Randy Edeker started working part time with Hy-Vee at its Chariton, Iowa, store when he was 18 years old.
Now, almost 32 years later, he leads the company as it expands into Wisconsin with stores that cost upwards of $20 million to construct.
The West Des Moines, Iowa,-based company opened its first store in Wisconsin in 2009 at 3801 E. Washington Ave. in Madison. The company opened its second store in the state last week in the Westgate Shopping Center at the corner of Odana Road and Whitney Way in Madison.
This fall, it will open a store in Fitchburg. Like the West Side store, it will have a bar and restaurant, a dietitian and a staff of chefs.
Edeker has held positions at every level of the company during his career. He worked at stores in four states before becoming a store director in 1993 in Columbus, Neb. A year later, he was named Store Manager of the Year.
Edeker was promoted in 1995 to Hy-Vee’s corporate staff and was elected president of the employee-owned company in 2009. He was elected chairman and CEO in May 2012.
Edeker answered questions Monday during a press conference in a second-floor classroom at the West Side Hy-Vee, less than 24 hours prior to the store’s opening.
Q: There’s no shortage of grocery stores in Madison. What is Hy-Vee’s niche here?
A: There is some exceptional competition in this town. There are low-price competitors, high-service competitors, people that are great at fresh.
We think we’re a great combination of all that kind of rolled into one. We’re very aggressive where we need to be aggressive. We have specialty foods, we have the upscale perishables to compete with anybody in the market. We think our winning combination is to put all those things together.
Q: Where do you see your expansion going in Wisconsin?
A: We think there’s lots of opportunity in Wisconsin. I wouldn’t name anything specific but we look at the marketplace as one that we think we will do well in. Someday, maybe 10 years from now, I think we’ll have a couple dozen stores in Wisconsin.
Q: Michigan-based Majier is pushing into southeastern Wisconsin and Hy-Vee will have a third location open by this fall in Wisconsin. What makes Wisconsin vulnerable to new grocery companies.
A: I don’t know if it’s vulnerable but like I said before, you have some of the toughest price competitors around. We’re centered in the Midwest and our growth strategy is not to leap to other areas, so this is a natural progression for us.
Q: Besides Fitchburg, do you anticipate other Hy-Vee stores opening in the Madison area?
A: There’s a possibility. We keep our eyes open on possibilities. But there’s nothing (planned) right now.
Q: How do you compete against Woodman’s Market?
A: We have great respect for our competitors. Woodman’s is a unique, formidable competitor like you don’t see anywhere else in the world, really. They are that good.
People talk about Woodman’s around our whole industry about how good they are. They’re very price-focused.
We try not to be everybody else. We try to be the best Hy-Vee. We’re 83 years old. What we do has worked. It’s delivering a brand of service that that is personal and professional and caring and then couple that with quality.
Q: Do you foresee Hy-Vee entering the Milwaukee market?
A: That’s a leap for us right now but maybe, someday.
Q: As you expand in the state, would you buy existing grocers and convert them to Hy-Vees?
A: That’s something that we’ve really not done much of. We don’t typically buy other stores. Occasionally we have in some markets. We don’t find our best success is to go in and buy places that other people have been for 10 or 20 years in the market. We have no plans to do that right now.
Q: How do you introduce the Hy-Vee brand to a market?
A: We’re going to work to get people to come in and see what we have to offer, so we’ll be aggressive to get people in. We think once they see it and once they get a little taste of it, we treat them right, then they’ll be back. And if we don’t, they won’t.
Q: How does a grocery company fight rising food prices?
A: I think there’s lots of things you can do. For one, you just plain-old give up margin, you make less.
You (also) have to be smart and capitalize on efficiencies with distribution and how you procure product. You try to buy right. You work with your suppliers to be aggressive and get the deals we need to get.
I think it’s a combination of all those things.
Q: Why in-store dietitians?
A: There are areas where the only way you can see a dietitian or get any kind of help with nutritional needs is to have a heart attack or have diabetes because you’ll have to go to the hospital to see them.
We wanted to be able to offer a better service to our customers and take a dietitian right to the store level, right down on the floor, so that all of our customers would have access.
Q: Hawkeyes or Cyclones?
A: You know, you don’t actually have that here. (Hy-Vee) has 59 college sponsorships, three Big Ten, three Big 12, one SEC, and so I’m very diversified.
When we come into a community, one of the things that we do is we seek out the ways (to) support the community. A lot of folks do that but if you look at the scale that we do, not many do it to the scale we do.
The (UW-Madison) is such a huge part of the economy here that we have to support it.