“It was a huge risk. For me and for the company, ” Jeff Knight, Vice President of Sales-Northwest for Edge/CMC tells me, as we talk about his beginnings with Edge just over a year ago. This is the first thing he says to me, but he says it with a smile and a deep determination.
“We knew that there was an opportunity there in both Oregon and Washington as Edge did not yet have a team in the region. And when Edge decided to make the move to enter the market, they brought me on board,” Jeff says.
Jeff, and his team of one.
But let’s back up a moment. Jeff is a 30-year Safeway veteran, and for those not lucky enough to have met him by now, you can see he’s up for just about any challenge. Jeff began as a store Courtesy Clerk before he attended the University of Berkeley. He spent 15 years at the store level, working his way up to Produce Clerk, then Assistant Produce Manager, to Produce Manager. Jeff then spent another 15 years backstage as a Field Merchandiser, Manager of Division Operations for Northern California, Regional Director for Northern California, Seattle, Portland, and Dominick’s, and a Category Director before leaving Safeway on March 20, 2015. All in produce.
The merger brought new opportunities for Jeff to explore outside of Safeway, but he ultimately wanted to stay in produce. Jeff joined the Edge/CMC team in March of 2015, packing his bags and moving just outside of Seattle, Washington, to manage the company’s Northwest footprint. Alone. At least to start. And the new division has already grown the region’s vendor spread to 30 clients.
It wasn’t just the challenge that brought Jeff to Edge/CMC. The company has a high level of professionalism, passion, and dedication to the products they represent, and these were attributes that aligned with Jeff’s core values and vision. The easy part was choosing Edge as his next path, the hard part was executing the new role.
“I went up there as the sole representative to start, and soon hired two former Safeway Field Merchandisers, Tim Meyer and Nick Lambrecht, who brought 62 years of combined experience to the Pacific Northwest,” Jeff says. “They were definitely taking a gamble by entering into this unknown territory with me, but their focus and insights have only made Edge/CMC a better, stronger broker.”
A couple months later, as Jeff steadied his feet on the ground, he asked Phil Smith, also a previous field merchandiser with Safeway, to become his Independent Account Manager. While Phil was a bit out of his comfort zone in terms of the requirements of the new role, he also saw the same possibilities that Jeff did. In his position, Phil helps to manage and drive the client base forward while also working with five different distributors and vendor partners.
Now, with three full-timers, three part-timers, and 30 brands under Jeff’s belt, Edge/CMC has become one of the largest produce brokers in the Northwest; all in the span of one year.
“We may not have as many boots on the ground as some other large brokerage firms, but I can guarantee you that because my guys know how to work a store on a granular level from the moment they walk in, we are getting a lot more done,” Jeff tells me. “They know what they need to do at the store level, to make the product, vendor, and the retailer successful.”
When you look at Edge, you can see that the company has been in a constant state of growth and evolution. When Owner and President, Brad Raffanti, founded Edge Sales & Marketing in 2002, he entered the game at a time when Safeway was centralizing its business in Pleasanton, which allowed Edge to become the leading retail broker specializing in the sales and marketing of value-added and commodity produce for Safeway Corporate and Northern California retailers and distributors.
Edge’s primary focus has always been to add value for its retail partners and vendors. While the company has developed deep and established relationships with retailers, the name of the game for Edge has truly been “Adapt.”
In Safeway’s heyday, the company covered ninedifferent divisions from its Northern California headquarters. When Safeway announced that the company was merging with Albertsons in 2014 and that it would be decentralizing Safeway’s buying model, it was then that Brad made the decision to join forces with CMC in Southern California who had the Albertson’s connection. While that may have covered the bases for California, that still left the Northwest without representation. Edge had clients in Oregon and Washington from its work with Safeway Corporate, but now the decentralized buying has taken Edge out of the Northwest game.
“They needed someone up there to work with vendors and build the business, but the thing is, every vendor we wanted to bring on had someone else representing them already,” Jeff says. “So the landscape was already that much more competitive and difficult to break into.”
This is where Jeff and his team were able to truly differentiate themselves. They had the benefit of retail backgrounds and relationships from the buy-side of the industry to truly engage vendors in a different way. Edge began touting themselves as the produce experts, a phrase that Jeff was more than comfortable to communicate.
“While I can’t tell you how to stack a can on a shelf, I can tell you how to build a produce department from the minute produce is pulled from the ground till it gets to the store,” Jeff says. “So, having that knowledge, along with the expertise of the guys I have out in the field, has really helped us grow our business. It has been a huge opportunity, and well worth the risk.”
"That is one thing I didn't want to lose, working with those people that I had developed these great relationships with over the years."
- Jeff Knight
Now that Edge is growing its foothold, Jeff is looking to continue expanding its vendor base and draw new items into the fold.
“It is a great challenge that I enjoy everyday. It takes what I have done as a Category Director when I was at Safeway, and allows me still to work with some of those same individuals I worked with when I left Safeway. That is one thing I didn’t want to lose, working with those people that I had developed these great relationships with over the years,” Jeff adds.
When it comes to vendor partners, Jeff tells me that there can be a big misconception out there about what type of clients Edge will take on in terms of the scale of a company, as well as the volume of product offerings.
“I represent companies that have as few as three products or as many as 20,” Jeff says. “Volume doesn’t matter as long as it fits the mold within retail produce operations and aligns with Edge’s core values.”
For example, Jeff took on Reliant Water, who wanted to break into the produce beverage set. They only had three products, but it was a company that Jeff believed in. Within a few months Jeff actually got them into the produce department in Safeway with a peach water, mint cucumber, and a regular water; all created for the purpose of cell regeneration, amongst other benefits. Safeway thought it was a better fit in produce than in a center store beverage aisle because it aligned with produce’s fresh concept and nutritional attributes.
“It just has to make sense,” he adds.
So, what motivated Jeff to make the switch from Safeway after 30 years? The desire for a new challenge. When Jeff joined Edge last April, the team offered him the opportunity to grow the company in the Pacific Northwest on his own terms, and how he thought it should be done.
“We may see business opportunities left and right now, but when I went up there, I spent a whole entire month and a half before we had any clients sign on,” Jeff says.
When Jeff worked at Safeway he did pretty much everything except running the procurement office down in Phoenix, he tells me, from running divisions and managing categories, to merchandising.
“So, from the retail side of the produce business, I didn’t feel like I had much more to learn or anywhere to significantly grow. The broker side of the business is a whole new adventure, from growing new relationships with different retailers I had not worked with before, to building relationships with independents. I have had to widen my scope and look at it from an entirely new perspective and not just a Safeway standpoint,” he says.
"Volume doesn't matter as long as it fits the mold."
This new venture has deepened his understanding of the different dynamics in produce. While Jeff has made it look easy from where I might sit, he reminds me it has been no small adjustment.
I ask Jeff how the transition has been for him, adapting from being the “chased” to now doing the chasing.
He pauses, then laughs. “When you are a Category Director at a retailer like Safeway, everyone wants your business and everyone wants to talk to you. Now that I am no longer at retail, we are the ones chasing down the Director and Sales Manager, trying to get them to carry our products. It is a different end of the relationship than what I am used to, but I also respect this side of the industry so much more now that I am basically in their shoes and am faced with their challenges.”
Jeff has a cool, deep focus, even as he talks to me about the challenges that are still present and the ones yet to come. So, what keeps Jeff up at night? Giving each brand the attention they need to grow their sales, he tells me. I suppose there are worse things, but for Jeff, his commitment is something that is essential to every vendor relationship he builds. It is his own standards that keep him up at night, but also propels the business forward.
When he isn’t tossing and turning over the latest client predicaments, or designing a new merchandising program for a vendor, Jeff spends time with his wife and son; watching his son play baseball for Chabot College when he can make it to California, playing golf, going to the movies, hiking, and exploring the new state he is living in.
And as Edge continues to map its way through the new geography of the Pacific Northwest, they can rest easy knowing that the man with the reins can navigate both sides of the conversation.
“It’s been an adventure,” Jeff says.
From where I am sitting, it looks to just be the beginning.