BY DAVID BLANCHETTE
Quincy-based Niemann Foods turned 100 this year, and although nearly half of its 6,000 employees are associate owners, for the past century everyone at the company has known who the real bosses are.
“Our boss is every customer that we either have in the stores or we are trying to attract,” said President and CEO Rich Niemann, representing the third generation of his family to lead the company. “I think that’s a pretty universal understanding that none of us have a job or any kind of a future without taking care of customers properly.”
More than 100 groceries, pet food stores, hardware stores, pharmacies and gas stations are part of the Niemann Foods, Inc., family today in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Missouri. That includes 49 County Market supermarkets, 14 Sav-A-Lot supermarkets, 11 Ace Hardware stores, six Pet Supplies Plus stores, and several new convenience stores called Haymakers.
The company has come a long way since 1917 when Fred Niemann, Sr. and Steve Niemann opened their first grocery store, and they are now the largest independently owned supermarket chain in central Illinois. But the 100-year focus on the customer has remained the same.
“That means everything from the prices on products to the quality to the cleanliness, how well people are taken care of when they are in the store,” CEO Niemann said. “It’s a reinvestment that is constantly needed, and I think everybody gets that.”
The fact that many associates, from those stocking shelves to those scanning items at the checkout lanes, are stockholder-owners of Niemann Foods makes a big difference.
“In every store, no matter what the format is, no matter what time of day you go in, there’s a pretty good chance there are going to be a number of owners in the store,” Niemann said. “It’s a big part of what makes the family aspect of our business happen.”
And, like family, the associates tend to stick around for a while. That’s no accident, according to Niemann.
“It’s very important to listen to our people, we get so much information from them. Job fulfillment is a big part of it. The whole family atmosphere is important,” Niemann said. “The way that we try to promote whenever we can from within is really critical. So we have a lot of opportunity for people to advance if that’s what they like.”
The work ethic, family atmosphere and customer service focus was instilled early among Niemann and his seven siblings, who learned these values from their parents every evening around the dinner table. Three of Niemann’s sons and two sons-in-law are involved in Niemann Foods, but they have no more chance to advance in the company than any other associate, he said.
“We don’t designate anybody as the heir apparent to the CEO’s job,” Niemann said. “They have the opportunity just like anybody else to work for that next promotion and to move up in the organization.”
Niemann Foods remains a major force in the highly competitive grocery business because they listen to their customers and anticipate their buying and eating habits. The company just opened a Harvest Market concept store in Champaign that has direct relationships with area producers to satisfy the demand for locally sourced goods. Niemann operates its own cattle ranch in Missouri that supplies beef for Harvest Market and some County Market stores and they are expanding the operation to make Niemann Ranch Beef available in more areas.
The company’s Essential Everyday line of foods provides customers with a low-cost, high-quality product. Most Niemann-owned grocery stores also feature prepared and ready-to-prepare foods.
“People are exposed to more different types of food, they want different experiences. As our customers are younger, they are more interested in experiences than anything,” Niemann said. “The way the information is so rapid today, and the way people travel, their expectations and desires for interesting and unusual food is dramatic.”
This constant innovation is important because of the challenges facing the grocery industry. Niemann is well aware of the situation as the former chairman of the National Grocers Association and current chairman of the Illinois Food Retailers Association.
“One of our biggest issues in Illinois is declining population in certain metro areas,” Niemann said. “That’s a hard thing when you have less mouths to feed.”
Gerry Kettler is the director of consumer affairs for Niemann. His primary mission is to keep the company moving forward by carefully listening to customers and associates.
“We have a team whose focus is to have very direct conversations with our customers. Our customers will tell us what they are looking for, and it’s our job to react to it,” Kettler said. ”We try to stay relevant to the communities we serve and do as much local sourcing as we can. In the Springfield stores we carry Pease’s Candy, and we always try to use local produce.”
Niemann Foods is also blending the traditional grocery business into today’s hyper-connected world. Last year they launched online and mobile shopping applications with in-store pickup and home delivery in certain areas. Their myCountyMarket app features personalized offers, location-specific coupons, in-store maps and shareable shopping lists.
“The influence of social media is highly relevant, because what used to take a couple of years for new trends to go through, now all of a sudden it happens within a month,” Kettler said. “We continue to develop that entire shopping experience. More people go to the web to see what the sale items are, and they also go there to do some research about some of these unique products.”
Springfield has four County Market stores as well as a Niemann-owned Sav-A-Lot grocery. Tom Moore has been the store director for five years at the County Market at 3001 Veterans Parkway, and he’s completely on board with the new ways the company is doing business.
“I like innovation, new things and new ways of doing things to better serve the customer,” Moore said. “That involves a lot of staying up to date with the trends, but it also means striving to make sure everyone is taking care of customers every day.”
“I check our customer feedback line every day. The customers who request I call them, I do that,” Moore said. “I take whatever feedback they have and try to implement it into the store. If it’s something that needs to go globally, then I’ll pass that on to my boss.”
“People are really busy, they want to get in and get out, and a lot of them want to have their food already prepared for them. We cater to that quite a bit,” Moore said, indicating his store’s deli department, sushi bar and cheese counter. “Also, a lot of people don’t know how to prepare something, so we can tell them how to cook a certain type of meat or how to fix a certain kind of produce.”
Moore has been with Niemann Foods for 20 years and started as a part-time overnight stocker. He served 10 years in the military, and noted that every Veterans Day his County Market store provides free deli meals to veterans all day long. The local store sponsors a number of community events and organizations.
“It’s great working for Niemann. You can talk to any of them any time you need to, they are very personable,” Moore said. “I’ve actually worked for other companies and came back to Niemann because it is such a great company to work for. It’s a great company to grow with, too.”
It’s not only the Niemann employees who have lengthy tenures with the company. Producers and suppliers often have relationships with Niemann that span decades. Jamil Abu-Saba of Springfield is the branch manager for the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. His territory covers all County Market stores, and he has been supplying them for 31 years.
“I know a lot of the managers and employees, and sometimes I feel as if I am one of them because I’ve been dealing with them for so long,” Abu-Saba said. “When I walk into their stores everybody knows me, and even when my wife walks into the stores they know who she is.”
“They treat us vendors as first-class, and they treat their employees the same way,” Abu-Saba said. “It’s been a pleasure to know the family and the management of the company over all those years, and I couldn’t ask for anything better than the relationship that we have with them. When you deal with people so long it becomes a friendship, we’ve become almost like a family.”
Niemann Foods Inc. stores are located in the Illinois cities of Byron, Carthage, Champaign, Charleston, Chatham, Danville, Decatur, Dixon, Farmington, Gibson City, Girard, Havana, Jacksonville, Lewistown, Macomb, Mattoon, Monmouth, Monticello, Pana, Pekin, Petersburg, Pittsfield, Pontiac, Quincy, Rantoul, Rushville, Shelbyville, Sherman, Springfield, Sterling and Tilton. You can find Niemann stores in Attica, Covington and Crawfordsville, Indiana; and Canton, Hannibal, Louisiana, Palmyra, Vandalia and Winfield, Missouri.
For more information about Niemann Foods, visit www.mycountymarket.com.
David Blanchette is a freelance writer from Jacksonville and the co-owner of Studio 131 Photography in Springfield.