer for 32 years and its chairman for 27 years) Stater Bros. has grown dramatically. It now has 167 supermarkets, about 18,000 employees, and annual sales of about $4 billion.
Presiding over that kind of growth, in the face of ferocious competition and a depressed local economy (unemployment was running at 14.5% for almost five years, and is still at about 12.7%), would be impressive enough. But under Brown, Stater Bros. has been more than a business success. The company has become an integral part of the market it serves, sponsoring community events, supporting charities and providing good jobs with real career paths attached to them.
For these accomplishments, the editors of MMR are recognizing Jack Brown with the publication’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Brown got his first supermarket job 63 years ago, when he started bagging groceries at Berk’s Market Spot, a small grocery store in San Bernardino. Brown was 13 and had just lost his father, a San Bernardino County sheriff.
Brown graduated from San Bernardino High School and attended San Jose State University on a football scholarship, and then went on to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he majored in business administration. Next came service on active duty with the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet.
Shortly after returning to civilian life, Brown resumed his career with the supermarket industry, joining Sage’s Complete Markets, a San Bernardino-based chain. At age 28, he was named the chain’s vice president of sales and merchandising.
Brown then spent nine years in Indiana as corporate vice president for Marsh Supermarkets Inc., returned to southern California to serve as president and CEO of Pantry Food Markets in Pasadena, and then accepted the post of president and CEO of American Community Stores in Omaha, Neb. Then, in 1981, he returned to southern California again, this time to take the helm at Stater Bros.
"One’s hometown is something special," Brown says. "And it was a real privilege to return to my hometown to become the president and CEO of Stater Bros."
Brown says he came in as a hired gun; he wasn’t a relative of the Staters. But as a military veteran like the Stater brothers and a San Bernardino native he appreciated the company’s history. Cleo and Leo Stater started the company in 1936 when they bought the W.A. Davis Market on West Yucaipa Boulevard in Yucaipa, Calif., which is located about 10 miles east of San Bernardino. The brothers opened a second store, and by 1939 — having sold the original store back to W.A. Davis — they had four.
The founding Stater brothers put their grocery careers on hold when World War II broke out. Their parents ran the stores while the twin brothers enlisted in the armed forces to serve as fighter pilots during the war. They returned to the business when the conflict was over, and the company expanded to become a major retailer serving California’s Inland Empire, which covers more than 27,000 square miles in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, east of Los Angeles.
The brothers sold their company to Petrolane Inc. in July 1968, and it was Petrolane that hired Brown in 1981, seeking to address the company’s declining sales. Brown came in with a simple philosophy: “Work together and dedicate ourselves to a common goal, always do the right thing for the right reason and together we can make it happen.”
From the beginning, Brown has expected a lot of Stater Bros.’ employees. To this day the company’s store-level workers adhere to strict grooming standards, he says. People working in Stater Bros. stores have clean cut appearances and wear white shirts and ties, as does Brown and all management, and that same approach extends to the stores, which are clean and have fully stocked shelves.
Brown notes that the commitment to standards, and to customer service, is not a one-way street. First of all, Brown and Stater Bros.’s other top executives have done exactly what they are asking their employees to do.
"All our people know I started bagging groceries," he says. "That gives us something in common with our people, who know we know how to sweep the floors, and we know how the displays ought to be. That’s the kind of mutual respect we have for one another. Also, we’ve never had a major layoff in this company. Occasionally in this tough economy, someone leaves and we don’t replace them, but we’ve never had major layoffs, and our people know that if they work hard, we’re all in this together. And our customers sense that too."
Also important is the fact that Stater Bros. doesn’t just offer jobs to its dedicated employees. It also offers opportunities for advancement.
"One of the things that’s special in our company is that every job has a blue sky at the end," Brown says. "Meaning there’s a place to go, a promotion available, an opportunity available. Our people basically come in as courtesy clerks, bagging groceries. And when they’ve been with us for about a year they are selected to come to our checker school. We teach them how to use our equipment, how to accept charge cards, how to handle refunds, and how to handle other customer service issues."
Those employees go back to the stores to work their way up to becoming checkers, and many continue to rise through the ranks, become store managers, supervisors, district managers, regional vice presidents and beyond.
"Our customers know our people care," Brown says. "When I came to Stater, I told our management team that if we don’t care about our people, they won’t care about our customers. We have a special relationship with our customers. We’re going on four generations of people working here, and also of people shopping with us."
Stater Bros. is the largest employer in the Inland Empire, and also the leading grocery chain in the market. But that is not the extent of its involvement in the communities it serves. Stater Bros. also supports its communities through charitable contributions. The company donates about 3 million pounds of food to local food banks each year, for example, and its total contributions to area nonprofits amounts to about $15 million a year. The company sponsors the Stater Bros. Route 66 Rendezvous, billed as the largest supermarket-sponsored event in America. It draws more than 600,000 people, who come to San Bernardino to see about 2,000 classic cars. Stater Bros. is the title sponsor of the Believe Walk, which attracts more than 10,000 participants and raises money to fight cancer, and Stater Bros. Charities also sponsors the Dave Stockton Heroes Challenge charity golf tournament, which raised money for scholarships and to support the local veteran’s hospital. Such dedication to the markets it serves is part of what makes Stater Bros. special in the minds of its customers.
"Our customers appreciate that we don’t just do business in the community," Brown says. "We’re also part of the community. Wherever we have a store is Stater Country."