The Quincy, Ill.-based company operates 99 stores in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri that employ workers who are not only skilled, but also friendly with customers and each other. “That’s the main trait we look for,” Niemann says. “No matter what business or industry you’re in, it’s hard to train friendliness.”
Brothers Ferd and Steve Niemann founded the company with a single location in 1917. “It was just a corner grocery store,” Chris Niemann says. According to County Market, the two were operating 10 grocery stores and a wholesale business by 1930.
Ten years later, Niemann Foods Inc. introduced Quincy’s first full-service supermarket. “It is this same hard work and forward thinking that has guided two more generations through steady growth to become the largest independently owned supermarket chain in central Illinois,” County Market says.
Over time, Niemann Foods has grown to operate County Market supermarkets, Save-A-Lot extreme value grocery stores, Ace Hardware locations, Pet Supplies Plus locations and convenience stores.
In 1997, Niemann Foods implemented an employee stock ownership plan that gives its workers an incentive to work for the firm’s success. “We currently have 1,800 owners in the company,” Chris Niemann says. “We really try to develop a culture of ownership.”
According to County Market, associate owners give it a much stronger focus on selling fresh products, listening to and responding customer needs, and building relationships through service. “[This is] a commitment that will continue to be the foundation for continued growth and success for future generations,” County Market says.
Niemann Foods’ family and associate ownership also gives it more freedom than some competitors. With the ability to make decisions quickly, “We can chart our own course,” Niemann says, adding that the company regularly reinvests in itself.
Besides its strategy of always looking for growth opportunities, the company continually has upgraded existing stores through new equipment and remodeling. “We’ve always taken the long-term approach to the business,” he says.
Niemann Foods has faced many challenges over the years, including the recent recession. When it first hit, the company’s stores concentrated more than ever on providing value to its customers.
“We felt we needed to make sure our customers know that we get it … that value is more important than ever,” Niemann says. “We need to provide the best value, which, in our thinking, is more than just price.”
Instead, he says, this also includes providing customers with a clean, comfortable and friendly shopping experience in addition to being right on price. “Getting that value equation right is certainly key to competing,” he says.
Niemann says the company achieved strong sales growth, although the extreme summer heat has curtailed many outside activities, including grilling out, and the drought has impacted the economy in the rural markets. To cope, Niemann Foods will continue concentrating on value, Niemann says.
Another obvious challenge for the firm is competition. “We face strong national or regional competitors, whether it is Walmart, Kroger, Hy-Vee or Schnucks,” he says. But unlike most of its competitors, Niemann Foods’ ESOP-motivated employees give it an advantage.
Following the Plan
As it nears its 100th anniversary, Niemann Foods is in the middle of a five-year strategic plan, Niemann says. The company is analyzing how it can grow each of the formats of its stores.
“We’re really digging at how we want to move forward with that,” he says, noting that the company also will look at how it hires employees and how it trains. “We’re [also] really working to enhance our fresh food offerings.
“We think that’s our point of differentiation,” Niemann says. The company is set apart by its combination of people in the high service departments, and by the variety and quality of the products it offers. “[But our competitors] continue to get better, as well,” he notes.
Niemann says Niemann Foods has not been a “bleeding edge” user of technology, but has recognized the importance of and devoted the resources to a strong technology effort. Technology touches all facets of the business, from marketing with its loyalty program, to HR’s hiring and training and operations’ management of merchandising. “[Technology] certainly is important,” he says, adding that it comprises 5 to 10 percent of the company’s capital expenditures budget.
Niemann praises Director of Marketing Ron Cook, who has managed the company’s website and coupon news blog, the latter of which became popular after the recession. “We have 5,000 customers [who talk on the blog about] how we can help them save money,” Niemann says.
The company also has its own Facebook and Twitter sites. “Social media will play such a huge part in the future,” he says. “You’ve got to be involved and trying things, and that’s what we’re doing.”
A longtime veteran of his family’s business, Niemann joined the company in 1982 after graduating from college. As he has hired people at Niemann Foods, Niemann says he has strived to give employees significant autonomy.
“[I] give them the freedom to manage their own area of responsibility,” he says. “I’ve never been one to micromanage.”
Niemann says this reflects the family oriented culture that his brother Rich Jr., president and CEO, and his father, Rich Sr., chairman, have nurtured throughout the company at Niemann Foods. “Every Christmastime, [my father] goes out and visits all the stores” to wish its associates a Merry Christmas and thank them for their efforts throughout the year, he says. “That’s a big part of our culture.”
Niemann says he wants his family’s business to grow through reinvestments. “I’ve always [had the opinion that] it is important to reinvest in the business,” he says. “If you don’t continue to remodel or keep up to speed in technology, you can fall behind really quick.”
Niemann Foods also will continue growing its workers’ skills through its leadership academy. Currently, it has 20 assistant managers and department heads that are being trained for future roles.
The classroom instruction consists of eight-day-long sessions. Each participant also spends 25 days training in the field at various stores. Tests are given to participants as part of the program along the way prior to “graduation.”
“They get exposed to pretty intensive training,” Niemann says. “It sets them up to be promoted as a store director or supervisor in a particular area.”
Safe and Sound
For County Market, food safety is a strong concern. It is so much of a concern that safety ranks as a priority from its farmers and vendors to its warehouses, County Market says.
“We have been serving our communities with quality food products since 1917 and we have no interest in stopping,” County Market says. “That’s why we let our customers know about recalls when they happen, so you can be sure County Market is giving you and your family quality food every day.”
Food recalls, County Markets notes, are issued to protect customers from products that potentially unsafe or harmful to consume or use, or if they have been labeled or packaged incorrectly.