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Nash Finch Company Business Information, Profile, and History

food inc stores wholesale

7600 France Avenue South
P.O. Box 355
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55440-0355
U.S.A.

Company Perspectives:

Nash Finch is a high performance organization specializing in the wholesale and retail distribution of supermarket products. Our wholesale operation is sales driven and relentlessly focused on premier service and low cost. In retailing, Nash Finch dominates its primary trade areas through convenience, consistently excellent execution and superior service. Individual success will be based upon contribution and performance.

History of Nash Finch Company

One of the largest food wholesalers in the United States, Nash Finch Company serves more than 1,800 supermarkets and institutional customers in more than two dozen states--mainly in the Upper Midwest and East--as well as more than 100 military commissaries and distribution centers located in the United States (primarily in the Mid-Atlantic region), Puerto Rico, Cuba, Europe, and Iceland. The company's wholesale operations, which generate about three-quarters of total revenues, are supported by 15 distribution centers. Retail operations, centering on the Upper Midwest, contribute the remaining one-quarter of sales. These encompass about 80 traditional supermarkets under the Econofoods, Sun Mart, and Family Thrift Center names and three deep-discount supermarkets under the Wholesale Food Outlet banner. In addition to nationally branded and unbranded products, Nash Finch supplies its company-owned stores and its affiliated independent stores with the private label brands Our Family, Value Choice, and Fame, which together represent approximately 2,500 dairy, meat, grocery, frozen food, beverage, health and beauty, and paper and household products.

Early History

Nash Finch Company began in 1885 when Vermont native Fred Nash, after traveling west and toiling at several unpromising jobs, invested $400 and established a candy and tobacco shop in Devil's Lake, a Dakota Territory boomtown. Nash soon enlisted his two younger brothers, Edgar and Willis, to join him. All three benefitted from having worked in their parents' general store back East, and they shared a determination to live frugally so that their business might succeed. By the time North Dakota achieved statehood in 1889, the brothers had opened three additional stores, suffered the loss of one and severe damage to another from separate fires, and, finally, consolidated their operations in the emerging urban center of Grand Forks.

The year 1889 proved pivotal to the company for two reasons. The first stemmed from the serendipitous arrival in Grand Forks of a boxcar of peaches for which no buyer existed. Although primarily retailers, the Nash brothers had conducted some fruit wholesaling and quickly decided to secure a bank loan for the peaches. The venture was a large gamble--the brothers' only collateral was the Grand Forks store--but it paid off when sales were made to retailers throughout the region. Two years later the Nashes became wholesalers exclusively and earned the distinction of founding both the first and largest of the state's wholesaling firms. The second turning point came when Edgar contracted tuberculosis and moved to California for health reasons. While Edgar's new contribution as West Coast fruit buyer aided the growth of the company, a replacement was needed at the Grand Forks headquarters. That person was 14-year-old Harry Finch, who several decades later became president of the company. (A legacy of Finch management continued in the hands of Finch's grandson, Harold B. Finch, Jr., who was the company's chief executive officer and chairman of the board in the early 1990s.)

Expansion in the Early 20th Century

Although 1896 was overshadowed by the death of Edgar Nash in January, later that year the company celebrated its first expansion beyond North Dakota with the acquisition of the Smith Wholesale Company of Crookston, Minnesota. Harry Finch, still relatively young but now with seven years of experience in clerking and sales, was placed in charge of the Crookston operation, which was renamed Finch-Smith Company. Also in 1896, the company incorporated under the name Nash Brothers Wholesale Produce Co. By the early 1900s, Nash Brothers solidified its position as North Dakota's leading wholesaler with the successive purchases of Minot Grocery Company and Grand Forks Mercantile Company. A 1905 partnership forged with a budding Red River Valley produce brokerage named C.H. Robinson Company--to which Finch was elected vice-president--further broadened Nash's service base. After Nash Brothers acquired control of Robinson in 1913, branch offices were established in Minneapolis, Sioux City, Milwaukee, Chicago, Fort Worth, and virtually everywhere else the parent company had sprouted its own warehouse facilities. Until 1966, C.H. Robinson served as the produce procurement branch of Nash Brothers/Nash Finch, because, at that time, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) succeeded in limiting Nash's broker-buyer monopoly. Ten years later, C.H. Robinson became independent and has since blossomed into a leading third-party logistics firm headquartered in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

From 1907 to 1918, Nash acquired 54 fruit wholesalers spread throughout the northwestern United States and Canada. Highlights of this era included the establishment in Lewiston, Idaho, of White Brothers and Crum, the company's first fruit growing and shipping venture; the creation of the Randolph Marketing Company in Los Angeles to package citrus fruit; and the formation of Nash DeCamp Company, a California-based produce growing and marketing concern that would prove to be one of the company's most prized concerns. By 1919 Nash Brothers had become so vast that it required a more centralized headquarters. The logical choice was Minneapolis, which had developed into the nation's 17th largest city, a premier milling center, and the wholesaling hub of the Northwest. According to historian Bruce Gjovig in Boxcar of Peaches: The Nash Bros. & Nash Finch Company, "Although the loss of the Nash Bros. headquarters was a blow to Grand Forks, the move made good business sense. ... [In] Minneapolis, the Nash Bros. had joined the ranks of the Pillsburys, Cargills, and Hills." Two years later, the firm reincorporated under the name Nash Finch Company and consolidated its more than 60 businesses, which had previously functioned as separate units with independent officers. Canadian operations were united under Nash-Simington Ltd. while C.H. Robinson Company and Nash Shareholders became the corporation's primary subsidiaries. As the corporation's first president, Fred Nash oversaw the complex consolidation process, which was completed in 1925. His death the following year resulted in Harry Finch's elevation to president. Willis Nash remained as corporate treasurer and also served as president of the Nash Company, the Nash family's own investment corporation.

At the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, Nash Finch ranked as one of the foremost food distributors in the Midwest, with sales of more than $35 million. Because of its firm foothold within a recession-proof industry, Nash weathered the 1930s better than most U.S. manufacturers. The only year in which the company failed to turn a profit was 1932, generally considered the worst year of the Depression. During the 1930s, one of the most significant advances for the company came with its large-scale promotion of the Our Family private label brand, which was first introduced in 1904 and later became a symbol of the company's operating philosophy and a favorite of Nash consumers by the 1940s.

Rising Revenues in 1960s and 1970s

During the early 1950s, Nash Finch reentered food retailing with the purchase of 17 supermarkets in Nebraska. The move proved crucial to the company's future health, for it allowed Nash to remain competitive with much larger food concerns, including Eden Prairie-based wholesaler and retailer Super Valu Stores, Inc. From 1960 to 1969 Nash saw its sales grow from $91 million to $248 million. As the company increasingly diversified within its industry and offered a greater variety of services to its retailers, growth in overall revenues became even more impressive during the 1970s and 1980s.

By the mid-1980s, Nash ranked as the nation's tenth largest grocery wholesaler, with sales of $1.3 billion. Its geographic sphere of influence, however, was still confined largely to the rural Midwest, which at the time represented a conspicuously slow-growth market. This, and just a 5 percent compound increase in earnings over a ten-year period (Super Valu's increase, over the same period, was 23 percent), had perpetuated what Dick Youngblood termed the company's "comparative anonymity." In an effort to improve his company's rankings within the food industry, Chairman Harold Finch, Jr., announced a sweeping expansion plan designed to nearly triple earnings and double revenues by the end of the decade.

The 1985 acquisition of M.H. McLean Wholesaler Grocery Company effectively inaugurated the plan. A North Carolina distribution facility serving approximately 60 Hills Food stores, the McLean Company signified additional wholesale revenues of roughly $100 million. More important, though, was Nash's consonant commitment to the South, with its higher-than-average population growth. A series of purchases, including that of Georgia's second largest food wholesaler as well as that of Colorado's largest wholesaler, highlighted the next few years. Yet, the Nash Finch Company entered the 1990s somewhat precariously; quick profits had not followed quick expansion. Instances of store closings and margin problems related to three separate acquisitions led to notable charges against shares, and, although revenues and book value climbed steadily, net income stagnated in 1988 before it plunged by 27 percent in 1989.

Growth Through Acquisition, Early to Mid-1990s

In the early 1990s, Nash Finch continued its strategy of achieving expansion through acquisition and improving profitability through broadened services and updated facilities. Following a slight dip in net sales from 1990 to 1991 (during which time profits increased by 7 percent), the company topped the $2.5 billion mark in 1992 revenues while posting its highest earnings ever--more than $20 million. Two mid-Atlantic acquisitions in 1992, Virginia-based Tidewater Wholesale Grocery and a prominent division of Maryland-based B. Green & Company, fortified Nash's position as one of the largest distributors to the U.S. military. That same year, the company sought overseas growth by participating in a group venture to acquire 75 percent of Hungary's largest wholesale food company, Alfa Trading Company. The December 1992 loss of an account with Lunds Inc., a $120 million upscale Minnesota retail chain, seemed hardly to hinder the company; within four months it had reached an agreement to acquire Easter Enterprises, a 16-store chain with sales of $250 million. Headquartered in Des Moines, Easter consisted of 11 stores in Iowa, three in Illinois, and two in Missouri. Perhaps the sweetest part of the deal was the lost business that it represented for Easter's former provider, Supervalu Inc. (the former Super Valu Stores). The purchase also served notice that Nash had no intention of abandoning its bread-and-butter Midwest market, which estimates in the early 1990s placed at approximately 70 percent of sales.

In 1994 Chairman and CEO Harold B. Finch, Jr., died in an automobile accident. The grandson of Harry Finch, he had followed in his grandfather's footsteps and those of his father, Harold B. Finch, Sr., who had been president from 1939 to 1961. Finch, Jr., was initially succeeded in both positions by Al Flaten, who had been with the company since 1961 and had served as president and COO since 1991. Breaking with typical U.S. business practice, Flaten soon decided to split the CEO and chairman positions, with an independent director, Donald R. Miller, taking the latter spot. Flaten told Ann Merrill of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that having the same person in both positions was like "putting a fox in charge of the hen house."

The company's acquisitions continued into the mid-1990s. In 1994 Nash Finch bought Food Folks, a grocery store chain headquartered in North Carolina with 23 stores. The following year the company boosted its presence as a supplier to U.S. and European military commissaries by agreeing to acquire Norfolk-based Military Distributors of Virginia, a purchase it completed in January 1996. By the end of 1995, the company was supplying 120 of its own stores in 16 states and 5,700 independent stores in over 30 states.

But Nash Finch's share of the market took an even bigger leap in 1996 through the company's acquisition of Super Food Services, Inc. By spending about $247 million for the Dayton, Ohio-based wholesaler, Nash Finch went from the fifth largest food wholesaler in the United States to the third largest. Super Food not only added $1.2 billion in revenues, it also expanded Nash Finch's territory into areas of Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, and West Virginia that the company did not previously serve. In addition, Nash Finch planned to use Super Food's strength in gourmet foods to supply its company-owned stores, eliminating the need to buy such products from other wholesalers. Nash Finch also planned to sell produce, one of its own strengths, to Super Food's customers, who could not previously buy produce through Super Food.

Another acquisition in 1996 extended the company's geographical reach. Nash Finch purchased the wholesale distributor T.J. Morris Company, which supplied over 100 independent grocery retailers in Georgia. The company closed its warehouse in Macon and consolidated it with T.J. Morris's distribution facility in Statesboro. The newly enlarged warehouse cost-effectively served existing T.J. Morris and Nash Finch customers in Georgia.

These acquisitions helped raise Nash Finch's revenues to $3.38 billion in 1996, up more than 16 percent from 1995. Net earnings rose as well, to $20 million, from $17.4 million in 1995. Expansion did not result only from acquisitions, however. The company's independent supermarket customers rose 16 percent to 767, not including new customers from Super Food and T.J. Morris.

Restructuring in the Late 1990s

During 1997 Nash Finch bolstered its wholesale operations in the Midwest by acquiring United-A.G. Cooperative Inc., a firm based in Omaha, Nebraska, serving about 100 member-owned co-op stores in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Colorado, and South Dakota. Revenues in 1996 for United-A.G. were approximately $200 million. Sales at Nash Finch were a record $4.39 billion in 1997, but the firm posted a net loss of $1.2 million.

Following Flaten's retirement in June 1998, Ron Marshall was named CEO, becoming the first CEO to come from outside the company. Marshall had most recently served as executive vice-president and CEO of Pathmark Stores, Inc., a major grocery chain in the Mid-Atlantic region. In February 1999, eight months after joining Nash Finch, Marshall launched a major restructuring in an attempt to restore profitability, streamline the wholesaling operation, and overhaul the company's information systems. The company closed three of its distribution centers and earmarked 12 underperforming corporate-owned retail stores for sale or closure. Two more distribution centers were closed later in 1999, reducing the total number to 13. Marshall also scrapped a $30 million information systems project that was not equipped to handle the Y2K rollover issue, spending another $20 million to get the company ready for Y2K. He also centralized a range of operations, including such functions as buying, finance, information technology, and human resources. Despite the store closures, Marshall aimed to grow the retail side of the business, which at the time generated 20 percent of sales. Through acquisitions and organic growth, the new leader hoped to eventually increase this share to 50 percent. Nash Finch took a pretax charge of $106 million in relation to the restructuring, leading to a net loss for 1998 of $61.7 million.

During 1999 Nash Finch overhauled and expanded its retail operations. Stores that once operated under 17 different names were consolidated under three banners: Econofoods, Sun Mart, and Family Thrift Center. The company bought 18 supermarkets in Minnesota and Wisconsin from Erickson's Diversified Corp. in 1999 and soon converted most of them to Econofoods outlets. In January of the following year Omaha-based Hinky Dinky Supermarkets, Inc. and its 14 stores in Nebraska were acquired; most of these soon began sporting the Sun Mart name. Nash Finch's supermarkets also began placing greater emphasis on convenience, service, and selection of perishables in order to distinguish them from Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.'s Supercenters, which were beginning to encroach into Nash Finch territory. Moreover, the company began testing two other retail concepts: Buy-n-Save, a deep-discount, limited-assortment store aimed at low-income consumers, and Wholesale Food Outlet, which targeted Hispanic consumers. By mid-2001 there were four Buy-n-Saves in Minnesota, while Wholesale Food Outlet stores had been opened in Greeley, Colorado; Muscatine, Iowa; and Omaha.

In July 1999, meantime, Nash Finch completed two deals to divest noncore operations. Nash-De Camp, the California-based produce growing and marketing subsidiary, was sold to Agriholding Inc., while Nash Finch's dairy operations--consisting of Rapid City, South Dakota-based Gillette Dairy of the Black Hills, Inc. and Nebraska Dairies, Inc.--were bought by the Minneapolis firm Marigold Foods Inc., which at the time was a subsidiary of Koninklijke Wessanen nv of the Netherlands. In November 1999 Nash Finch reached an agreement to acquire Fairway Foods of Michigan Inc., a grocery wholesaler with annual sales of $160 million, but the deal later fell through.

Nash Finch returned to profitability in 1999, reporting net income of $19.8 million on sales of $4.12 billion. Company Chairman Miller retired in May 2000 and was succeeded by longtime board member Allister P. Graham, who was the retired chairman and CEO of The Oshawa Group Limited, a Canadian food distributor.

Refocusing on Wholesaling in the Early 2000s

Marshall began the new century continuing with his plan to bolster the firm's retail side. In August 2001 U Save Foods, Inc., which operated 14 supermarkets in Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado, was acquired for approximately $145 million, and most of the stores were soon operating under the Sun Mart banner. In 2002 Nash Finch launched a new concept called Avanza. Like Wholesale Food Outlet, Avanza was aimed at Hispanic consumers, but the newer concept was to be located mainly in major cities rather than smaller towns. The first Avanza opened in Denver in May 2002 and was following by additional locations in Denver, Chicago, and Pueblo, Colorado. Wholesale Food Outlet was subsequently repositioned as a more traditional deep-discount supermarket. In the meantime, Nash Finch refocused its retail operations strictly on the Midwest as it sold its supermarkets in North and South Carolina in 2001.

As the 2000s continued, however, Nash Finch's retail operations felt increasing pressure from the fierce competition that stemmed from the aggressive growth of Wal-Mart and other discounters. The company faced the added burden in late 2002 and early 2003 of a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation of its accounting practices, which led to the departure of two outside auditing firms and the delayed filing of the company's third- and fourth-quarter reports for 2002. The SEC probe sent the company's stock down more than 75 percent, seemingly an overreaction given that the government agency did not take any immediate action against the company. Nevertheless, the financial results for 2003 prompted another change in direction. Nash Finch's wholesale operations enjoyed strong growth--aided particularly by business picked up following the demise of Fleming Companies, Inc., which at one time was the largest food wholesaler in the country--while the retail side showed a sharp decline in sales.

In May 2004, then, Marshall announced that 21 underperforming stores would be closed, and the Buy-n-Save and Avanza concepts would be jettisoned. A special pretax charge of $36.5 million was taken in relation to this pullback. This left Nash Finch with about 85 stores, the bulk of which were traditional supermarkets operating under the Econofoods, Sun Mart, and Family Thrift Center banners. Most of these were located in markets where Nash Finch held the number one or two spots, positions that Marshall intended to defend from encroaching competitors. While expansion on the retail side was put on hold--and Marshall's aim of a 50-50 split between wholesale and retail was quietly abandoned--Nash Finch hoped to find additional opportunities for growth in wholesaling, particularly from former Fleming customers.

Principal Subsidiaries: Erickson's Diversified Corporation; GTL Truck Lines, Inc.; Hinky Dinky Supermarkets, Inc.; Nash Finch Funding Corp.; Piggly Wiggly Northland Corporation; Super Food Services, Inc.; T.J. Morris Company; U-Save Foods, Inc.; NFCG, LLC.

Principal Competitors: Supervalu Inc.; Hy-Vee, Inc.; McLane Company, Inc.; H.T. Hackney Co.; Purity Wholesale Grocers, Inc.; Spartan Stores, Inc.; Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.; The Kroger Co.; Albertson's, Inc.

Chronology

  • Key Dates:
  • 1885: Fred Nash establishes a candy and tobacco shop in the Dakota Territory boomtown of Devil's Lake; brothers Edgar and Willis soon join the venture.
  • 1889: Operations are consolidated in Grand Forks; wholesaling begins; Harry Finch joins the firm.
  • 1891: The Nash brothers become wholesalers exclusively.
  • 1896: Company is incorporated as Nash Brothers Wholesale Produce Co.; company expands outside North Dakota for the first time through the acquisition of a Crookston, Minnesota wholesaler.
  • 1904: The Our Family private label brand makes its debut.
  • 1905: Partnership is forged with produce brokerage C.H. Robinson Company.
  • 1919: A more centralized headquarters is established in Minneapolis.
  • 1921: Firm reincorporates as Nash Finch Company and consolidates its more than 60 businesses.
  • 1950s:Company reenters food retailing with purchase of 17 supermarkets in Nebraska.
  • 1985: North Carolina-based M.H. McLean Wholesaler Grocery Company is acquired.
  • 1992: Position as a leading distributor to the U.S. military is enhanced through the purchases of Virginia-based Tidewater Wholesale Grocery and a division of Maryland-based B. Green & Company.
  • 1993: Nash Finch acquires Easter Enterprises, a retail chain with 16 stores in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri.
  • 1996: Company purchases Military Distributors of Virginia; Dayton, Ohio-based Super Food Services, Inc.; and T.J. Morris Company, a wholesale distributor in Georgia.
  • 1998: Charges related to a major restructuring result in a net loss of $61.7 million.
  • 1999: Nash Finch consolidates its supermarkets under the banners Econofoods, Sun Mart, and Family Thrift Center; 18 Erickson's Diversified supermarkets in Minnesota and Wisconsin are acquired.
  • 2000: The 14-unit Hinky Dinky Supermarkets chain in Nebraska is purchased.
  • 2004: Company announces it will close 21 underperforming stores.
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