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Meet new CFIG chair, Joey Longo

Joey Longo helped turn his family grocery chain into the most admired supermarket in Canada. His next job: helping the country's other independent grocers win, too

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When your last name is Longo, your destiny is pretty well predetermined.

You’re more than likely to have your career at the family business, Longo Brothers Fruit Markets. This is especially true when you are the son of one of the founders.

Such is the case with Joey Longo, who today is chief operations officer for the company, having spent the majority of his life working at Longo’s. Joey is the son of Tommy Longo, who with his brothers, Gus and Joe, founded Longo’s with one store in Toronto in 1956. Joey is also the brother of the company’s president, Anthony Longo.

Today, 58 years after its founding, Longo’s is arguably the best independent grocery chain in Canada. It has 26 exceptional stores in and around Toronto, each operating on the company mantra: exceed customer expectations.

At the end of September, Joey Longo will become chair of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers.

After eight years on CFIG’s board of directors, he succeeds Scott Mitchell, owner of Market Street Vulcan, in Vulcan, Alta., whose one-year term as chair is ending. (The board elects a new chair every year at CFIG’s annual convention and show, held in Toronto.)

JOEY SAYS LONGO’S AS A COMPANY IS firmly grounded in the family values established by his grandfather, father and uncles.

Respect is an overriding philosophy: respect for customers, respect for vendors, respect for one another and everyone. He remembers his father instilling in him to “always do the right thing, especially when no one else is looking.”

Tommy Longo, who passed away three years ago, didn’t just preach his moral code. He lived it.

In the summer of 2008 a massive gas explosion ripped through the Sunrise propane facility in northwest Toronto, killing two and tearing apart nearby houses. Joey recalls his father hearing about a woman who had lost her home in the blast. He immediately packed a couple of boxes of produce and had them delivered to her so she would have something to eat.

READ: The Interview Issue – Anthony Longo

“He never thought twice about helping people in need,” says Joey.

When Joey’s brother, Anthony, became president of Longo’s, Anthony crafted a vision statement to reflect the company philosophy. It’s still used today: “Inspired by our founders’ values of honesty, trust- worthiness and mutual respect, the Longo’s team of food experts are dedicated to exceeding customer expectations by offering the best food experience to every customer, every time.”

Joey Longo grew up living those values. He fondly remembers as a kid working part time in the stores and then, after high school, driving a truck with his uncle Gus to select, buy and load produce at the Ontario Food Terminal.

“I learned all about procurement from him; how to select the best quality, what to buy and so on.”

Working in grocery provided the young Longo with an invaluable education about the business and what made it tick. He worked with Gus for 10 years and spent summers with his uncle Joe, who taught him about merchandising.

Meanwhile, his dad taught him “more of the business side” of things, he recalls.

“Between time at work and time at home, with my father at both, you just picked up on things. He kept me grounded and taught me the values that we use every day.”

For instance, his father believed that a deal with suppliers was sealed with a handshake. No contract required.

“I learned to do the right thing by following my father’s and uncles’ examples,” Longo says. “You never did anything for the short term…you had to make sure you knew how it would affect others.”

READ: An interview with CFIG’s new chair, Scott Mitchell

Before it was legislated, Longo’s removed cigarettes from stores simply because, as Longo puts it, “they’re not healthy.”

As Longo’s grew, so did Joey’s part in the business.

For a long time he oversaw the produce operation, and took on other departments as well: the meat department, the deli, and the kitchen at one point.

“My focus right now is on operations, and my experience in other departments has helped lead to efficiencies. My team makes sure stores, the warehouse and every aspect is running well and is clean. I spend more time in new-store construction and renovations, but I am not adverse to offering an opinion on procurement. It is a family business, after all.”

Today, many consider Longo’s the best grocery chain in the country. Not only are its stores stunning in design and merchandising, rivals marvel at its ability to execute consistently on service, selection and quality, especially in fresh. Customers are impressed, too.

A 2012 Leger survey put Longo’s at the top of all Ontario grocers in the customer experience it offers.

READ: Just ahead of Grocery Innovations, an interview with Tom Barlow

Longo’s has also proven remarkably prescient on trends. It was among the first grocers to capitalize on Toronto’s downtown condo boom, opening several stores in the city’s heart in the last decade. It also foresaw the future when, in 2004, it bought online

grocer Grocery Gateway.

Longo’s president, Anthony, says Joey has brought a certain pragmatism to the chain.

“He pushes the envelope, while not allowing us to do anything overly risky. He ensures whatever we launch we [are] able to support for the long term.”

READ: CFIG announces 2014 Life Member recipients

WHEN IT COMES TO HIS NEW role as CFIG chair, Longo says his intent is to work with the board and management to move the association, representing some 4,000 independent grocers across the country, forward. “We want to make sure we’re adding value to our members,” he says.

CFIG faces several issues: one is the sonic boom effect of recent consolidation brought on by Loblaw and Sobeys, which many independents rely on as their wholesalers.

In the wake of Loblaw’s purchase of Shoppers Drug Mart and Sobeys’ takeover of Canada Safeway, CFIG wants the Competition Bureau to take Business Matters, a coalition of 90,000 small businesses in Canada. It recently asked federal Finance Minister, Joe Oliver, to reduce credit card swipe fees, promising to pass on any savings to consumers.

Also on the horizon: environmental stewardship as provincial governments push down recycling costs to retailers and consumer goods manufacturers.

In May, new regulation took effect in B.C. making businesses that supply packaging and printed paper responsible for recycling. Other provinces, notably Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, have similar strategies and CFIG wants to make sure independents face “a level playing field on recycling costs,” according to Longo.

READ: Banks, credit card companies cutting rates charged to merchants

The association also recently dealt with another government issue: nutrition labelling rules to force retailers to label products they make in their stores. That task would have been more onerous and costly for a one- or two-store retailer than for a large chain, and CFIG lobbied to exempt smaller grocers. The exemption was allowed.

Looking ahead, CFIG plans to reinforce its value to members, no only by increasing its activity, but also by improving communication to members so they know the value the association gives them.

CFIG’s president, Tom Barlow, says CFIG’s activity will primarily be advocacy on issues such as competition and credit card fees. But it will also include a new focus on online training for members and a return to grocery’s roots through innovation.

As he gets set to be CFIG’s chair for the next year, Joey Longo makes one goal clear: “I want to make sure independents get heard and that we are treated fairly.”

His brother, Anthony, doesn’t think he should be underestimated. “Some might see Joey as being quiet in meetings, almost disengaged. But you quickly learn he is taking it all in and then asks very pointed and clear questions.”

Besides, having a Longo at the head of the group for independent grocers might inspire others to grow their business.

Considering Longo’s started as a single store operation, they certainly know what that’s all about.

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