His rags to riches story is well-known among Thrifty Foods staff past and present and community members alike. Young bag boy goes on to create revered independent grocery chain, employs 3,700 and becomes a local legend.
But the story about the co-founder and CEO of Thrifty Foods didn’t end in 2007 when he sold the chain to Nova Scotia grocery giant Sobeys. Alex Campbell has continued his community leadership into his retirement. For this growing body of work, Campbell is being honoured for his life’s work at the 2011 Leadership Victoria Awards.
“Some people may not always be aware of just how much he has done in the background,” said Kate Mansell, chair of the awards steering committee responsible for selecting Campbell as the Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. “He has carried on his philanthropy and leadership well past his time at Thrifty Foods. It was a no-brainer. This guy is amazing.”
Campbell, now 69 years old, retired from the grocery business and as chairman of the B.C. Cancer Agency, looks back on the mentors who set him on his path to business success. He credits his first grocery store managers Murray Turner and Don Lovely, from his days at Shop Easy Foods in the 1960s, with giving him the support and motivation to leave his stable job and take a risk founding 49th Parallel Grocery in Ladysmith in 1973.
“(Lovely) is one of the reasons why I decided to go on my own because he encouraged young managers to take a look at the option of being independent, even though it didn’t help the company much,” Campbell said.
The values that helped guide Campbell’s first business decisions were learned early and remained the same. In 1977 when Campbell co-founded Thrifty Foods with Ernie Skinner, they called on a “back to basics” approach of honesty, straightforwardness in business dealings, and valuing staff, suppliers and customers. This philosophy is paramount to success in the grocery industry, advice fit for any leader, he said.
“Really, it’s a little bit of the golden rule. Treat others the way you expect to be treated.”
Campbell says he feels good about the $260-million sale of his then-19-store chain, built up from a single location in the Fairfield Plaza. Sobeys is following “for the most part,” he said, the grocer’s core philosophies. Sobeys plans to expand and build a new warehouse – a $40-million investment that Campbell wasn’t ready to make so late in his career.
From expansion to charitable giving, risk is not something that Campbell shies from.
“There’s always risk,” he said. “One of the things that separates entrepreneurs from other people is that when an entrepreneur is asked to put down a personal guarantee, he’ll put his house up as collateral, whereas some people can’t do that.”
Campbell now enjoys filling his days with reading, taking in live sports and spending time with his family. The grandfather also recently returned from two months in Mexico.
Reflecting on his “fortunate” career and personal life, he is most proud of the reputation that Thrifty Foods earned on a national scale. Named one of the country’s 50 best-managed companies for four consecutive years with Campbell as CEO, the chain held more than 40 per cent of the Vancouver Island grocery market.
“A pretty good chunk of business for a little guy who started out with one store in Victoria,” he said.
Campbell will be accepting his award at the seventh annual Leadership Victoria Awards ceremony, Feb. 16, 4 p.m. at the Fairmont Empress Hotel. Campbell will accept his award alongside new community leaders and youth award recipients – a group that might be able to learn a thing or two from the iconic Victorian’s advice.
“Be prepared to work long hours and probably make some sacrifices along the way – and you might have to make some tough decisions,” he said, soon adding, “There’s no guarantee that it works for everyone.”
1999: Campbell received the Order of B.C.
2000: Royal Roads University awarded him with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws degree
2009: University of Victoria awards him with an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the faculty of business
2010: Named Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year Award, recognizing an inspirational entrepreneur who has had a significant and positive impact on the global community through business leadership