This Texas powerhouse has come a long way since its beginnings as a United Cash Store in Sayre, Oklahoma, in 1916. And by a long way, I mean a “66 stores in 36 communities,” kind of long. Now making its way through 2016, The United Family® is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its flagship banner, United Supermarkets, and with new blood at the helm.
"It is the relationships we build that really create a foundation for the success we want to maintain and grow."
“The United Family is a different breed of animal, from the way we run our stores to the consumer loyalty we pride ourselves on, and the care we bring to honoring our supplier partners,” Joseph Bunting, Director of Produce, tells me when I ask him how the retailer has adapted to the changing landscape over the years. “We have always been about differentiation, changing with the evolving demographics, and, at our foundation, developing long-lasting relationships with the people we do business with. That is why we don’t call them our vendors, we call them partners.”
Since the company planted its roots in 1916, it has grown into a multi-banner, Texas-based grocery chain. Currently, The United Family operates United Supermarkets, Market Street, Albertsons Market, and Amigos grocery locations, as well as United Express fuel and convenience stores, throughout West Texas, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Eastern New Mexico.
“For 2016, The United Family designed an entire year of initiatives to benefit and improve the communities we serve and to communicate the core values of the company Founder, Henry Dewitt Snell, during this 100th year,” Joseph says. “And no one knows how to throw a celebration like Texas.”
To kick off the commemoration, The United Family hosted a birthday party across all 66 of its stores in January and gave away a total of 100,000 free cupcakes. Also in January, the company launched Shop to Support Schools, a donation program which will challenge community members to get involved and help improve the future of local children. In addition, The United Family delivered 140,224 pounds of apples in April to eight food banks in the local communities it serves.
“The Take a Bite Out of Hunger™ program has allowed us to demonstrate our commitment to those in need in our communities,” Joseph tells me. “We try to give back as much as we can, to show our appreciation and support for the regions we call home.” This is The United Family’s fifth year participating in the Take a Bite Out of Hunger™ program sponsored by FirstFruits Marketing of Washington, and every employee gets behind the effort.
Beginning May 31st, the retailer also initiated 100 Days of Giving, presenting $1,000 to a different local nonprofit for 100 consecutive days, totaling a donation of $100,000. In addition, the company plans to donate 100,000 additional pounds of food to local food banks in June in preparation for fall and winter. In the retailer’s lead-up to Thanksgiving, The United Family will also share its appreciation for area children’s hospitals in 12 markets by distributing 1,200 special 100th Anniversary stuffed animals. And it doesn’t stop there.
“We also try to do a great job of supporting our local Texas growers. In July, we will host an expo that highlights Texas products and we look forward to partnering with Texas local and regional suppliers,” he tells me. “It is the relationships we build that really create a foundation for the success we want to maintain and grow at this level of our operation.”
United has had quite a ride over the last century, beginning when the company moved its headquarters into the city of Lubbock, Texas, in 1956 when Jack Snell, son of H. D. Snell, purchased three Taylor Safeways. The leadership of Jack and his son, Robert, would bring United into its first era of expansion over the next four decades. By 1991, United stores were in 20 Texas communities.
In 1998, the company adopted a strategic growth plan creating new stores, innovative concepts, diverse market expansion, and self-distribution. That same year, Market Street was introduced in Wichita Falls, bringing a new concept focused on healthy meal solutions for busy guests to The United Family. There are now 15 Market Street locations, including seven in Dallas-Fort Worth. United Supermercado, aka Amigos, entered the family in 2000, opening in Plainview and providing a blend of traditional and cultural favorites for Hispanic shoppers in the Lubbock and Amarillo areas. Since then, Amigos has grown to be four-strong, as the company looks to continually expand as its communities do.
“Amigos caters to the growing Hispanic and ethnic demographics and allows us to do a better job of serving our customer base,” Joseph adds. “Market Street is an upscale offering, without the upscale prices. Market Street offers more variety across artisan, natural, and organic products. The United banner also adapts to the needs of consumers across different demographics, as does Albertsons Markets, and the produce departments will change depending on the demands of that community and location. These formats allow us to keep our finger on the pulse of the changing environment.”
As part of a strategic branding initiative in 2013, United Supermarkets announced a name change for its parent company. United Supermarkets became known as The United Family™, which has helped to reflect the company’s multiple store brands and family history. Then, in December of that same year, The United Family was acquired by Albertsons LLC.
While Joseph didn’t assume the role of Director of Produce until longtime United veteran Darvel Kirby retired in February of 2015, he had always been helping to lead the charge in the company’s evolution, even before the acquisition. Surprisingly to some, but not to Joseph, the company took it in stride. After becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of Albertsons LLC, and in order to take advantage of operational and distribution opportunities, Albertsons realigned 12 locations under The United Family. These stores now operate as Albertsons Market stores in Midland Odessa, San Angelo, and Eastern New Mexico. But the acquisition was much more of an alliance in Joseph’s mind.
“We did not know what to expect when Albertsons came onto the scene and the acquisition went through. But, I saw that we had similar go-to-market strategies and an aligned set of core values. Albertsons has allowed us to operate much as we have, with less changes than you may have expected during these recent years,” Joseph tells me. “Part of our appeal is that United has a competitive concept, and it allowed Albertsons to find that market penetration they wanted in Texas.”
You may think that, at 97 years old, when United was acquired there would have been some sort of overhaul. But, Albertsons saw the retailer as a vast 97 years worth of retail innovation and experience, instead of a 97-year-old company to restructure.
“There have been some changes, of course, but then again we have always been advocates of change,” Joseph smiles. “It has been fun contemplating what the future holds for us.”
But while Joseph contemplates the future, we can rest assured that he has his feet rooted in the company’s history to keep him steady and grounded. So what did those early days look like for Joseph?
United Supermarkets hired Joseph in December of 1992. A very passionate and bright young man, Joseph paid his dues sacking groceries, checking the stocking, and eventually, produce. While he has seen the evolution of the Market Street and the Amigo formats, his footsteps are evident in the history of produce at United. Now at the helm, Joseph is building United’s strategies to adapt to the next 100 years. As more retailers move into the market, the retailer will need to find new and different ways to navigate the competitive landscape.
But in the beginning, it was really all about a pickup.
“Truthfully, I wanted to buy a truck and my dad told me I needed to have $3,000 in the bank before he would help me. I had worked in the stores in high school and in college, in the produce department, but didn’t think it would become a career. When United Supermarkets decided to go into self-distribution, Jacky Pierce wanted someone he could train to be a buyer and so I joined him in 2000 and he took me under his wing. I spent a lot of time simply learning the industry and I cannot tell you enough how much I appreciate that experience,” he says. “And you can bet I got that pickup.”
For Joseph, Jacky was not only a mentor, but a friend. Jacky Pierce was a longtime Produce Director for United Supermarkets, before he lost his battle with cancer in 2002. The United Family named the Jacky Pierce Charity Classic golf tournament in his honor, an event still held annually.
“Jacky was dynamic and truly inspired my love for the industry. He brought an incredible level of intensity and passion to the company,” Joseph tells me. “Jacky was about attention to detail, and that is something I adapted and absorbed while working with him. I feel lucky to have known him for that short time before he passed away. He has, without a doubt, been instrumental in setting me on this path and helping me accomplish what I have today.”
Another key influence in Joseph’s life was Darvel Kirby, who taught him the business mentality and the strategic planning aspects of the business. Darvel was Joseph’s supervisor when he was still working at the store level in Abilene, Texas, and for nearly 20 years mentored him in the produce business before he retired. Tommy Wilkins was also a major influence on Joseph’s career and mentored him on the buying side for almost ten years. Together they learned a lot and accomplished even more.
“These mentors have taught me how relationships can carry you through the rough times, the bad weather, or changing consumer behaviors,” he says. In many ways, these mentors were both the gatekeepers and the people who provided Joseph a rite of passage.
“United has always been known for doing the right thing by their employees, customers, and suppliers and with a level of integrity that I respect. Take care of the guests and the profits will come,” Joseph says. “And you really can see the loyalty throughout our company with an incredible amount of 20, 25, 30-plus year employees that still call United home. And I am one of them.”
So what do the next 100 years look like?
If the past repeats itself, then The United Family of stores has a long story yet to tell, and the Texas following to help them tell it.