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The remarkable Alex Campbell

A legend in the business, he never forgot that a grocery store also had to be the centre of the community

In 1977, two men in Victoria sat down to open a supermarket together. The first order of business was for each to make a Top 10 list of what he wanted the business to look and act like. When each one showed the other what he’d written, both were astonished. The two lists were virtually identical. “We both had high on the list a respect for people and a focus on family values,” recalls Ernie Skinner, one of the two men.

The other was Alex Campbell, and the company he and Skinner launched was Thrifty Foods. Campbell, who guided the chain for the next 30 years, making it the dominant grocer on Vancouver Island, passed away last month at the age of 70.

More than just a grocery chain, Thrifty Foods became an innovator and Campbell a legend in the business. He knew, for example, that Thrifty could set itself apart by focusing on the basics: exemplary staff relations that transcended into exceptional customer service and a strong commitment to the community.

In-store, he jumped on trends before they went mainstream, adding an organic food section in the early 1990s, for instance. By 2005, two years before he sold Thrifty Foods to Sobeys, the chain had a 40 per cent market share on Vancouver Island and more than $200 million in annual sales. By then, Skinner and Campbell had also parted ways.

The son of a nurse and court clerk, Alex Campbell grew up in Victoria and got his first taste of the industry, at age 15, working at the local Super-Valu. It was 1956 and he was paid 85 cents an hour to bag groceries. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. “Working in the supermarket was the best job you could have,” he recalled, years later.

Campbell remained in the business up until his passing, holding the title chairman emeritus at Thrifty. And he never forgot what he’d written on his Top 10 list about community involvement. “Sure, maybe a million a year or whatever would look good on the bottom line,” he told Canadian Grocer a few years ago. “But right from the first couple of weeks we were open [with our first store on] Fairfield Road, where we sponsored a little league baseball team, to the present, we have always tried to help out.”

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