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Food Lion president says company has ‘mojo’ back

SALISBURY — About a year and a half after taking the helm at Food Lion, President Beth Newlands Campbell says the Salisbury-based grocery chain has returned to its roots to create a new strategy and restore pride in the company.
“We have momentum right now as an organization,” Newlands Campbell said after Monday’s launch of a new hunger relief initiative called Food Lion Feeds. “We have our mojo back.”
Newlands Campbell, who said Food Lion Feeds is the boldest career move she’s ever made, talked about changes at the grocer, which has struggled with an identity crisis in the shadow of low-price leaders Aldi and Walmart and high-end chains like Harris Teeter and Publix.
With a strategy focused on winning back customers and an initiative centered on fighting hunger, Food Lion has regained its footing and is working to restore pride in the organization from employees and the community, said Newlands Campbell, who left sister chain Hannaford to lead Food Lion. Both are owned by Delhaize, a Belgian international food retailer.
Food Lion’s new “easy, fresh and affordable” strategy, which includes a new logo, more variety, customer service training for 63,000 employees, store remodels and price cuts, is working, Newlands Campbell said. She pointed to Delhaize’s 4.6 percent comparable-store sales increase in the first quarter of 2014.
“Food Lion was a big part of driving that number,” she said. “That’s really leading within Delhaize Group and leading within the industry.”
Delhaize does not release financial results by chain, but overall U.S. revenues improved 4.1 percent to $4.4 billion during the first quarter, January through March. Underlying profits decreased by 8.2 percent to $155 million, reflecting lower margins as a result of price cuts at Food Lion as well as Hannaford.
As Food Lion invests in price, the company made a strategic choice to lower profit margins “to a level that we think is the right level in our industry and we can make sustainable,” Newlands Campbell said.
“We are really excited about where we are going with our new strategy,” she said. “… We have momentum to make some changes in the organization, and we are. And we have momentum to be a better Food Lion.”
Newlands Campbell came in after a management shake-up, store closures and layoffs. In 2012, Food Lion closed 126 underperforming stores and shut down its Bloom brand. Last year, Delhaize America laid off about 350 corporate employees as part of a reorganization that started with the departure of Cathy Green Burns as Food Lion president.
Delhaize recently completed the sale of 155 stores under the Harveys, Sweetbay and Reid’s brands to rival Bi-Lo.
Many are praising Newlands Campbell as she works to turn Food Lion around, including co-founder Ralph Ketner.
“She’s a breath of fresh air,” Ketner, 93, said Monday after helping Newlands Campbell pack donation boxes headed to area food banks.
Ketner said Food Lion needed a shot in the arm like Food Lion Feeds, the hunger relief initiative that pledges to provide 500 million meals by the end of 2020. That’s three times the number of meals that Food Lion has donated in the past five years.
The program will help differentiate Food Lion from its competitors and could boost customer loyalty, said Ketner, who called Newlands Campbell “brave.”
Food Lion must lead, not follow, he said.
“If you’re going to be ‘me too,’ who needs you?” Ketner said.
Food Lion is implementing parts of the new strategy market by market, such as store remodels, but other aspects have been unveiled company-wide. Customers soon will see more variety and private brand labels on store shelves throughout Food Lion’s 10-state region, Newlands Campbell said.
“More consumer-driven variety, not what the vendors want to sell us, but what our consumers want to buy,” she said. “And we are not going to wait until a store has a remodel to do that. We can do a lot of that now.”
Newlands Campbell said Food Lion is working to create an identity.
“To me, that’s what strategy is about — how are you going to be different from somebody else? This is building on our legacy of price and convenience that Mr. Ketner started years ago,” she said. “Taking our strengths, building on them and trying to carve out a niche.”
Food Lion’s smaller store size offers convenience for shoppers, Newlands Campbell said. While fresh and affordable are part of what can make Food Lion different, “easy is really the sweet spot for us,” she said.
Training on a new “customer-centric” model is key to Newlands Campbell’s vision for the new Food Lion. By the end of June, all associates will have gone through the customer service training.
“Consumers shop with us because we’re convenient, and I think they’re going to come back not just because of what they bought but also how they felt while they were in the store,” she said.
Newlands Campbell, whose grandfather stood in a soup kitchen line during the Depression, called hunger relief “near and dear to my heart” and said the cause was a natural choice as Food Lion searched for a way to focus philanthropic efforts around one central idea.
“As a grocer, it’s a cause that we can take a stand on and know that we can make a difference,” she said.
Kay Carter, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina, called Food Lion Feeds “revolutionary” and said Newlands Campbell’s commitment is genuine.
“Beth is a force to be reckoned with,” Carter said. “She is just very compassionate, it shows on her. You see it on her face, you hear it in her voice.”
Newlands Campbell had her family with her at Monday’s launch of Food Lion Feeds. As a business leader and a mother of two, she said she wants to encourage the next generation to understand the importance of giving back.
While Food Lion has had a tradition of community service for many years, Newlands Campbell said the company is taking philanthropy to a new level.
“This is taking a huge stand, this is leading the industry and the community and saying we’re going to make a difference on this one issue,” she said. “… We’re going to partner with those agencies that do it best. We’re going to adopt one cause, and it’s called hunger.”
Food Lion Feeds is about more than fighting hunger. Newlands Campbell said she is also trying to mobilize and energize 63,000 associates.
“Our associates want to volunteer and they want to give back and they want to feel good about their jobs,” she said. “This is an important part of giving back to the community, but it’s an important part of engaging with associates as well.”
Newlands Campbell said her most powerful day on the job so far was not at Food Lion’s corporate headquarters on Harrison Road. It was in Jeanie’s Kitchen, the soup kitchen at Rowan Helping Ministries, serving meatloaf.
As a grocery store manager, Newlands Campbell said she “saw hunger close-up,” watching customers in line for the checkout making trade-offs — mothers choosing baby formula over a meal for themselves, seniors choosing between dinner or buying medication. She saw the faces of hunger again at Rowan Helping Ministries and said she was touched by generosity of those being served and also of those serving alongside her.
“Clearly, they are serving more than just lunch. It was about caring, it was about compassion and it was about much-needed help,” she said.
Nearly 30 percent of food pantries in North Carolina have had to turn people away due to a lack of food. Newlands Campbell said Food Lion wants to change that.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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