All in the Family

In these difficult economic times it’s rewarding to meet successful businesses that are doing things the right way. It’s even more gratifying when these businesses are family owned and operated. Such is the case with High’s of Baltimore.

There aren’t too many 82-year-old companies in this industry that I’m not familiar with, but I admit I knew little about High’s rich history prior to accepting an invitation to spend some time with the company last month at its Maryland headquarters.

With 69 stores in two states, High’s is led by three generations of management from the Darnell family, all of whom are in touch with employees, customers and industry trends.

“Our brand has been around for quite some time, so while we have flown under the radar in some areas, to our customers—the people that matter the most—we have a proud tradition of meeting and responding to their needs,” said Bill Darnell, president and chief operating officer of the Hanover, Md., chain, which operates 69 High’s Dairy Stores in Maryland and Delaware. The company currently employs about 500 people. “Our motto is ‘expect everyday convenience’ and our customers have come to appreciate that and reward us with many repeat visits.”

In addition to Bill, his father William F. Darnell, now in his late 70s, still maintains an office at the company’s headquarters. Brother Brian Darnell is executive vice president and chief financial officer and Brian’s daughter, Briana Darnell, is the company’s director of real estate.

Keeping Competitive
High’s, like many mid-sized chains, has learned how to reinvent itself to stay relevant to today’s convenience store customers. As competition encroached on its markets, High’s responded with an elegant prototype about five years ago that emphasized convenience, fresh foods, coffee and bakery items, all in a larger footprint. The prototype was tweaked for newer stores to include modern amenities, such as café seating and free wireless Internet service. New stores are in the 3,500-square-foot range.

In addition to competing with mid-Atlantic powerhouses like Sheetz, Wawa and Royal Farms, High’s faces significant threats from the likes of Wal-Mart, Costco, Safeway and a host of drug store chains. Not a day goes by when company leadership isn’t carefully planning its next step.

“The fact is our competition goes much deeper than sales. We’re competing for real estate, labor, bringing new products to market and developing any other edge we can to keep our customers satisfied,” said Ben Jatlow, High’s director of business development. “These are considerable challenges in this business.”

Learn more about High’s retail journey beginning on page 24.
New Tobacco Show
At last month’s National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO) awards dinner in Las Vegas, the association announced plans to launch its own trade show in 2011. This is a bold move given the decline in attendance at many industry conferences, but NATO supporters appear to be onto something special.

“The industry is looking for a strong show that focuses exclusively on tobacco—one that is not lost in a sea of non-tobacco products and foodservice. That’s something retailers have been telling the industry for a long time,” Steve Sandman, vice president of sales and marketing for Republic Tobacco, who will serve as the show’s committee chairman, told me shortly after the show was announced. “The tobacco industry has been assaulted on many fronts and has embraced the idea of supporting NATO knowing its resources are directed at combating these attacks. Supporting a trade show that stands behind tobacco is an easy decision for the industry to get behind.”

Sound logic from experienced leadership. I look forward to the inaugural show in the spring of 2011 in Las Vegas.


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