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What Was Certified Grocers

Certified Grocers was a food wholesaler cooperative based in California that served independent grocery stores and supermarkets in the western United States. Here is a timeline of the company’s history:

  • 1923: Certified Grocers is established as a cooperative of independent grocery stores in Los Angeles, California.
  • 1940s: Certified Grocers expands its operations throughout California and the western United States, opening multiple warehouses and distribution centers.
  • 1960s-1970s: Certified Grocers continues to expand its operations, offering a wide range of products and services to its member stores.
  • 1990s: Certified Grocers begins to face increasing competition from larger grocery wholesalers and retail chains. The company merges with another cooperative, AWG (Associated Wholesale Grocers), in 1998.
  • 2000s: AWG continues to operate Certified Grocers as a subsidiary, serving independent grocery stores and supermarkets in the western United States.

MORE RECENTLY:  At the dawn of the New Millennium, the biggest news at Unified Western Grocers was no news at all. After months of preparing for an Armageddon that might occur because four digit dates on computers had long ago been abbreviated into two digits and might recognize January 1, 2000 as January 1, 1900, the Y2K crisis came and went at Unified without a hitch as all computer systems worked perfectly — the long-established grocery cooperative would survive to face another decade of challenges and opportunities.

Having completed the merger with United Grocers only a few months prior, the main order of business at Unified in the early days of 2000 was integrating the cultures of the two companies and utilizing transition teams to find, select and implement best practices where appropriate. Among the first items of busi-

ness in this regard was consolidating (and subsequently closing) several United warehouses into Unified’s Stockton Distribution Center. Another early project for the transi- tion teams was to relocate and consolidate the Portland data center and all of United’s accounting functions into the Commerce Headquarters.

In 2001, rising interest rates and fuel costs were be- ginning to take their toll on the marketplace and with the dot.com bubble beginning to burst, Wall Street took notice and the equity markets began to tank badly. All of this activity had a negative effect on the grocery industry.  Wherever possible, companies began to cut costs and also look for ways to serve customers better. Unified Western Grocers began an extensive cost reduction program that would save more then $6 million during the fiscal year. In addition to a cost-cutting campaign led by interim CEO Bob Hoyt, AG sold its large, underutilized non-foods warehouse in Kent, Washington to a developer for $12.5 million.

In September of 2001, Unified Western Grocers signed an agreement to jointly purchase general merchandise and health and beauty aids products with Associated Grocers and agreed to distribute them to the Seattle wholesaler’s members and customers. In addition to improving product selection for AG’s members, the arrangement helped keep product costs competitive within the marketplace.

the economy began to improve slightly in 2002, so did the prospects for Unified Western Grocers. A new sell plan for the Pacific Northwest launched a year earlier by the company was a success with Oregon members and customers and Unified’s newly-re-energized Neighborhood Markets program (a distribution program for small retailers who were not members of the co- operative) was growing rapidly in Northern California. Three significant deci- sions also were made in 2002 by the Board and executive management. After several challenging years, Unified decided to exit its retail business; the Board adopted an Equity Enhancement plan designed to increase permanent equity in the company; and for the first time in the history of the company, three outside directors (non-shareholders) were added to the Board of Directors.

In July of 2002, veteran retailer Robert P. Hermanns was named president and chief executive officer of AG, succeeding interim CEO Robert Hoyt.

In Southern California, the big news of 2003 was a strike by retail clerks against three large chain store companies, which resulted in a four-month lockout of employees by the employers. Unified and independent retailers were the primary beneficiaries when chain store customers refused to cross picket lines and decided to shop elsewhere. The result was a windfall in sales for Unified’s customers.

In 2004, Unified was named the recipient of the Annual Technology Excellence Award from the editors of Supermarket News for being on the cutting edge of technology in the grocery industry. The company also significantly increased its perishables sales throughout the year, continued to reduced its outstanding debt ($105 million since 2002) and launched a new companywide initiative, “Growth in Sales and Profits” (GSP). Also in 2004, Al Plamann celebrated his tenth year as president and CEO of the company.

Unified continued its forward progress in 2005 with a number of major projects taking center stage. Flow-through distribution, a strategy that enables the company to distribute products that do not physically reside in a Unified warehouse to member retailers, was introduced at various Unified facilities. Also, the company began shipping private label products to Mexico as part of its “Brands Without Borders” initiative, rebranded the specialty products division “Market Centre,” 

initiated a major expansion of the Stockton Distribution Center, and introduced a new annual award for progressive independent retailers, the “Ben Schwartz Retail Grocery Visionary Award,” named after long-time Unified member and former Chairman of the Board Ben Schwartz.

In October, 2005, John Runyan was named president, CEO and vice chairman at the Seattle cooperative, re-
placing Bob Hermanns who departed abruptly after two years at the helm.
After evaluating strengths and weaknesses during his first 90 days on the job, Runyan developed 21 initiatives to right the company. “We’ve instituted a num- ber of changes that on an annualized basis will allow us to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Runyan said. “We’ve been nicely profitable in the last four months and the Board is very pleased with the direction.”

As part of Runyan’s 21-point plan, AG sold its 55.27-acre headquarters to Seattle developer Dave Sabey for $91 million in February, 2006. The transaction enabled AG to continue to lease its headquarters from Sabey for up to four years, during which time AG would locate and/or build new facilities for the company.

The sale of AG’s property served as the precursor to a May 3, 2007 announce- ment in which it was revealed that Associated Grocers had signed a preliminary which was completed in only a few weeks and without a hitch, served as a ha binger of the integration process to come quick, cooperative and generally free of errors or issues.

n addition to continuing integration and transition projects, Unified was buzzing with other projects in 2008. The company launched “Natural Directions,” a line of natural and organic products sold exclusively to independent retailers, was approved to become a supplier of products and a licenser of retail stores for the Independent Grocers Alliance (IGA), and completed the expansion of the Stockton warehouse. Later in the year, the company was named “Outstanding Wholesaler of the Year” by Progressive Grocer magazine.