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The Good Fight

Given the lead Ukrop's once held in the market — and its considerable effort to defeat the competition, is their loss a canary in the coal mine?


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There's a message for Richmond in the Ukrop's grocery chain, long the Hank Aaron of supermarkets in terms of local market share, having fallen into second place behind the new No. 1 Food Lion.

When my late mother first came to Richmond not that long ago, the business trade magazines considered the company built by Joseph Ukrop to be the marvel of the supermarket world given its astounding local market share in the face of stiff competition. The chain's success, despite being closed on the second-busiest shopping day of the week — Sunday — and refusal to sell alcohol, has made it a popular case study at business schools for years.

To be sure, Ukrop's has its local detractors, the pros and cons of that debate often led by the usual suspects for the usual Richmond reasoning. Is it hypocritical not to sell alcohol when Jim Ukrop is seen enjoying a glass of wine at social events? I will let those who wallow in such things to have that discussion.

I prefer to focus on whether our town may not be fully appreciating the loss of the top spot by Ukrop's Super Markets. Admittedly, Bobby Ukrop, the chain's chairman and chief executive, told local media outlets that the top spot is only a number — it doesn't directly address service, food quality, prices, profitability or the level of a company's community involvement. It could also be an aberration, considering the depressed economy and that Ukrop's has never been the thriftiest of grocery chains.

Regardless, Bobby Ukrop says the grocery chain isn't focused on being the top seed in the grocery game. In that regard, Ukrop's is far more than a supermarket chain. 

Jim and Bobby Ukrop are talented businessmen. They've constantly made changes to their business model in an effort to respond to local competition as the industry changed. Wal-Mart moved into the grocery business, Kroger came to town and Food Lion continued to wiggle into neighborhoods before anyone else. Yet Ukrop's stayed on top by offering more prepared food offerings, organic foods and specialty items to differentiate the chain from its competitors.

Even with all the efforts, however, it couldn't hold the top spot. In days of yore, coal miners brought canaries with them miles below ground as an early warning signs of trouble. Being more sensitive than we humans to the buildup of dangerous gases in the mine shafts, when the canaries stopped singing because they were having trouble breathing, the miners knew it was time to get their boots back above ground.

Thus my question: Given the lead once held by Ukrop's and its considerable effort to defeat the competition, is its loss of the top spot a canary in the coal mine for Richmond? In that regard, Wal-Mart is closing in on being our area's No. 1 private sector employer. Moreover, a look at the local employment data shows that our area may be relying increasingly on low-paying jobs, because there's been no truly aggressive or innovative effort to attract the higher-wage jobs in the 21st-century economy. 

True, we have an impressive number of Fortune 500 headquarters. But there's a reason Gov. Tim Kaine and his administration found that of all the cities in Virginia, Richmond ranked last on the list, having lost more jobs than any other locality.

As the latest Crupi report pointed out, for the most part, except for being the only city covered by the Voting Rights Act to figure out how to dramatically reform a failed system of government, the economic strategy of our governmental and business leaders has basically been the same old, same old. 

Jim and Bobby Ukrop did a lot better than local government or business leaders in anticipating the future of the competition they would face. Take Ukrop's First Market bank: While city leaders squandered Richmond's leadership as a banking center on the East Coast, Ukrop's jumped into community banking.

Whether you're a fan or a detractor of the Ukrop brothers or their organization, it's clear they looked at the future — and realized the need to make some fundamental changes. On the other hand, our government and business leaders in general doubled down on the past. Our schools remain the oldest and most costly, city government the least efficient, the quality of public-school teaching suspect again in another gubernatorial report. And as always we have no futuristic economic-development strategy, despite having seen rival cities snatch our lead in the South in many areas.

Bottom line: Bobby Ukrop has a point. No one can remain the leader forever, even if they try their best. But can anyone say Richmond has really tried her best? Industry leaders fall all the time, despite making impressive moves to stay on top of the competition. But strong businesses and real leaders don't rest on their laurels.

This should be a lesson to our city's leaders: Even with a plan and a vision, the best and brightest fall by the wayside. To truly compete, however, you must first have a vision and a plan. At least Ukrop's is trying to be a leader. For the children of Richmond, it's unfortunate their city leaders are satisfied with mediocrity. S

Paul Goldman, a former mayoral candidate and senior adviser to Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, is a Richmond-based political consultant.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.