Retailer led growth, sale of Food Town

Wally Iott co-founded a co-op in 1948 that evolved into Food Town. He became its chairman in 1962.
Wally Iott co-founded a co-op in 1948 that evolved into Food Town. He became its chairman in 1962.

Wallace D. "Wally" Iott, 90, who led Food Town as it became a local landmark and one of the largest supermarket chains in the state, died yesterday in St. Anne Mercy Hospital.

He had congestive heart failure and five years ago was treated for lung cancer.

Mr. Iott, a co-founder of the chain, was chairman of Seaway Food Town Inc. in 2000 when Spartan Stores of Grand Rapids, Mich., bought the local firm's 47 supermarkets and 26 Pharm deep-discount drugstores. Seaway Food Town then had annual revenues of more than $750 million.

Food Town also was a corporate sponsor of many community events, including the annual Holiday Parade in downtown Toledo.

"I guess it was inevitable," Mr. Iott told The Blade as Food Town shareholders approved the sale. "I haven't really looked forward to it. But because all over the U.S. the industry is consolidating, we had to do something."

Spartan began pulling out, though, in April, 2003. The last store closed in August, 2003, ending a 55-year legacy and a brand name of 46 years.

"I'm absolutely convinced that he passed on thinking that he did the right thing based on the information we had," said his son, Rich Iott, who was Seaway Food Town president and chief executive officer when Spartan bought the chain. "It was the right business decision at the time."

When Spartan closed the last Food Town, "he never said anything, I never heard any regrets," his son said. "It [had] to have hurt inside."

Mr. Iott, of Sylvania Township, became Food Town chairman and president in 1962. The co-op that was formed in 1948 among five grocers - Mr. Iott among them - incorporated in 1957 as Seaway Food Town. Mr. Iott was named to lead it five years later when a business partner left the venture, and the company went public.

The firm's ventures included a milk processing plant and institutional food service. By the mid-1960s, he'd opened stores that offered groceries and department and discount store goods. Warehouse-style stores followed in the 1970s, and the Pharm drugstores opened in the 1980s.

The accounting firm Ernst & Young named him a northwest Ohio Entrepreneur of the Year in 1990.

Mr. Iott noted in 1972 that many young workers in Food Town's business offices had training in methods and analysis.

"I enjoy talking with them," he told The Blade. "But I still run the business the way I always did - by instinct, and I think I drive them all nuts."

He routinely worked 12-hour days and could be demanding "in that he expected everybody to do the best they could," his son said. But unlike other leaders, he "only demanded of you what you could do and he would make the best of that," his son said.

"He really saw his role and he enjoyed his role in being a teacher," his son said. "He never got over that role, whether it was in business or his personal life. He loved to take people and to nurture them and see them come along."

Mr. Iott grew up in St. Anthony's, Mich., and was a graduate of Central Catholic High School in Toledo. He bought a meat market in 1936 and in 1941 opened a grocery store, which his wife, Jeanette, ran after he was drafted into the Army in World War II.

"He was a true retailer to whom the customer was absolutely No. 1," his son said.

His and the firm's reputation for philanthropy reflected his philosophy, his son said: "Anyone who has any modicum of success is obligated to give something back to his fellow man."

Surviving are his wife, Jeanette, whom he married Sept. 4, 1939; son, Rich; daughter, Connie Iott Holler, and three grandchildren.

The body will be in the Walker Funeral Home after 2 p.m. tomorrow. Services will be at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in Christ the King Church, of which he was a member.

Two of his seven sisters were Ursuline sisters, and the family suggests tributes to the Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart.