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Grocer's approach to business: Solid values

Anthony Longo

Rosa Park for The Globe and Mail

Forget feuds like the McCain brothers' nasty battles. Longo's, a family-run independent grocery chain in the Greater Toronto Area, presents a united front.

Anthony Longo, president and CEO of Longo Brothers Fruit Market Inc., says working with family members can be a lot of fun. But with 15 of them employed full time and a bunch more helping out part-time, it can be challenging.

But Mr. Longo, who grew up from boyhood in the family business, says the key lies in a nugget of advice they received from a succession planning coach years ago.

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"Always make sure the family serves the business; not the business serves the family," says Mr. Longo. "We've stuck by that credo."

Originally founded as a small fruit and vegetable market on Toronto's Yonge Street in 1956 by Mr. Longo's father, Joe Longo Sr., and his brothers Tommy and Gus, the company today has 4,100 employees and is opening its 23rd store this September - a 47,000-square-foot market in downtown Toronto. The company also owns and operates Grocery Gateway, an online grocery retailer.

Mr. Longo joined the family business full time in 1982, after graduating in business from Humber College in Toronto, The company had just opened its third store and his dad and uncles gave him nearly free rein over the place, allowing him to try new things such as installing the company's first computer system in 1986. By the early nineties, he was made general manager and then worked his way up. While he says he didn't feel pressured by expectations to lead, he believes he has a certain level of curiosity and initiative.

Anthony Longo "Fresh" doesn't include tobacco products, tabloids at the checkout

"We've every competitive," Mr. Longo says about his family. "We haven't had any major conflicts, but we have disagreements. When it comes to making tough decisions, we typically solve them by having several conversations with senior people - family and non-family - about the merits of a proposal. When there's a split, it still comes down to talking about the pros and cons of an issue. We always come out with one answer. What we do is hold ourselves to our values. We go back to 'What's the right thing to do?'"

Family values are very important to Mr. Longo. About 15 years ago, the company decided to stop selling tobacco, even though it represented 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent of the business. Next, the chain got rid of tabloids at the checkout because they felt that "tabloids have no connection to what we believe in" and are "not a fit for our customers or their lifestyle." Longo's also refuses to sell unhealthy foods such as fried chicken at their prepared food counters.

"As long as I'm here, we never will," says Mr. Longo. "Think about food - it's something we ingest, it's in our bodies. We have a saying that if you wouldn't feed it to your family, you don't sell it to our customers."

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Passing on those family values is core to the company's culture. While Longo's originally offered business management courses to employees through Mr. Longo's alma mater, Humber, courses now taught internally.

"Team members have to understand where we stand as a family," says Mr. Longo, who admits that controlling the message is important to him. "We are a different kind of company. Our team members need to hear firsthand what our values are all about, how we think of merchandising, how we calculate our gross margins. We want them to hear our key messages, not just the numbers and theory behind it, but examples of how we use those theories every day so they can go back to the stores and apply them."

Mr. Longo says the biggest challenge for him as a leader is keeping that corporate culture intact.

"The risk is that as we add more and more team members, it could get watered down," he says. "We look for people who are self-motivated and love what they do, but I can't create that. All I can do is create a culture and atmosphere that allows them to grow, to be the best they can be."

About a quarter to a third of the senior team are family members, says Mr. Longo. Do non-family members feel resentful or overlooked in the company's hierarchy?

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"When it comes to promotion, it's always been, 'Who's got the skill set to do it?'" says Mr. Longo. "We absolutely apply the same criteria to family and non-family. It goes back again to the family serving the business, not the other way around."

As a leader, Mr. Longo says he's glad to have his brother Joe at his side.

"I have a good understanding of where we want to go," says Mr. Longo. "So I'm looking ahead about five to 10 years, but at the same time I have a good grasp of realism about the things that have to be in place for that to happen. My conscience on that side is my brother Joe. He's more the tactician of the operations. Sometimes when I've got my foot on the gas, he'll put his foot on the brake and say, 'We've got to do these things first.' So we work really well together."

Mr. Longo's advice to other business people is that integrity follows you around for life. If you make bad decisions - cut a corner or two, or do something inappropriate - it's going to haunt you.

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