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Celebrating Success

Retail entrepreneurs honored in annual awards program

The 2011 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards program recognized retailers from across the nation. Several of the regional retail winners are reviewed below.

Mindy Grossman/CEO/HSN

Mindy Grossman, 53, smashed through the proverbial glass ceiling even prior to taking the reins of $3 billion powerhouse HSN in 2008. With more than 30 years in the industry, the retail and apparel veteran was a senior executive at Nike, directing strategy, operations and sourcing for its $3.5 billion apparel business, and also served as a VP at Tommy Hilfiger. She’s reached the top spot twice before — as president and CEO of Polo Jeans Co./Ralph Lauren and as CEO, Retailing of IAC/InterActiveCorp., the holding company of Cornerstone Brands, formerly a sister company to HSN.

Today, Grossman rules the multibillion-dollar home, online and catalog-shopping giant that is HSN from its 70-acre campus in St. Petersburg. It’s a big and demanding job, but she manages to find time to stay active in the industry. Grossman is on the National Retail Federation board of directors and is the chairperson of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Executive Women in Fashion advisory board.

Grossman is an entrepreneur at heart and acted on her entrepreneurial bent early. She left George Washington University at age 19 for New York City, determined to make a name for herself in media or fashion. She did both. Under her direction, HSN has regained its relevance and undergone a total transformation from cliché product-pusher to a lifestyle brand with cool products, a hip image and plenty of star power, with a lineup that ranges from singer Mary J. Blige to celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse to tennis player Serena Williams. Grossman has also led HSN’s expansion into mobile with the development of applications for the iPhone, Android and iPad. And in 2010, she oversaw the launch of a second 24-hour television shopping channel, HSN2.

Art Van Elslander/Founder and Chairman/Art Van Furniture

For Art Van Elslander, there is no big secret when it comes to his company’s success.

“The key to our success has been our unmatched customer service,” Van Elslander said. “We always put the customer first, and do whatever it takes to make sure they are satisfied.”

Van Elslander opened his first furniture store in 1959. His mission: to provide the community with quality furniture at great prices, with high standards of customer service. He remained true to that philosophy over the years as he grew the company from a single storefront into America’s largest independent furniture retailer, with 39 stores throughout Michigan, including five freestanding PureSleep bedding stores. The company plans to expand the new PureSleep concept nationally through franchise and licensing agreements.

While Art Van Furniture remains family-owned, it is headed up by longtime Canadian furniture executive Kim Yost, who was appointed CEO in 2009. The family remains active, however. Val Elslander’s son Gary is president of the company; son David is VP merchandising.

The 81-year-old Van Elslander, who has 10 children, has always been a staunch advocate of giving back. He is as well known throughout Michigan for his philanthropy and community outreach as he is for his business success. When Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day Parade fell on hard times in 1990, he wrote a check to save it from being canceled.

“If you’re fortunate enough to be as successful as our company has been, then it’s your responsibility to give back. I just believe that,” Van Elslander said.

In 2009, the company celebrated its 50th anniversary with the launch of the Art Van Million Dollar Charity Challenge. Van Elslander personally donated $1 million in grants to 50 Michigan-based nonprofit organizations focused on children, health and human services. The grants were positioned as challenge grants to maximize fundraising opportunities.

So successful was the initiative — the charities turned the donated $1 million into more than $4 million through additional fundraising — that Van Elslander reprised the same campaign in 2010. Taking it a step further in 2011, Art Van Furniture will invest more than $100,000 by giving its approximately 2,500 associates two hours of company-paid time to do volunteer work for the Million Dollar Charity Challenge partner of the associate’s choice.

“This is a perfect example of how one person can make a difference,” Van Elslander said.

Chris Coborn/President and CEO/Coborn’s Inc.

At a time of rampant consolidation in the grocery sector, family-owned Coborn’s has found a way to adapt, thrive and remain independent. From its earliest days, the St. Cloud, Minn.-based chain has never been afraid to innovate or try new things. Coborn’s was the first supermarket in the state of Minnesota to utilize scanning at its front-end checkouts, starting in 1972. In 1979, it opened a discount grocery format, and in 1986 it opened its first convenience store.

Under the direction of Chris Coborn, the 90-year-old company has remained ahead of the curve, adopting cutting-edge merchandising and marketing strategies. But it remains focused on a singular mission: to be the best place to shop and the best place to work in every market it serves. That mission is shared by its approximately 6,700 employee/owners who share equity in the company through an accelerating employee stock ownership program (ESOP) that was established several years ago,

Indeed, Coborn is known for being relentless in his pursuit of excellence in customer service, store performance, innovation and excellence. His efforts have paid off: The company has generated annual sales in excess of $1 billion over the past three years. At the same time, it is admired throughout the retail industry for its generous philanthropy.

Coborn, whose great-grandfather Chester founded Coborn’s as a single produce stand in 1921, started in the family business as a grocery bagger and stock clerk. Today, he is one of three family members to hold the top executive positions in the chain, which owns and operates 41 grocery stores under several banners, 33 fuel centers, 24 liquor stores and a number of other outlets.

Jeff Gordman/President, Chairman and CEO/Gordmans

Jeff Gordman is following in the family tradition. As president, chairman and CEO of the Omaha, Neb.-basedGordmans, he leads a company that his grandfather co-founded nearly 100 years ago. Gordman has proved himself more than capable of following in his footsteps.

A 1986 graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Gordman initially went to work as a mergers and acquisitions analyst for a Wall Street investment bank. He returned to school and, in 1990, earned a graduate degree in management from the Sloan School at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He subsequently returned to the family business, holding various positions in merchandising, store operations and information technology. But the company was floundering under the control of a non-family member CEO. After closing four stores, the 26-store retailer filed for bankruptcy in 1992, awash in debt and lacking a strong strategic focus. It came out of bankruptcy in 1993, renamed Richman Gordman 1/2 Price Stores, but it continued to struggle.

Gordman decided to take action. He came up with a strategy to revive the business and, in 1996, was appointed CEO. He is credited with leading a repositioning initiative that included an overhaul of the company’s merchandising, marketing, customer service and stores strategy, the development of a new store prototype for expansion and, finally, a name change to Gordmans.

His efforts took hold. Gordmans was recognized as one of the 25 fastest-growing companies in Omaha in 2003 and 2004. It was acquired in 2008 by private equity firm Sun Capital. Two years later, the company had a successful IPO.

Under Gordman’s watch, the company has evolved into an everyday-low-price department store chain that offers a wide assortment of brand-name goods for all ages. Its store are modern and inviting, with such added features as a children’s theater/play area and sports-themed television viewing area for those who would rather lounge than shop.

“We believe that our fantastic values on name-brand apparel, accessories and home decor at up to 60% off department store prices every day has enabled our continued expansion,” said Gordman at the opening of the company’s 74th store, in Vernon Hills, Ill. 

Laura Shapira Karet/Senior Executive VP and Chief Strategy Officer/Giant Eagle 

As a child, Laura Shapira Karet often visited the office of her grandfather, former Giant Eagle chairman Saul Shapira. Flash forward several decades, and Karet, 42, has her own office at the privately held, family-owned chain, where she is responsible for the development and management of Giant Eagle’s long-term business plan and setting direction for its corporate priorities and innovations. On Jan. 9, 2012, Karet’s role will get even bigger when she succeeds her father David Shapira as CEO of Giant Eagle.

Karet took her time before joining the family business. She worked in brand management roles at Procter & Gamble from 1990 to 1997, and went on to assume marketing executive positions at Sara Lee. She was named one of Advertising Age’s Top 100 Marketers of 1999.

In 2000, Karet was recruited by her father to join Giant Eagle. The interview process was rigorous, and the interviews, she has said, were among the toughest of her career. She subsequently joined Giant Eagle as VP marketing.

Karet’s background in the highly competitive world of consumer product goods marketing proved invaluable in the equally competitive world of supermarket retailing. She and her team brought a new focus and sophistication to the chain’s marketing efforts.

The executive also proved herself a driving force in Giant Eagle’s reputation for innovation. With ideas such as the Fuelperks and Foodperks discount redemption programs, gift card rewards and others, Karet’s vision has kept the 80-year-old Giant Eagle constantly evolving and growing. With 170 corporate and 58 independently owned and operated supermarkets, in addition to 162 fuel and convenience stores, Giant Eagle is one of the nation’s largest food retailers and food distributors with approximately $9.3 billion in annual sales.

Charles Sweat/CEO/Earthbound Farm

From small beginnings come great things: Just ask the folks at Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista, Calif.Founded in 1984 on a 2.5-acre backyard garden in Carmel Valley, Calif., Earthbound was the first company to successfully launch prewashed, packaged salad mixes. Today, it ranks as one of the nation’s leading organic food companies and the largest grower of organic salad greens in the nation. It also operates a thriving retail destination, Farm Stand, complete with an organic cafe.

Charles Sweat, who joined the company in 1998 as CFO, was appointed CEO in 2009. Under his direction, the company has reinvented food safety standards, beefed up product innovations and expanded its sustainability commitment. Sales are growing by double digits each year, and 2012 revenue is expected to increase 15% to $550 million — something Sweat attributes to Earthbound’s attention to product development, food safety and sustainability. Equally important is the company’s passion to its mission: to bring the benefits of organic food to as many people as possible and serve as a catalyst for positive change, which is also critical to its success.

“That passion runs throughout the organization, from myself as CEO all the way to the teams that work in our processing plant and in our fields,” Sweat said. “That passion fuels us.”

© 2014