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Top Entrepreneurs 2015

Big Y Marks 80 Years of Ideas and Innovation

D'Mour Family

From left, Charlie D’Amour, Matt D’Amour, Nicole D’Amour Schneider, Maggie D’Amour, Michael D’Amour, and Claire D’Amour-Daley.

Roughly 80 years ago, Paul D’Amour, a delivery man for Wonder Bread, was told in fairly uncertain terms that he couldn’t advance in that company because of his name and religion. With this knowledge that doors would not open for him, he made his own door in the form of a small market in Chicopee. We know it today as Big Y. It’s now a $1.7 billion enterprise managed by the second and third generations of the family, a company defined by many adjectives, but especially entrepreneurial. To recognize that legacy, BusinessWest has named the members of all three generations its Top Entrepreneurs for 2015.

They call it the ‘Nice Try’ award.

Big Y Foods started presenting it annually a few years ago, said Claire D’Amour-Daley, vice president of Corporate Communications for the soon-to-be-80-year-old company and member of its second generation of leadership.

It goes, she went on, to an individual or group that conceptualized an idea that looked good on paper, as they say, but just didn’t pan out for one reason or another.

“It’s an honor … but you don’t want to win it too often — one’s enough,” said Michael D’Amour, executive vice president of the company and oldest member of the third generation of leadership as he explained its purpose, relevance, and unique place within the company.

Maggie D’Amour, a store manager in training and another member of that third generation, agreed. “They tried changing the recipe for jelly donuts one year, and the customers really didn’t like it at all. Someone won it for that.”

Overall, the ‘Nice Try’ award, as Michael implied, was conceived as something to be proud of, noted D’Amour-Daley, who said Big Y is a company that puts a premium on innovation, entrepreneurship, ideas, and always looking for better, more efficient ways of doing things. And ‘Nice Try’ embodies all of that and more.

“We honor mistakes because that’s how we learn,” she explained, “and it’s important to learn from your mistakes.”

Founders Gerry, left, and Paul D’Amour

Founders Gerry, left, and Paul D’Amour set an entrepreneurial tone that has defined Big Y throughout its 80-year history.

The award and the philosophy behind it explains why Big Y is still here 80 years after Paul D’Amour, with assistance from his much younger brother, Gerry, and, later, sisters Ann Marie, Yvette, and Gertrude, opened the Y Cash Market in Chicopee. They also explain why the company now logs $1.7 billion in annual revenues; how it’s gone from one 30-foot-wide corner market to 63 supermarkets in Massachusetts and Connecticut; why it continues to expand into new business realms, such as convenience stores with its acquisition of several O’Connell Convenience Plus gas stations; and why it was recently named one of the Best Places to Work by the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast.

And also why the members of three generations in this family have been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2015. (See previous BusinessWest Top Entrepreneurs HERE)

“Since this award was conceptualized 20 years ago, it has gone to companies that have made significant strides over the previous year or two,” said BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti, “and also to companies that have displayed a strong entrepreneurial character throughout their existence.

“When it comes to Big Y, it’s a lot of both,” she went on. “This company continues to take bold entrepreneurial steps, such as the purchase of the convenience stores, but it has a legacy of entrepreneurship that goes back eight decades and has been constant throughout this company’s existence.”

Explaining the roots of that legacy, Don D’Amour, CEO of the company and the oldest member of that second generation, again relayed the story of how his father, Paul, a Canadian emigrant, left a decent job delivering Wonder Bread to start his own venture in the middle of the Great Depression.

But this time — he’s told this story often — he provided some keen insight into why.

“At some point, a gentleman at Wonder Bread pulled him aside and said, ‘you’re never going to be promoted in this company — you’ve got the wrong last name, and you’ve got the wrong religion [Catholic],’” he noted. “My dad went home, talked to my mom, and told her pretty much what this guy said. Later, he found there was a small market for sale in Willimansett. He talked to my mom some more and decided to take the plunge.”

His brother would eventually take it with him, after serving in the military, and also after conveying serious doubts about the viability of this business venture in a letter home to his family (more on that in a bit).

In the decades to come, the second generation, and then the second working alongside the third — just as the first worked beside the second — would take plunges of their own, none perhaps as risky as that original leap, but all of them constituting business gambles.

Some have been relatively minor — such as the introduction of in-store floral shops — while others have been considerable in scope, including forays into new markets, new geographic territories, and new ways of doing business.

Summing it all up, Charlie D’Amour, Claire’s brother and the company’s president, said that, despite this company’s proud history, its operating manual has one simple instruction: Look forward, never back.

Marketplace of Ideas

photo of founder Paul D’Amour and co-workers

This photo of founder Paul D’Amour and co-workers in front of the original Y Cash Market is one of a precious few in the archives from the early days.

As they talked about the exploits of their father (Gerry) and uncle, Claire and Charlie decided to move the conversation from inside a replica of the original market at the store’s headquarters on Roosevelt Avenue in Springfield to a nearby wall that holds a photo of Paul D’Amour and a few co-workers standing in front of the Y Cash Market.

They did so to point out, literally, just how tiny that original storefront was. But soon the subject matter shifted to how few items like this one there are in the company’s archives.

In fact, the early history of the venture is so incomplete that the month of the company’s opening in 1936, much less the exact date, is not known. Thus, significant anniversarie tend to be year-long events, and the 80th will be even more so.

Explaining this phenomenon, Charlie D’Amour said it came down to the simple fact that his father and uncle were too busy scripting their story to summon the time or energy needed to record it. As a result, there are few papers and photographs to display or refer back to.

One notable exception is that letter Gerry sent home to his family while in the service. It revealed, in not-so-glowing terms, his thoughts on the prospects for his brother’s entrepreneurial plunge.

“He really had his doubts about the business,” said Charlie while summarizing the missive from memory. “He thought Paul might be wasting his brains and talents on that market.”

Still, Gerry agreed to join the venture after returning from duty, and the rest, is, well, better-recorded history — at least the past half-century or so. And while Gerry was eventually proven wrong in his assessment of the venture’s potential, those first few years amounted to nothing less than a struggle for survival.

“There were a lots of ups and downs — more downs than ups, for sure,” said Don D’Amour. “They almost went bankrupt a few times, but they stuck with it.

“It was a very entrepreneurial start to be sure, and the company has always been entrepreneurial over the years,” he went on. “There’s always been a desire to innovate and try new things.”

Charlie agreed.

“One of the things that Paul and Gerry passed on to all of us was that they were restless in their desire to improve,” he explained. “They were continuously trying to find a better way to do things, and trying to evolve and change as the business evolved. And that continues today; this is a very, very dynamic business. It’s always changing; it’s never the same. We’re certainly not doing business in 2016 the same way were a year ago, let alone five years ago or 80 years ago.”

Being dynamic and entrepreneurial isn’t simply desirable, family members said repeatedly and in different ways, but is quite necessary in a retail landscape that is constantly changing and becoming ever more competitive.

Indeed, while a few decades ago, the company was doing battle largely against other grocery chains, most of them national and international giants, now it is also competing with the likes of Walmart, Costco, online ventures, and pharmacy chains that now have huge frozen-food aisles.

“There’s been a blurring of the channels,” said Charlie as he explained the ongoing shift involving retail outlets. “And that’s made for a much more competitive landscape.”

But, as the timeline above reveals, the company has always been aggressive in seeking new business opportunities and, as Charlie said, better ways of doing things. That chronology highlights everything from the first supermarket to movement into beer and wine sales; from growth through expansion of several smaller grocery chains to expansion into Connecticut and then Eastern Mass.; from the introduction of the World Class Market to expansion into pharmacies.

A common thread with each development has been improving the customer experience, said Charlie, adding that this is another philosophical trait passed down from the first generation.

And while what the company has accomplished is noteworthy, the how is perhaps an even more intriguing story. It comes down, said all those we spoke with, to creating an environment where ideas — including those that wind up earning someone a ‘Nice Try’ award — are encouraged, listened to, and often acted upon.

Making the Sausage

This brings us to the concept of strategic planning, which has greatly evolved itself over the years.

In the beginning — and for several years, actually — this was Paul and Gerry’s assignment, and it was done, in large part, on the fly, Charlie explained. Today, it is much more sophisticated and involves dozens if not hundreds of players.

The mindset is essentially the same, though: looking down the road as far and effectively as one can, anticipating need, envisioning business opportunities to meet those needs, and then making them happen.

This is essentially a 24/7, company-wide activity, but there are organized sessions as well, as two-day corporate retreats, staged every 18 months. These are staged off-site, but instead of exotic locales, the company has opted for local venues such as the Basketball Hall of Fame and downtown Stockbridge.

“We can’t afford a fancy resort — that’s not in the budget,” said Mike, one of several third-generation family members now with a seat at the table at these gatherings.

He noted that these sessions feature lively, open discussions, and egos are, as the saying goes, checked at the door, and titles and last names are not an issue.

“At these meetings, everyone’s basically CEO of the company; everyone’s on the same level,” he explained. “No topic is off-base, there are no sacred cows, and we take a nice, honest check of who we are, what we’re doing, and where we need to be.

“We’ll challenge each other in nice ways,” he went on. “And we’ll sit there, listen, take it all in, and try to understand where everyone’s coming from to make sure that, when we walk out of that room in a day in a half, we’re all in 100% agreement on what we’re doing. We don’t want half the room split or doing something just because my father says we’re going to do it or because Charlie says we’re going to do it. We’re doing it because it’s the right thing for everyone.”

Big Y’s second supermarket

Big Y’s second supermarket, in Northampton, represented one of many entrepreneurial leaps for the company.

Beyond the regular retreats, there are quarterly board meetings and twice-monthly team meetings, said Claire, adding that these and other vehicles are used to help ensure that ideas flow downhill and there is solid follow-up so concepts don’t get left behind.

Charlie agreed, and said there is one more level of management meetings, those involving family members.

“We are a family business, so it’s important that the family understands the role of the family in the business,” he explained. “Another of the things that Paul and Gerry taught is that the business doesn’t serve the family — the family serves the business.”

The various strategic-planning initiatives, as well as a recently penned vision statement, have helped provide the company with another important asset, one often missing at family-run ventures, said Matt D’Amour, another member of the third generation of management and the company’s senior director of Real Estate & Store Development: Alignment.

“One of the benefits of the big meetings is alignment and focus,” he explained. “Everyone is working toward common goals, and having that alignment has been key to our success.”

Mike agreed.

Big Y’s expansion into in-store pharmacies

Big Y’s expansion into in-store pharmacies represented one of many steep learning curves taken on by different generations of the D’Amour family.

“I think we have more alignment now in this company than perhaps we’ve ever had,” he explained. “People understand the vision, they believe in it, and they embrace their role within it. And that’s why I think this is an exciting time for us; we do have that alignment, and we can get a lot accomplished with everyone moving in the same direction.

“People have seen our sales the past few years, which have been stronger than others in the industry, and everyone’s asking what we’re doing,” he went on. “Well, it’s a lot of little things. There’s no silver bullet in this industry; it’s a lot of little things that have worked out over the past several years.”

Seeds of Progress

While Big Y’s story can be summed up as 80 years of entrepreneurial drive, it can also be categorized as the ongoing education of the D’Amour family in the grocery business — all three generations.

“Actually, it’s closer to five, because of the way the generations are staggered,” said Matt, noting the age differences among members of the same generation and how this wide spread of ages represented by family members has helped the company stay relevant.

And generate some humor. Indeed, Paul was 14 years older than Gerry, and subsequently, his son, Don, is significantly older than his cousins, Claire and Charlie — so much so that Charlie likes to joke (although Don certainly doesn’t laugh) that many people think the company’s CEO is his father. Likewise, Don’s daughter, Nicole D’Amour Schneider, says some believe Claire is her sister, not her second cousin.

Whether it’s three or five, there’s been a lot of one generation teaching the next, or older members of one generation teaching younger representatives. And that brings us to Charlie’s often-told story about how one of his many, early, and pointedly unglamorous jobs with the company was delivering produce, specifically watermelons. And as he retold it, he expounded on the philosophy that defined such learning opportunities, and still does, but maybe to a lesser extent.

“I had just gotten my driver’s license; I was 16,” he recalled. “And we needed to have some produce deliveries made. Don said, ‘meet me at our produce warehouse on Avocado Street in Springfield, and be there early.’

“I showed up, Donald put me in the truck, and it was a standard,” he went on. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to drive a standard.’ Then he said, ‘get in, and I’ll show you.’ He drove me around the parking lot once and sent me on me on my way. That was the extent of the training we had back then.”

Big Y’s latest entrepreneurial leap

Big Y’s latest entrepreneurial leap is into the convenience-store realm. This is a rendering of one of the Big Y Express stores in Pittsfield.

Things have changed considerably over the years — Charlie noted that his daughter Maggie’s current training to become a store manager is exponentially more involved than what he experienced in the mid-’70s — but the company’s approach is still grounded in the basic ‘sink-or-swim’ mentality espoused by the company’s founders — or similar phraseology that Charlie summoned.

“You can’t learn to swim by sitting at the side of the pool,” he told BusinessWest, adding that this mindset pertains to not only employees, including (or especially) family members, taking on new responsibilities, but the company taking new plunges, if you will.

As an example of the former, he gestured across the conference room table toward Nicole, who was minding her own business and handling a number of functions for the company, including training of store managers and administration of its formal ideas program, when it was essentially decided four years ago that she would manage the company’s new pharmacy division.

“I knew nothing about running pharmacies, so there was a real learning curve,” she explained. “It was a matter of coming in and running it as a business and taking that perspective, but also breaking down the silos between pharmacy and all the other departments and working more collaboratively together so we were presenting our customers with a one-stop experience.”

When asked what she’s learned over the past four years, Nicole joked that she can now pronounce the names of countless medications she never knew existed. She then turned serious and said that pharmacy, like all other departments in the store, requires a strong customer-service element, as well as an element of entrepreneurship.

“Today, in retail pharmacy, you have to innovate and change in order to survive,” she explained. “We’ve worked hard at getting our folks in the pharmacies to understand that and approach their jobs in a completely different manner. They’re not just pill counters; they really have to engage with our customers and provide unique services.”

As for the latter half of that sink-or-swim mentality, the new-business-opportunities side of the equation, family members cited the expansion into convenience stores and the recent acquisition of the O’Connell facilities.

This represents largely uncharted waters for the company — although the second Big Y supermarket in Northampton had a gas station attached to it in the ’60s, said Charlie — but taking the ship in such directions is certainly nothing new, going back to 1936 and most of the developments that have happened since.

“We took another look at it because a lot of our competitors were getting into it, and as we looked at it, we said, ‘that business has changed,’” he noted, adding that, where once those who frequented such facilities also wanted convenience items, now they’re also interested in eating on the run.

And, given other changes in society, they’re looking to eat healthier than hot dogs turning on a warmer. This plays into one of Big Y’s strengths, Charlie noted, adding that this venture could amount to an opportunity for growth — or the next opportunity, to be more precise.

What’s in Store?

As for what happens next — in the grocery business in general and Big Y in particular — members of both generations offered a collective shrug of the shoulders.

“Where do we see this industry going? It’s going in a few directions, such as to online business, mobile payments, and maybe drones dropping your grocery bags at your front door at some point,” said Mike, adding, as others did, that there will always be a need for the bricks-and-mortar supermarket.

And whatever the future brings, this company will more than likely be ready for it, or out ahead of it, he went on.

One would expect nothing else from an enterprise that honors innovation, ideas, and, yes, those nice tries.

A Big Y Timeline

• 1936: Paul D’Amour, with the help of his younger brother, Gerry, opens the Big Y Cash Market in Chicopee and delivers groceries by bicycle.

• 1947: Paul and Gerry team up as equal partners and incorporate as Y Cash Super Markets.

• 1952: The first Big Y Supermarket opens at 790 Memorial Dr. in Chicopee.

• 1960: Fine wines and beer are added to the supermarket in Northampton, the company’s second.

• 1963: The company buys a second Northampron location and opens Big Y Wines & Liquors.

• 1968: Big Y doubles in size with the acquisition of Jumbo Supermarkets.

• 1970: Big Y expands self-distribution to include everything from bread to bananas.

• 1971: Big Y introduces new technology such as scanning cash registers.

• 1984: The company expands its operations into Connecticut with the acquisition of a supermarket in Stafford Springs. Big Y also purchases the Adams Supermarket chain.

• 1986: As the company turns 50, it boasts 21 stores and 1,600 employees.

• 1990: Express Savings Club program starts, an industry first, to exchange paper coupons with electronic ones.

• 1998: The company’s Store Support Center moves to 2145 Roosevelt Ave. in Springfield, is launched, and Big Y Wines & Liquors becomes Table & Vine.

• 2001: The first Big Y Pharmacy & Wellness Center opens in the Longmeadow store.

• 2003: There are now 51 stores, including one in Walpole, the company’s first in the Greater Boston area.

• 2006: Fresh Acres opens in Springfield.

• 2013: Big Y Express opens as the first gas and convenience store.

• 2016: As the company celebrates 80 years, it has grown to 66 locations in Massachusetts and Connecticut and more than 5,600 employees.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]