All in the Family - Stew Leonard, Jr.

Stew Leonard, Jr., president and CEO of Stew Leonard’s supermarkets and wine stores, knows a thing or two about running a family business. He’s the third generation to run a business on the same parcel of his family’s land in Connecticut. First, the family had a dairy farm and milk delivery service, then a hugely successful retail dairy and supermarket, and now a chain of unique food and wine stores. But with every generation, the business changes to meet modern demands. Leonard sat down with Robert Levin to discuss dealing with the previous generation — and the next generation — when managing a family business.

RL: What are some of the unique challenges to owning a family business?

SL: One is what did I do when my father was still in the office. You’re having problems doing new stuff because he disagrees. And the second thing is, when you have brothers and sisters, there’s a feeling of unfairness about the amount of work each one does and what they get paid. Those are two big family business issues.

When my father comes back now, he is really good about being sensitive to the fact that there’s been a lot of changes made. And if he asks somebody to do something, he’ll always make sure he tells me. Or sometimes he’ll even bite his lip a little bit and ask me first.

But we did have some conflict when I first took over because nobody knew whether to go to him or go to me. Over the years, we’ve worked it out pretty good and I think we have a nice relationship. There’re still times we get pissed off at each other, because he sometimes doesn’t realize we have four stores, and you can’t spend all the money on No. 1, you know. [laughs] You got to divvy it up a little bit here. And, he doesn’t like how slow stuff takes sometimes, too. He wants things done, like, by sunset. [laughs]

RL:  Did you always work in the family business?

SL: I’ve worked here through high school, which is one reason I basically took 12th grade twice. I went through public high school but worked here way too many hours. I applied to colleges, but got a whole stack of rejection letters. So I ended up going to Westminster School [college preparatory boarding school] up in Simsbury, Conn., for a year. And then they cranked me into shape quick. I probably studied more that year than I did all through high school, and I had to wear a tie to class. We had chapel on Sunday.

Then I went to college but stayed really interested in the store. I was wired into the whole thing. It was part of our family’s dinner table conversation and I never looked at it as a career. I figured I’d just be going to school for a little while and fall back into working at the store, because it was really fun. My father always got [the family] involved. And he let me drive fork trucks and milk trucks around the building when I was only 14 years old.

But in my senior year, all my friends were going to work for “companies” and would give me looks when I said I was going to work at my dad’s store. So I decided I’d work for an accounting firm after I earned my accounting degree. [Accounting firms] were hot in the late ’70s. I interviewed and got a job with Price Waterhouse. But before I started, a buddy and I got tickets for Pan Am flight No. 2, which went from New York around the world. All of a sudden, I’m exposed to all these customs and different philosophies. I was sitting on a plane flying in the Middle East somewhere next to a guy with a big turban on his head. He asked me what I did and I told him the whole story. And he said, “All your energy should be put into the family. The family is the most important thing you have. Don’t look at it as an entitlement. You go on and you put as much energy as you would at another company, you put it into your family’s company.” And he was 15th generation in his family’s business or something crazy like that. And I went home and said to my father, who was against me going to work for another company, that I’d put my energy into the store.

That was 1977 and I went in full speed. But I felt cramped within a year and a half, because there were so many problems here. Unions were picketing us. Guys were throwing their helmets down in the meat department and walking out: “I quit. I hate it here.” There was no information, no systems in place and it was frustrating. I couldn’t get any traction. So I said, “I’m going to go to business school.”

I went out to L.A. because it’s a hotbed of entrepreneurial companies out there. And I liked UCLA [business school’s] focus on people rather than finance, although they have a great finance program. They offered more team-building stuff. I went out and did that for a couple years, and then really just never looked back.

RL: As a kid, what were some of the things you had to do when you were working in the store, probably in your teen years, that you hated doing?

SL: One of the worst jobs was cleaning out the old milk cans that were returned from the restaurants. If you remember, they would take these big metal 40-quart milk cans, and they would bring them in and throw them upside down like a big bottle of water. It was a milk machine, when someone wanted a glass of milk, and you just filled it up.

When the milk cans were empty, the restaurants would put them outside in the hot sun. Then the milk trucks would come by, pick them up, and bring them to the store. Then it was my job to clean them out. I would have to take a mallet to pop the lid off it. It smelled so bad, because you had sour milk lining the inside. And then you had to put them in this big tub of water, and wash them out. That was a pretty bad job.

And cleaning the farm was another job you wished you didn’t get picked for, because you’d have to go shovel the manure.

RL: Do your daughters have to wash the milk containers? Do they want to go into the business?

SL: We have a plan for them. Right now, they’re all in customer service jobs as they go through high school and college. In high school, they have to work on the floor. They all have learned to roll up their sleeves. They’re very hands-on. As they get into college, they work in different areas. For example, one of my daughters is really into the graphic arts stuff, so she’s worked with our art department, and one of our nieces worked in PR this past summer, because she’s studying that at school.