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Published: Saturday, 12/5/2009

For the love of groceries: At 80, Walt Churchill still minding the store

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

IT IS 10 a.m. and Walt Churchill is running behind schedule.

Normally, he arrives by 8 a.m. at the Perrysburg supermarket that bears his name, checks to see that things are just right, spends time talking to employees, and chit-chats with suppliers.

But today, a doctor's appointment delayed him. Not to worry.

The 80-year-old grocery industry veteran immediately slips into his accustomed duties, looking over the produce section, then the meat and deli sections, and always — always — making sure to greet every customer who passes by.

“I try to put to people that we're on stage. It's our job to do everything right,” said the owner of Walt Churchill's Markets in Perrysburg and Monclova Township.

At this moment, he wants to talk about blueberries with Jeff Denny, an agent for supplier Caito Foods. Specifically, “Why can't we get the big containers?” Mr. Churchill asks, careful not to be confrontational.

In a ritual he performs whenever he encounters a customer, Walt Churchill greets Paula Letke of Fremont, Ind. In a ritual he performs whenever he encounters a customer, Walt Churchill greets Paula Letke of Fremont, Ind.
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Mr. Denny explains that large containers mean higher prices, and with blueberries out of season, customers might be scared off. However, Mr. Churchill politely explains that customers will pay more if they perceive good value.

Afterward, Mr. Churchill said, “My primary job is to make sure what the customer sees is what they want to buy.”

The luminary in the local grocery industry, a third-generation grocer, more than keeps his hand in the business and isn't thinking about retiring, despite his age. Observers may ask about his business success, but his business partner maintains that one of the stores is profitable and the other will be.

Asked what his official duties are, Mr. Churchill said, “I'm kind of not on the schedule really.” That causes his longtime friend and business partner in the Perrysburg store, Bob Carpenter, who is standing nearby, to arch his eyebrows and let out a huge laugh.

Mr. Carpenter said that's because Mr. Churchill practically lives at the store. He nearly always can be found either at the 44,000-square-foot Perrysburg store — the construction of which he oversaw in 1990 — or the 22,000-square-foot Monclova Township store that Mr. Churchill bought in 2005.

It's tempting to label the former Marine who served in the Korean War and was a cross-county star at the University of Toledo a classic workaholic.

But those who know Mr. Churchill say his motivation is that he just thoroughly enjoys what he does and refuses to slow down or give it up.

“I think he has a passion for this for sure,” said Debbie Skutch, director of UT's Center for Family & Privately Held Business.

Ms. Skutch, who has known Mr. Churchill for 17 years, said he once hosted a session at the center. “He brought out mangoes. Then he started cutting them up and began showing us the proper way to cut them,” she said. “You could see that that was in his blood.”

Hank Jarvie, produce manager at the Perrysburg store, said of his boss: “Just to be around him is fun. He always comes up with some little-known fact about food that you never knew.”

Mark Katafiasz, manager of Food Town stores in metro Toledo, became acquainted with Mr. Churchill in 2005 when Mr. Katafiasz managed Bassett's Market in Sylvania for Mike Bassett, who is Mr. Churchill's friend and partner in a store in Bellevue, Ohio.

“He's definitely afflicted with the grocery bug,” Mr. Katafiasz said. “Walt grew up in the business and he just loves to do it.”

However, nine years ago, Mr. Churchill hit the low point in his long career. After a dispute over the direction of four-store Churchill's Super Markets, Mr. Churchill “walked away” from the company.

For 25 years, Mr. Churchill, who was known as Walt, Jr., while his father, the late Maj. Gen. Walter A. Churchill, was still living, was president of the 96-year-old grocery chain and oversaw much of its expansion from a one-store firm on Central Avenue to what became a six-store chain with 7 percent of the local market share in 2000.

But when “the General,” as the late Mr. Churchill was known, died in 1998 at age 94, he left the business in bad shape. He failed to plan for a transition of the family business, and when he died, the company faced a $3 million estate tax bill as a result, family members said.

The tax situation forced the board of the Churchill family trust, which still owns the company, into a difficult decision in 2000 — sell stores in Sylvania, Perrysburg, and Toledo to Farmer Jack Supermarkets — and keep the original Central Avenue store.

Mr. Churchill disagreed with the move and wanted to keep the stores. The board, which included immediate and extended Churchill family members, favored the sale. It voted to remove Mr. Churchill as president and cut him out of day-to-day operations.

Mr. Churchill, who now calls the move “normal family squabbles,” tried legal action at one point to regain control, but eventually dropped that and walked away. “In the end, I didn't want to gain a business and lose my sister [Carolyn Colwell],” he said.

Cut off from the family business, Mr. Churchill began advising Mr. Bassett, and the two men and Mr. Carpenter later bought the Bellevue store.

Mr. Churchill turned more to sailing and traveling, but found them unfulfilling.

His fortunes pivoted in 2003. The Monclova Township store, which the family-run company opened that year as a gourmet market with the hope of starting a new chain, was struggling.

Bob Colwell, Mr. Churchill's nephew and president of the company, asked Walt to save the store, which lost $1 million in 2003 and would lose nearly that in 2004.

Mr. Churchill leapt at the chance. He made drastic changes but nothing worked. In 2005, the Churchill's board voted to close it.

Instead, Mr. Churchill bought the store with his own funds, put his name on it, and kept trying to turn it around. “I needed something to do, so I bought it. I saw potential in it, and I got it at a good price,” he said.

Last March, Mr. Bassett, who had bought the former Churchill's Super Markets in Perrysburg and Sylvania from Farmer Jack, opted to sell the Perrysburg store to Walt Churchill. He had closed the Sylvania store.

“In my head, this was ‘my' store,” Mr. Churchill said of the Perrysburg store, using a quotation-marks gesture for emphasis. “I have strong feelings for this store and the community. The customers are glad to see me back and I'm glad to be back,” he said.

As if on cue, a couple from Idaho wandering the Perrysburg store spotted Mr. Churchill and waved. “Hi! We love your store!” the woman said. “It's almost enough to make us move back here,” her husband added.

“Why, thank you very much. Almost?” Mr. Churchill responded.

Mr. Churchill's grandfatherly personality won over every customer he encountered one day last week in the Perrysburg store.

But for a time when the General was alive, some in the Toledo business community questioned whether a winning personality was all that Mr. Churchill possessed.

“I really think there was a lack of acknowledgment of his capacity as a businessman when his father was still alive,” said local developer and attorney David Kienzle. He is a friend of Walt Churchill's and his business partner in the River Place shopping center that is home to the Perrysburg store.

“I think the jury was out then,” Mr. Kienzle said, adding that he saw his partner making good decisions.

The Monclova Township store on Briarfield Boulevard is profitable, Mr. Kienzle said, and the Perrysburg store is on the way to profitability.

“Now that his father has passed, I think he's silenced all those critics and showed that he really, really knows the business,” Mr. Kienzle said. “He's done an excellent job of competing with and staying in front of the national chains.”

If Mr. Churchill has a shortcoming, Mr. Kienzle said, it may be that he is too nice.

“One of his most wonderful qualities is instead of reacting negatively to those who would do him harm, he stays patient and noble about it,” Mr. Kienzle said. “I wish he'd be a little more forceful. But that's his personality.”

Mr. Colwell said that his uncle's reluctance to hold grudges isn't a flaw, but a strength learned possibly as a Marine.

Mr. Churchill fought in the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, a decisive engagement in the Korean War when 60,000 Chinese soldiers swarmed across frozen rivers to overwhelm a U.N. force of 30,000 on the day after Thanksgiving in 1950.

As a Marine, “You learn to deal with stress,” Mr. Churchill said.

Mr. Colwell agreed, saying, “There's not many people that could probably get his goat.” When it does occur, “… he can move on. You can get in an argument with him and he won't hold a grudge.”

The family company still owns and runs the Central Avenue store with no management from Walt Churchill.

Mr. Colwell said of his uncle, “He's not the easiest guy to work with. He has got a vision and a plan. Compromising on some of those things is tough for him.”

But that also explains why, at age 80, Mr. Churchill can still be found in grocery aisles, greeting customers and explaining to a novice why one type of persimmon is better than another.

“He just loves the food business — there's no question about that,” Mr. Colwell said. “You won't find anyone that loves this business more than him.”

Contact Jon Chavez at:jchavez@theblade.comor 419-724-6128.



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