New president says Food Lion must do better

Food Lion President Beth Newlands Campbell, at her office in Salisbury.
Food Lion President Beth Newlands Campbell, at her office in Salisbury.

SALISBURY — Beth Newlands Campbell can make a doughnut.

She can carve a cut of meat.

The 48-year-old upstate New York native knows the grocery industry from deli to board room. She worked her way up from stocking shelves as a management trainee at Hannaford Bros. in 1987 to president of the company in 2010, during a period of growth and innovation at the Maine-based grocery chain.

Now, can Newlands Campbell save Food Lion?

She has taken the helm at Salisbury’s hometown grocer at a crucial time. Tapped as president during a management shake-up last year by Delhaize America, Food Lion’s parent company, Newlands Campbell is charged with turning around the troubled grocery chain and restoring customer loyalty.

“We have a tremendous amount of work to do, but we are getting better every day,” Newlands Campbell told the Salisbury Post.

In her first interview since taking the top job eight months ago, Newlands Campbell acknowledged that Food Lion has struggled.

“We need to improve, quite frankly,” she said. “… We are working on figuring out how to revitalize Food Lion and leverage our legacy and build something very different to create loyal consumers.”

Consumer Reports listed Food Lion as one of the 10 worst grocery stores in the country last year, based on a 2010-2011 survey of 24,000 people. Customers were not satisfied with cleanliness, service, food quality or price.

Delhaize already knew there were problems at Food Lion.

In late 2011, while Newlands Campbell was still running sister company Hannaford, Delhaize launched a two-year transformation of Food Lion stores that included lower prices, fresher produce and more private labels. About 80 percent of stores have been revamped so far, with positive results.

With 875 stores complete, Food Lion plans to finish repositioning the chain later this year.

“The sales uplift we’ve seen provides us with confidence on the value of the Food Lion brand,” Delhaize Group CEO Pierre-Olivier Beckers said earlier this month.

Sales in remade Food Lion stores are up a significant 3 percent, Newlands Campbell said, and Delhaize has experienced three consecutive quarters of volume growth.

She said the initiative is a good start, but it’s not enough.

“We really have just done the foundational basics,” she said.

Echoing Food Lion’s new message announced by Beckers — “easy, fresh and affordable” — Newlands Campbell said she wants to go beyond the basics to study and improve the customer experience in every Food Lion store.

She acknowledged that consistency has been a problem.

“That is the work that we have to do. We have to get better,” she said. “We are never going to have consumers’ trust until they walk into any Food Lion and have the same experience.”

Asked why she took the job, Newlands Campbell offered a quick reply with a meaningful smile.

“I love a challenge,” she said.

Keeping history alive

Food Lion began with one store in Salisbury in 1957 and has grown to 1,117 stores in 11 states. Newlands Campbell said she’s well aware of the company’s storied past and importance to the Salisbury community.

“It’s near and dear to me as well,” she said.

When she arrived in Salisbury, Newlands Campbell picked up the phone and called Ralph Ketner, who founded Food Lion with his brother, the late Brown Ketner, and their friend, the late Wilson Smith.

“I truly believe that when you’re trying to learn about an organization and also look toward the future, it helps to know where an organization came from,” she said. “And I realized that we have all this history living right across town.”

Ketner, 93, and Newlands Campbell have struck up a friendship, she said, adding that she values Ketner’s founding principle of cutting costs and passing the savings on to the consumer.

“That’s a powerful trait to have in an organization,” she said.

Ketner is remaining mum on Newlands Campbell and Food Lion in general, citing his policy not to answer questions about the company because he’s no longer involved. When asked about the new president, Ketner pleasantly gave what he called his stock answer, “No comment.”

For her part, Newlands Campbell said she sees Food Lion’s past as a key to the company’s future. She talks animatedly about keeping the company’s history alive and reinvesting in the chain to make real changes that will bring back shoppers and meet their needs quickly and efficiently.

“It’s not about a do-over, as my kids would say,” she said. “It’s about leveraging our legacy around price and convenience.”

More than anything, she said, Food Lion needs to differentiate itself from the competition, and the company’s history and founding principles can help the chain stand out.

Food Lion, like other middle-of-the-road grocers, faces fierce competition from low-price leaders Aldi and Walmart, as well as increasing pressure from pricier and highly rated banners like Harris Teeter and Florida-based Publix, which recently moved into North Carolina. Aldi opened its second store in Salisbury two years ago near Harris Teeter.

Competition, Newlands Campbell said, is good for the consumer and makes an organization better. She said her challenge is to convince consumers to drive past the competitors and stop at Food Lion.

“How do we get consumers to be loyal to us?” she said.

Food Lion’s new strategy of “easy, fresh and affordable” will emphasize the advantages of smaller, more conveniently located stores. The company has started testing elements of the campaign in select stores, including the Food Lion at the corner of N.C. 150 and Jake Alexander Boulevard.

By year’s end, Food Lion will put all the elements together in one store to test consumer response and work out any operational kinks. The location has not been announced.

Newlands Campbell said shoppers can expect to see more variety, easier navigation and new ways of organizing products in the store that will help people quickly solve the daily dilemma, “What’s for dinner?”

“That’s what Food Lion can really be known for,” she said.

Tough choices at checkout

Newlands Campbell had never lived in the South until settling in Cornelius recently with husband Hugh Campbell and daughters Caroline, 14, and Caleigh, 12, who will attend Cannon School in Concord.

Her husband, who put himself through law school and then discovered a passion for cooking, is a stay-at-home dad. His cookbook collection fills an entire room.

“We eat very well at my house,” Newlands Campbell said.

Life away from work revolves around the girls, who are avid basketball and softball players. The family has four horses, and Newlands Campbell often rides with her daughters.

Three dogs and two cats share the home as well. Newlands Campbell said she’s a sucker for a stray and wanted to be a vet when she was growing up. She entered Cornell University as a pre-med major but said “organic chemistry and I did not exactly get along.” She graduated with a degree in food industry management instead.

She said she was curious about what it was like to live in the South, and the family views the move as one big adventure.

“Home for me is anywhere your family is,” she said.

Newlands Campbell talks passionately about food insecurity, a broadly used measure of food deprivation in the United States. Food-insecure families often don’t have access to adequate food and may subsist on cheap, processed foods loaded with calories but little nutritional value that Newlands Campbell refers to as “belly-fillers.”

More families in North Carolina are food-insecure than the national average, and Newlands Campbell said she’d like Food Lion to do more about the problem.

“To me, that’s a role that I think we can have a huge part in,” she said, first by making quality groceries affordable and then by giving away both food and money.

Charitable giving is “a big part of what I do and who I am,” she said.

Newlands Campbell said she’s seen families faced with tough choices at the checkout and thinks about them when making decisions at the corporate level.

When she took the job, Newlands Campbell was also president of sister chains Harveys and Reid’s. Delhaize is selling those banners, as well as Sweetbay.

She called the decision to sell “difficult” because of the impact on employees but said the divestiture will allow Food Lion to focus resources, including talent and capital investments, where they matter most.

“The future of our organization is what’s going on out in the stores,” she said.

Newlands Campbell said she likes to pop into Food Lion stores, not with a checklist or to catch people doing something wrong but to build a rapport with store managers, employees and shoppers.

“The things we are doing in the corporate office, how does it translate in the stores, and how does it translate for consumers?” she said. “What are we doing that works? What do we need to get better at?”

While Newlands Campbell says she is “incredibly optimistic about our future,” she said her opinion about Food Lion’s improvement doesn’t really count.

“I don’t get to vote,” she said. “That’s up to the consumer.”

A year ago is a lifetime

Newlands Campbell dismissed the Consumer Reports survey that listed Food Lion as one of the worst grocery stores. The story came out in 2012, she pointed out.

“In business, a year ago is a lifetime ago,” she said.

Food Lion spokeswoman Christy Phillips-Brown said the survey, taken in 2010 and 2011, was done before Delhaize’s rebranding initiative began.

“They did that survey before we began any basic changes that started to address service and other in-store issues,” Phillips-Brown said.

In conjunction with the new marketing strategy, Delhaize also has reorganized Food Lion in the past two years, cutting costs at its biggest U.S. subsidiary by closing more than 120 stores and pulling out of Florida. Company-wide, Delhaize laid off 350 employees above the level of store manager earlier this year.

That followed a 25 percent cut of executive positions in January, when 15 people lost their jobs and Delhaize internally unveiled a new, leaner organizational structure that includes 50 officers.

As part of the purge, Newlands Campbell replaced former Food Lion President Cathy Green Burns, who had become a familiar face on Food Lion TV commercials. Green Burns is now president of the Produce Marketing Association.

“Those were tough decisions. Those involved real people that have families,” Newlands Campbell said. “We had to really lean into our values and make the right decisions and tough decisions but doing it in away that had integrity and helped people have their dignity.”

She said she’s satisfied that Food Lion now has the right strategy, structure and people. Pointing to the 3 percent uptick in same-store sales, a metric that analysts use to judge the health of a retailer, she said the changes at Food Lion are working and “consumers are voting with their feet.”

Newlands Campbell doesn’t take anything for granted, even the support of Food Lion’s hometown. She asked the Salisbury community to root for Food Lion.

“You can’t just say, I want consumers to trust me,” Newlands Campbell said. “I want to earn that every day.”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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