Supermarket ownership is a path to wealth like few others but it’s by no means an easy ride or a given right for those who have grocery retailing in their blood. Duncan Bridgeman uncovers 25 of the top Foodstuffs owner operators and finds out what it takes to get there.
Emily Bradbury is one of a new breed of supermarket owners, starting out in the Foodstuffs support office before deciding to try her hand at store operations and going on to purchase her own supermarket.
"It's hard work, it takes drive, it takes passion. You need to want to do the job," she says during an interview at her Four Square store in Twizel, South Canterbury.
"You want to come to the shop every day and you want to see your customers. If you don't have that passion it makes it pretty hard and gruelling."
Bradbury's path is only just beginning and lately it's been one of the most tumultuous times in the industry's history.
Owners still battling Covid-19, a dysfunctional supply chain and severe staff shortages went headlong into the Government's recent focus on grocery prices and the media attention that goes with that.
"There's a lot of inflation happening," Bradbury says. "We are just taking it one day at a time and doing what we possibly can to keep it as affordable as possible for our customers."
At the other end of the supermarket spectrum is Dean Waddell, a third-generation industry veteran and current chairman of the Foodstuffs North Island co-operative that controls more than 300 stores under the New World, Pak'nSave and Four Square brands.
Waddell is better placed to talk about the Commerce Commission's investigation that found competition in the $22 billion sector was not working well for New Zealanders.
"We've been through the study. The business has been turned upside down and pulled apart and looked at by zillions of economists and accountants. The results came back and said our industry profitability is extremely similar to international markets," says Waddell, who owns a Pak'nSave store in Tauranga.
The commission didn't give much weight to that observation in its final report, and instead focused on profitability as a percentage of capital invested and reckoned the industry was making excess profits of approximately $1m a day.
Foodstuffs North Island chief executive Chris Quin says that's ridiculous.
"The premise of this is that a business shouldn't make more than its cost of capital and our belief is that's a real problem. Compared to the rest of the world, our return on capital is about the same.
"The other thing we have pointed out several times is if you take one retail dollar 19c is what we retain, 68c goes to suppliers and the rest is GST. This exercise is focused on the 19c and 4c of that becomes our net profit after tax across the board."
That 4c, however, is what makes supermarket ownership a tasty business to be in (the Commerce Commission says it's actually 4.5c). Some of the big stores in good locations can turnover more than $150m a year. Once an owner is debt-free, they could be looking at up to $8m in annual profit, industry insiders say.
But it's a long, winding path to get to that level.
The path to ownership
The Foodstuffs co-operative, now in its 100th year, has 521 members with the longest-serving membership currently standing at 42 years.
There are a couple of different pathways to ownership but the most common is through the store network, working your way up the chain and into a trainee operator programme.
The other path is through the Four Square network, where someone can change careers to become an owner.
The candidate needs to demonstrate they have the capability, drive and aspiration to run a store. Once selected, Foodstuffs uses its balance sheet to help fund the owner into one of the smaller stores.
Quin says there are some principles that really matter.
"We are all about best grocer. It's not about your family, how much capital you have or your previous success. It's about picking the best person to run one of our stores and serve our community."
Owners pay back their debt to the co-op and pay an annual levy for services such as marketing, human resources and finance. Stores are upgraded every seven years, which requires further investment from the owner/operator.
"A lot of owners come through our stores," says Quin. "You meet people who were apprentice butchers, checkout operators, trolley captains … people who have shone through the store and been promoted. They get recognised for their talent and supported by one of the operators as having the capability to own a store. They go through a selection process and we create a pool of them that we think have got what it takes to be successful.
"Because once you enter one of these businesses, everything you have is in there, it's on the line and it's a huge risk."
Waddell, whose family started in the grocery business back in the 1950s, says most people who come from outside the industry looking for supermarket ownership don't take the leap.
"Core to our constitution is we do not want investors in our business. It is an attractive opportunity and I've had lots of people in my office over the years. It's the same story to everyone, you have just got to start on the shop floor, leave whatever you are doing, and just see if you actually like the environment."
"But 90 per cent of people don't make the leap."
Tim Wilson is one who has made the leap from an earlier career in commercial property. "I started out in a Four Square and virtually learnt the trade on my own terms … I didn't come from a big grocery background and just ended up learning my way through.
"It has been a full-on two years. The team have been through an unbelievable stretch. The second wave of Covid coming through has been really difficult. The recruitment challenges in the market at the moment are real."
Wilson says inflation is another battle as owners try and keep costs down.
Foodstuffs last week extended its price rollback on 110 of the most purchased grocery items for a further three months. The 10 per cent price reduction was first implemented in May in response to food price inflation.
"Fundamentally we are out here trying to run community-led businesses, look after our teams as best as we can and be involved with the community as much as possible. A lot of the press has been pointing to us as if we walk around and intentionally raise prices just to make more money. That is absolutely not the case. We are here trying to do the best thing every day with prices."
From North to South, here are 25 of the top individual supermarket owner operators in New Zealand.
Todd and Lillian Leathem
Like many successful Foodstuffs owner-operators Todd Leathem learnt the grocery trade pushing trolleys as a young boy. He and Lillian owned New World Regent in Whangarei until stepping up to the big time in 2017 with their purchase of the city's Pak'nSave store. The couple were among the first grocers to offer customers incentives for bringing reusable shopping bags when the industry began the transition away from plastic. The Leathems are keen supporters of local sporting clubs, including a sponsorship at Sherwood Park Golf Club.
Eric and Raina Rush
New World, Regent Whangarei
Well known for his exploits for the All Blacks sevens and 15-a-side teams, Eric Rush is also a dab hand and fast mover in the supermarket trade. Kaeo-born Rush, who captained the New Zealand Rugby Sevens team to six consecutive world titles, graduated from the University of Auckland with a Bachelor of Law in 1988. After eight years in the corporate world, he started in the supermarket industry in 2008. Rush initially worked at Manukau's Pak 'n Save as the chilled foods manager before being accepted on to New World's trainee operator programme in 2009. He became an approved owner-operator in February 2010 and later that year he bought his first store, New World Browns Bay. In 2014 he purchased New World Kaikohe, and then in 2017 he and his wife Raina took over New World Regent from the Leathems.
Jason And Kim Witehira
Jason Witehira's supermarket journey started stacking produce as a 16-year-old school leaver at New World Edmond Road in Rotorua back in 1984. Fourteen years later, after working for more than a dozen different stores across the North Island, he became an owner, acquiring New World Taumarunui. In 2001, Jason and his wife, Kimiora, bought the New World at Botany Town Centre. Then, in 2010, he took over the bustling New World Victoria Park, near Auckland's CBD. The couple now own the giant Pak'nSave Albany store – one of the country's biggest and most lucrative. In a promotional video interview, Witehira described how he fell into the food industry, leaving school at 16 and accepting a job ad for a produce worker. "I got the job and really liked it. I liked dealing with people, the customers and workmates and at the end of the school holidays I asked mum and dad if I could leave school," he said.
Quintin and Kimberley Proctor
Pak'nSave Wairau Park
Quintin Proctor started out stacking shelves as a teenager and worked his way to the top - taking ownership of the 4900sq m Wairau Park Pak'nSave on Auckland's North Shore, one of the biggest supermarkets in the country. He remembers being "scoffed at" by his teachers for leaving school to work in a supermarket. But he took the opportunity to do a butchery apprenticeship and worked his way up from there. Beginning in Hamilton he eventually took ownership positions, becoming head of New World Milford and then Pak'n'Save Kaitaia.He was 38 when he took on the bustling Wairau Park Pak'nSave store. "My parents were not wealthy so I had to literally start from scratch and worked my way up. It has been quite a journey for me and my family," he told the North Shore News in 2009
Russ Wilkinson is a third-generation grocer who cut his teeth bagging spuds and helping with packing and deliveries when he was just seven years old. His father Colin ran a small grocery shop in Kaikohe which was passed down from his father. In 1983 Russ became the founding owner of KeriKere New World, which he would operate for 26 years (he once employed a young Jason Witehira, after pulling him aside and telling him to get a haircut). "I have loved this job," Wilkinson told the Bay Chronicle in 2009, when he sold his KeriKeri store. "The people factor is the big thing. It's walking in and seeing all those smiles and trying to spark them all up to have a good day. There's something different every day," he says. Wilkinson now owns Pak'nSave Botany, which he revamped in 2019. Upgrades include 18 new checkouts and seven self-service checkouts.
Clark & Anne-Marie Abel
Clark and Anne-Marie Abel keep a low profile but are active in the community where they own and operate Pak'nSave Papakura. The store was built in 2011 and opened by former Auckland Mayor Len Brown in November that year. It's massive 6,210m2 space includes a mezzanine floor, while outside has 265 car parking spaces. It was one of the first Foodstuffs stores in New Zealand to start using a fully electric, and completely silent, Nissan e-NV200 delivery van.
Craig and Kathryn McKeown*
Pak'nSave Sylvia Park
Craig McKeown is one of the new breed of Foodstuffs owner-operators. Serving on the board of Foodstuffs NI from March 2014 to August 2021, McKeown was chosen as the pilot operator for the conversion of Gilmours stores to the owner-operator model. He owned Gilmours North Shore for more than six years, before taking ownership of Pak'n Save Sylvia Park in August 2015. Prior to joining Foodstuffs he held senior management positions in a number of large retail organisations throughout Australasia. Craig has an MBA from Auckland University and a Masters of Enterprise from Melbourne University. He and his wife Kathryn live in St Heliers. * It is understood the McKeowns no longer own Pak'nSave Sylvia Park.
Rob and Jacqueline Redwood*
Pak'nSave Glen Innes
Rob Redwood was a teenager when he started part-time work at his local Four Square. In 1987 he received a scholarship and became a Foodstuffs member by purchasing a Cut Price store in Taumarunui, which was later converted to a Four Square. He moved to New World Hillcrest before purchasing New World Eastridge in 1995 and took ownership of Pak'nSave Glen Innes in 2014. He was appointed to the Foodstuffs North Island board in 2013. * The Redwoods recently sold the Glenn Innes store.
Pak'nSave Lincoln Road
Glenn Cotterill started his supermarket journey with the purchase of the Te Puke New World in 1992. Two years later he shifted to Whakatane Pak'n Save and in February 2002 bought the Tauranga Pak'n Save, which he operated for 10 years. In 2013 he bought the huge Lincoln Rd Pak'nSave in the West Auckland suburb of Henderson. The supermarket is one of the country's largest with an annual turnover of more than $150m. Cotterill, whose nickname is "the grocer", is one of a handful of supermarket owners who briefly made the NBR Rich List before the format was changed a couple of years ago.
New World Mt Roskill
Sarah Aston joined the Foodstuffs family as the owner if Four Square Oneroa on Waiheke Island in 2008 having previously held several senior business roles at PwC and Telecom (now Spark). She took ownership of New World Milford on Auckland's North Shore in 2010 and was appointed to the Foodstuffs North Island board in 2018. She recently purchased New World Mt Roskill. Aston led the redevelopment of New World Milford in 2015, adding 40 per cent more retail space. Aston holds a Bachelor of Physical Education, a Bachelor of Commerce (Accountancy) and is a Chartered Accountant. She is a director of the Milford Business Association and was the Chair of Laura Angels (a fundraising committee for the Laura Fergusson Trust).
Steve and Jasmine Purton
New World Victoria Park
After 18 years owning New World Birkenhead, Steve and Jasmine Purton recently sold that store and purchased New World Victoria Park, one of the country's most profitable supermarkets. Steve is a keen sailor and continues to sponsor the Richmond Yacht Club as well as other community projects. Auckland Central MP Chloe Swarbrick noted recently the Purton's connection with Auckland City mission, with deliveries of food and other essentials that would otherwise have gone to waste. Writing in Ponsonby News, Swarbrick said she was privileged to go "behind-the-scenes" with Steve Purton of New World Victoria Park. "We had a fulsome discussion with valuable insight into supply-chain issues, the Commerce Commission's report and potential solutions to escalating prices".
New World Pukekohe
Tim Wilson runs New World Pukekohe, which he has owned since it first opened in 2019. Prior to this he owned New World Flaxmere for two years and Four Square Matakana for three years and had an earlier career in commercial property sales. Wilson has a strong community focus and has led various community initiatives during his time in the Foodstuffs North Island co-op, including being a founding Trustee on the Foodies Foundation which supports team members through unexpected hardship. He is married to Joanna and they have three children.
Rob McGregor grew up in a supermarket and never left. His father owned New World in Te Kuiti and Rob worked there after school throughout his childhood. He left and bought two New World supermarkets between 1995 and 1999, including the popular Victoria Park store in Auckland, before moving back near where he started – establishing Papamoa's bustling Pak'nSave in 2010. In an interview with the Bay of Plenty Times, McGregor said he never thought he'd enter the grocery trade after leaving university but it turned out it was too much in his blood. "It's a real people job and everyday is different, you don't get bored. I love it," he said in 2010 when his Papamoa supermarket opened.
Pak'nSave Cameron Rd, Tauranga
A third-generation grocer who began working at New World Brookfield at the age of 13, Dean Waddell has risen to the top of the Foodstuffs empire, becoming chairman of the board in 2018. He studied at Massey University and graduated with a Bachelor of Business Studies before returning to work at New World Brookfield and buying the supermarket in 1992. After 21 years he sold the business and moved to the big league, taking ownership of Pak'nSave Tauranga on Cameron Road in 2013. "I am very proud of our family's long history in the supermarket industry," he said on his appointment as Foodstuffs chair. "After 26 years as a co-op member it is a privilege to chair the board of Foodstuffs North Island. We have a 95-year history of serving New Zealand communities and to play an important part in our next stage of growth is very exciting." he said.
Chris and Jill Grace
Chris and Jill Grace took ownership of Pak'nSave Taupo in 2019 - switching from New World Te Rapa, in Hamilton. They have been in supermarkets for over 20 years and Chris is said to be keen to lift his Taupo store to a new level. The couple live in Taupo and like to holiday at their beachfront apartment in Mt Maunganui while keeping an eye on the horse races. In 2012 the Grace's New World Te Rapa was a finalist in the Kenexa best Workplace Survey. "A business like ours is only ever as good as its staff and its managers ... and when things are tough, you can only expect them to be behind you if you have put effort into building them up," he said at the time.
Another with supermarket blood in his veins, Brendon Smith owns and operates Pak'nSave Hastings, which employs more than 300 staff and caters for around 30,000 customers. The store was originally opened as Write Price in 1983 with just 24 staff and has dominated the Hawke's Bay grocery trade ever since. Brendon's father David Smith came in as a store manager with a view to one day buy the business. He and his wife Pam took full ownership in 1992 and continued to trade it as Write Price until November 2002 when it was redeveloped over 27 months, rebranded as Pakn'Save and became part of the Foodstuffs group. Brendon is active in the local community supporting various causes, including contributing about $100,000 a year to support the Mitre 10 Sports Park with its operations and development.
Chaffers New World, Wellington
Gary Baker has owned the busy Chaffers New World in downtown Wellington since 2010. Chaffers is one of the busiest supermarkets in the region, with more than 60,000 shoppers passing through each week. It employs about 500 staff. The publicity-shy Baker and former co-owner Ian Hong briefly made the NBR Rich List (as it used to be called) in 2018 with a combined net worth of $75m.
Dean Galt and his father Brian also came to prominence making the NBR Rich List back in 2017 on the back of their supermarket business and extensive property portfolio. Born in Invercargill, Brian moved north to buy New World Miramar and then New World Kilbirnie, which he turned into a Pak'nSave in 1999. The store was extended in 2006. Dean bought the store from his father in 2010. He has lived in the Eastern Suburbs for most of his life and still lives locally with wife Lisa and their three boys. The store is a keen supporter of the local community and particularly local sport through their Eastern Suburbs Sports Trust.
Reese & Ashley Drake
Thorndon New World
Brothers Ashley and Reese Drake took over New World Thorndon from their father Brian who had owned the supermarket since 1998. In an interview with the Dominion Post in 2012 Brian said he drew up a blueprint for his sons when they told him they wanted a supermarket career after working outside the industry for several years. Brian himself had started his working life in the insurance business but entered the grocery trade in 1981 when he bought Kelburn Four Square. The blueprint required the brothers to work in and understand every part of the business. In the same article, Ashley remembered learning how to "face" shelves at age six at his father's store.
Phillip and Sarah Blackburn
Supermarkets are in the blood of Phillip Blackburn, whose father had operated a store in the North Island. As a young boy Blackburn spent many school holidays pushing trolleys, stacking shelves and immersing himself in the industry culture. He and Sarah recently took ownership of Pak'nSave Riccarton from Steven Mcdonald, who was owner/operator for 18 years, until December last year. Before that the Blackburns owned the state-of-the-art New World Ilam supermarket. The couple have lived in Auckland, Dunedin, Wanaka and Balclutha, and their family have made Christchurch their home and are excited to part of a city that has a great future.
Bryan Walker and Lucy Boock-Walker
Bryan Walker and Lucy Boock-Walker are big on staff culture and were rewarded a few years ago when employees put on a surprise dance video for them at the work Christmas party. It came after the couple implemented a movie night for their 250 employees at Christmas. Walker, who supports the local motorsport community through sponsorship, is deputy chairman of Pak'nSave's South Island executive committee.
Marcel and Charlotte Gray
Years of hard work is paying off for Marcel Gray, owner-operator of Pak'nSave Wainoni in Christchurch. It took four and a half years and an investment of $40 million to build the supermarket in Christchurch's earthquake-affected eastern suburbs, while at the same time keeping the existing store open. The work finished in October 2015 and the new store employs around 300 staff on an impressive 6400 square metres. "It feels like we can finally move on and move forward after the earthquakes," Gray said when the store opened. The Christ's College old boy serves on the board of Foodstuffs South Island as deputy chairman.
Four Square Twizel (moving to Four Square Picton)
Emily Bradbury started with Foodstuffs South Island as part of the Fresh Foods Support team in 2011. After various roles in the co-op's support office over the next five years, she decided to try her hand at store operations and took on a training role as Assistant Store manager at Four Square Hanmer Springs. It was there that Emily learned the ropes of Four Square ownership and before long she was approved to purchase her own store. Emily and her husband Mason took over Four Square Twizel four years ago, and are due to move to Four Square Picton in September. Emily and Mason have two children – Georgie (7) and Carter (5), who have from an early age learned how to manage the checkout and love to help out over the long summer weekends in Twizel when tourists come into town.
Michelle King moved to Queenstown in 1981 when her parents purchased the Frankton Four Square. After a stint working as a tax consultant at KPMG in Auckland, King returned to Queenstown in 2004 with husband Anthony and their two children. They opened Pak’nSave Queenstown in November 2016, employing approximately 150 staff. King serves on the board of Foodstuffs South Island.