It’s hard to picture a grocery store chain with 151 stores under its belt launching from a 25-foot by 100-foot location in the downtown square of Tyler, Texas. But that’s exactly how Brookshire Grocery Company got its start in 1928, and with those humble beginnings, WT Brookshire developed a grocery empire that continues to focus on working hard to please customers and treating others as you’d like to be treated.

  • Headquarters: Tyler, Texas
  • Number of stores as of January 2011: 151
  • Brands: Food Club Milk and Yogurt, Full Circle Organics, Tasty Bakery, Sunnybrook Farms
  • Founding year: 1928

“Wood was always a true gentleman, and he cared about the people who worked for him,” said Rick Rayford, president and CEO of Brookshire’s. “He made you feel like you were part of a family.”

And Rayford would know. He started with Brookshire’s in 1971 fresh out of high school. “I did all sorts of things, from pulling weeds out of the flowerbeds on the grounds to working in the warehouse and eventually in a store,” he recalled.

Rayford’s own humble beginnings with the company have served both he and Brookshire’s well, and since becoming president and CEO in 2007, he’s focused on making sure the Christian principles WT Brookshire put in place remain the core of the company’s culture.

Pride and principles

Brookshire’s commitment to service lies not only with customers, but also its employees. The company’s training programs focus on giving every employee the opportunity to reach his or her highest potential, so opportunities are available for employees to move up in the organization. 

“Our people are our most valuable asset,” Rayford said. “We haven’t waivered from that philosophy throughout our company’s history and won’t going forward.”

Brookshire’s focus on its community begins when a customer walks into one of its locations but doesn’t end when he or she walks out. Under the Brookshire Grocery Company umbrella, the Brookshire’s brand stands tall as a conventional store with extremely high levels of service. Employees still carry groceries out to customers’ cars, and employees are encouraged to be involved in their communities.

A few years ago, the company started a program called Community Connections, which gives employees the chance to do things such as help with the security at the Albany High School football game in Texas or attend the African American Awards Banquet in Shreveport, La.

Brookshire’s commitment to community extends beyond volunteerism, however. Over the past three and a half years, the retailer has upgraded between 12 and 15 stores a year to improve its offering to its customers. This March, it went a step beyond upgrade and introduced its newest store concept, Fresh by Brookshire’s—marking a first for the company and for Tyler, Texas.

With a product assortment focused on health and wellness, prepared, fresh, and organic foods, and specialty items, Fresh by Brookshire’s was the answer to East Texas’ specialty grocery needs. “We found that approximately 20% of our customers traveled to Dallas once a month to purchase these foods, so we opened our own specialty concept store to give them a reason to stay in Tyler,” said Rayford.

Brookshire’s took the opportunity to design its Fresh location using green technologies. The store includes a wind turbine generator, allows for the collection of rainwater for irrigation, and has roofs that reflect solar heating, rather than absorbing it. Due to its efforts, the company applied for LEED certification in early 2011, and Rayford expects the location to receive some level of certification. 

But that’s not where Brookshire’s green efforts stop, nor where they began. The company put fluorescent lighting into its retail stores, distribution centers, and corporate facilities, and many of its facilities are equipped with auto shut-off lighting. In addition, its new store designs are being outfitted with skylights to bring in more natural light and reduce energy.

A number of its facilities are using new cooling technologies to reduce refrigerant charges and reduce CO2 leakage. All told, these efforts have reduced the company’s energy usage by 16% since 2000 and earned it Progressive Grocer’s Green Grocer Award in 2010.

“We have to take care of our environment,” said Rayford. “Every time we can do something that makes sense for our company in that regard, we jump for it.”

One-two punch

Brookshire’s has focused on finding creative ways to give people a reason to come to its stores since its early days. In 1939, nine years after its first location opened, the company opened the first air-conditioned store in East Texas. That same year, WT Brookshire and his five brothers dissolved the partnership that had grown the store count from one to four, leaving him with sole ownership. 

For the next two decades, the retailer’s footprint continued to grow, and in 1953, Brookshire’s built its first warehouse. In the 1960s, the company expanded into Louisiana (where it currently has 23 Brookshire’s) and constructed a 175,000-square-foot office and distribution center in Tyler, Texas, which continues to be its headquarters today.

“We now have more than 1 million square feet of distribution space here, and we’re continuing to grow,” said Rayford. In the ’70s, Brookshire’s moved into Arkansas and opened three locations and a bakery plant, marking the company’s first move into manufacturing. The 1980s marked yet another first for Brookshire’s when it introduced its Super 1 Foods price-impact store concept, which now equals one-third of the company’s total sales. Thirty of the Super 1 Foods stores are in Louisiana.

“The combination of our Brookshire’s stores and our Super 1 Foods stores give us a one-two punch as a company,” said Rayford. With Brookshire’s, customers get great service, product selection, and quality. With Super 1 Foods, customers get low prices, great deals, and more value-packed items than any other Brookshire’s store.

“In a lot of towns, we have the Brookshire’s and the Super 1 stores, and both do well to complement each other,” said Rayford. “They give customers an option on whether they want more value or more service, which works well with what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Standing strong

Brookshire’s thrived in the ’90s as well, despite some dramatic industry shake-ups. It added a new warehouse in Monroe, La. and acquired 21 stores across West Texas, Southern Arkansas, and Louisiana. At the same time, Walmart built its first supercenter in Mount Pleasant, Texas, where Brookshire’s also had a store.

“We learned early on that to survive in this tough business, you have to know how to compete with Walmart,” said Rayford. “Walmart is a great company, but we’ve been able to stay open and in business because people need more options, and we’re proud of what we’ve done.”

The 2000s were a little trickier for all grocery stores, and the economic crash of 2008 brought what Rayford calls a new day for people in his industry. More competition, more formats, the increasing marketshare gain of dollar stores, and the proliferation of CVS and Walgreens locations on every available corner. 

Brookshire’s didn’t sit still and watch the fireworks, though. Instead, it looked to its suppliers for help and initiated a collaborative program it called the BGC Product Insight project, in which the retailer shared with its suppliers its data by store and SKU and in return looked for feedback and insight.

Keith Bejcek, category analysis manager for Brookshire’s, said during a presentation at the 2010 Category Management Conference, “We deal with more than 400 categories with only 11 analysts. Four hundred category reviews is a ton of reviews. So collaboration with vendors is key.”

Brookshire’s worked with 12 suppliers across a wide range of categories during the first year of its initiative and has since expanded that number. One of the greater success stories from the project came from the company’s collaboration with Hormel Foods and a focus on pork products.

Hormel offered suggestions to Brookshire’s on how the company could change sales and marketing practices in its formats in the hopes of finding new fresh meat opportunities based on analysis of shopper card data. Brookshire’s responded by developing an ad rotation for running pork ribs on promotion and saw a 17% sales increase and a 20% increase in its share of the market.

With these kinds of strategic initiatives bubbling in the background, it’s easy to see how Brookshire’s will continue to play a major role in the grocery industry. But Rayford still believes the catalyst for Brookshire’s many years of success has been its people and its adherence to the principles that WT Brookshire put in place 83 years ago.

“We’ve got to have new stores and update existing stores, and we have to have the right products, fresh products, great quality, and great prices, but our people make the difference,” he said. “I’m proud of them. They have helped us be successful.”

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