John Fortino, founder of Fortinos supermarkets, died May 18 at age 76 from cancer.
He was considered one of Hamilton’s most accomplished business leaders and Fortino’s success was a source of pride for the city’s Italian population.
At age 19, Fortino immigrated to Canada in 1954 from Cosenza, a southern Italian town. He had stopped in Hamilton to visit friends on his way to Windsor and never left.
Fortino and his brother in-law, Umberto Spagnuolo, bought their first store in Hamilton on King Street in what was called the “delta area.”
“Times were tough in the early ’60s and finding steady work was difficult, so the store was purchased primarily as a means of providing a reasonable weekly pay for his brother-in-law (Umberto Spagnuolo) while John moonlighted between Stelco and the store,” recalls nephew Vince Scorniaenchi, who is executive vice-president of Fortinos and fresh food development for Loblaw.
“The plan was for John to join once the store could afford to provide him with a reasonable pay; this happened in 1961.”
Grocery was a natural career choice for Fortino as he had a natural affinity to farming, particularly fruit and vegetables. “It was his dream to someday own a store that focused on farm fresh products,” says Scorniaenchi.
Then in 1972, Fortino and seven partners opened his first supermarket that catered to Hamilton’s thriving ethnic population. He believed that a ‘fresh food’ store with lots of variety was the future supermarket. “John had an incredible sense of the importance of great fresh foods at reasonable pricing,” says Scorniaenchi. “He was focused on creating this as a point of differentiation while the chain stores were focused on selling dry goods.”
Many agree that the acquisition of Fortinos by Loblaw in 1988 was one of the best in its history. Today there are 20 Fortinos stores in Ontario.
It is this expertise on fresh that is his legacy in grocery. “In our industry the easiest thing to do is to handle dry goods; negotiate the best cost, ensure the product gets to the store, stock the shelves, price it right and eventually the product should sell with very little risk,” explains Scorniaenchi.
Fresh foods on the other hand, require much more skill on what to buy, then ensuring that it gets to the stores in refrigerated trucks to ensure quality, followed by pricing the product at a profit so it sells in a couple of days.
What was the secret to his success? Scorniaenchi says Fortino was an incredible people person who treated employees as though they were extended family. “On many occasions I witnessed John labouring over how he could get an employee, who was in need because of extenuating circumstances, an extra 25 cents per hour while still maintaining fairness with all employees; somehow he found a way,” he says.
Also, Fortino recognized that every single customer was important and he would treat them accordingly. Fortino would often stop with customers and have an espresso with them as he delivered groceries, to get to know them and their family. “Without exaggeration, John would have a minimum of 10 cups of espresso a day,” says Scorniaenchi.
Fortino’s passion for the business was infectious and he inspired many, including his nephew to pursue grocery as a career. “His passion for the people, the business and the customers was infectious; he was demanding but fair,” says Scorniaenchi. “He created a very ‘safe’ culture that was highly demanding, but provided continuous (opportunities) for improvement, and was fun, respectful and based 100% on team effort.”
During his career, Fortino put into action the store’s famous tag line: “The supermarket with a heart” by raising more than $2 million for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario.
When asked what he thought his uncle would like most to be remembered for, Scorniaenchi said it would be how Fortino accomplished his success by putting people first, with integrity.
Among the honours Fortino received during his life was the Order of Italy, Italo-Canadian Citizen of the Year and induction into the Hamilton Gallery of Distinction.He always remembered his roots, later spearheading the Donnici Social Club of Hamilton for new immigrants from his region.
Fortino is survived by his wife of 51 years Pileria, three daughters, Luana, Mara and Eva, and seven grandchildren.