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Gelson‘s CEO is a ‘produce guy’

By
Tim Linden

Rob McDougall is unique as he is one of the very few produce executives to achieve the top spot at a retail grocery chain. Considering produce often is the top profit contributor to a chain’s bottom line, it shouldn’t be a surprise that McDougall is the chief executive officer and president of Gelson’s Markets, a 27-store upscale grocery chain in Southern California.

Rob McDougallMcDougall began his career at Vons Grocery Company in Southern California as a 16-year-old bagger in the 1970s. He stayed with the chain for more than 20 years, crediting industry icon Dick Spezzano with being a “life mentor” who helped guide his career. McDougall took the typical path through the store’s hierarchical ranks as he worked at the various produce levels in-store before moving to the corporate produce office working as a supervisor, merchandiser and buyer. Along the way, he did fit in college work and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree attending both California State University at Fullerton and the University of Phoenix.

In 1998, Safeway bought Vons and some of Vons’ top executives moved across the country to Syracuse, NY, to run the Penn Traffic retail operation, a chain operating in the Northeast. McDougall went with them. “I only stayed there for one year,” he said. “As you can imagine, Syracuse is far different than Orange County.”

He next moved to D&W Food Centers in Michigan, which was an upper Midwest chain that was eventually bought by Spartan Stores in 2006. McDougall again climbed the produce ranks rising to senior vice president/chief operating officer at the time of the buyout. “I’m proud that we were able to take care of all our employees and secure them jobs with Spartan.”

Except for the top three positions, of which McDougall held one, but he remembers his time in Michigan and specifically Grand Rapids fondly. “My twin sons met their wives there,” he said. “I love that company and the area.”

Soon thereafter, Gelson’s called looking for someone to run its produce and floral department. McDougall liked the opportunity as it came with the implication that the CEO position could eventually be in play. Not only did it get him back home to his native Southern California, but he had always greatly admired the chain. When he was a produce manager at Vons, he believed Gelson’s was the gold standard. He loved their merchandising concept and how they built their displays.

At Gelson’s, McDougall did move up the corporate ladder once again until he was named president and CEO in 2012. The role is a great culmination of his career as the 63-year-old executive does anticipate retiring from this position several years down the road, and he loves that this last stop involves a retailer known for its top-quality perishables, including produce. He noted Gelson’s great reputation from its beginnings in the 1940s was based on its high-quality meat and produce and that continues to be the case.

McDougall admitted to having a special affinity for the produce department because of his roots. He said it probably drives the produce people a bit crazy because he has served in all those positions. “I know how to block a produce department,” he said, adding that his knowledge isn’t quite as deep in the other retail departments.

When he took the top spot, Gelson’s had 18 stores. McDougall quickly closed two stores that were underperforming and worked on increasing business in the other 16. “We opened our first new store in 20 years in 2013,” he said. “We now have 27.”

The retailer is always looking for opportunities to grow. “We understand our customer and marketplace,” he said. “Over the last five years we’ve gone into new areas and are doing quite well, including San Diego and the desert. Our stores are located from Santa Barbara to San Diego and I’d love to get up in the Bay Area, but it has to be the right location.”

Gelson’s built a large, state-of-the-art distribution center five years ago that McDougall said could easily handle another 27 stores. He roughly describes a Gelson’s neighborhood as one that has 100,000 people making a $100,000 per year within a three-mile radius. He noted that higher density can lower the income requirement, just as higher income can lower the density requirement. “We know our sweet spot. We are not trying to be all things for all people.”

The company has many long-term employees that have spent their entire careers with the chain and are expert at what they do, which above all is customer service. McDougall said the company thrives by having experts at each position. “Many retailers have their produce clerks check when there is a need. I don’t think that’s a good idea and we don’t allow it. I want the produce employees on the floor talking to customers.”

He noted that before COVID-19 it was the policy to allow any customer to sample a product if they would like to. Associates carried produce knives and would cut open any product on the spot. California’s COVID-19 regulations have suspended that practice for the time being.

Gelson’s has many unique features, including wine bars at 12 of its stores. Its foodservice options are also beyond compare. McDougall listed produce and foodservice as the two fresh departments that are most responsible for driving business by attracting customers to its many locations. He said they were the first retailer to offer the trendy Impossible Burger on their foodservice menu.

As he surveys the retail scene across the country, McDougall is proud of Gelson’s position, but he believes there is always room for improvement. “I love what Wegman’s does with its produce,” he said. “They don’t beat us on quality, but they do beat us on presentation. Of course, they have bigger stores which allows them to do some things we can’t.  They are also masters at building a local presence.”

As McDougall begins to plan for retirement, he knows the location. His twin sons live on the same block with their wives and families in Grand Rapids, and he and his wife, Leah, have bought a home on that street as well. “We might not live there in the winter, but we are going to spend a lot of time there. We have 12 grandkids, four of whom are adopted. I’m very proud of that.”

 

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