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William Strassburg: Chase-Pitkin Home & Garden

The screen saver on William Strassburg’s computer says, “Every day you get my best.” The president of Chase-Pitkin Home and Garden says he believes no one–from shelf stocker to store manager to president–can slack off for even one day if a retail operation is to be successful these days.
Competition is stiff, Strassburg says, especially for smaller chains like Chase-Pitkin and its parent company, Wegmans Food Markets Inc.
To survive, companies must constantly adapt to market fluctuations and make the corresponding changes in the stores –quickly. To do that, everyone must be motivated and doing their best at all times, he says.
In order to accomplish that, Strassburg says he and his management staff need to make everyone feel like his or her job is as important as the top job. That is why he prefers job titles like team leader, head helper or training facilitator.
“Obviously, sometimes I have to say president,” concedes Strassburg, 43. “But I feel more comfortable and more specific to say I’m team leader. Actually that’s something I should put on my business card.”
Strassburg–Bill to business colleagues, Willy to friends–has made subtle changes to emphasize his philosophy. For example, managers now wear the yellow Chase-Pitkin polo shirts that floor workers wear when in the stores.
“From the employees’ standpoint … there isn’t anybody who is lording over them, and they feel we can be considered as (much) a team player as everyone on the sales floor can,” he says.
He finds it hard to explain how he and his other managers keep everyone motivated, but part of it is trying new things, and if they do not work, trying something else, he says.
Strassburg also believes in talking straight.
“One thing my father taught me was to be honest, and I think that is one of the cornerstones of gaining trust, and you have to have trust in order to be a good manager,” he says.
Don Reeve, director of information services for Wegmans, says Strassburg is humble about his abilities, which are many. He also can be very aggressive when it comes to moving Chase-Pitkin ahead.
“He has quite a serious responsibility, but he lends a real nice process to it,” Reeve says. “He has a real fine knack for comforting folks around him when he’s really doing some serious work.”
Mary Ellen Burris, director of consumer affairs at Wegmans, agrees, saying Strassburg is good at sorting out what he is hearing, whether it is from employees or customers.
Under Strassburg’s leadership–and that of Robert and Danny Wegman–Chase-Pitkin has steadily grown in number of stores and sales.
In the past five years, Chase-Pitkin’s sales have doubled, Strassburg says. He predicts sales of $200 million this year.
Chase-Pitkin helped make Wegmans No. 1 on the Rochester Business Journal’s 1996 list of top 25 private companies, ranked by number of employees.
On its own, Chase-Pitkin would have ranked fifth with its 450 full-time employees and 1,000 part-timers.
But Strassburg says he wants Chase- Pitkin to be interwoven with Wegmans. He has worked hard for that.
Named president in 1989, he is the first in that position to have come up through the Wegmans corporate structure. Wegmans bought Chase-Pitkin and its two stores in 1974. It grew by moving into buildings vacated when Wegmans replaced existing food markets in plazas with larger stores.
This year, Chase-Pitkin opened its first freestanding store in Elmira, bringing the total number of locations to 16.
“One of the things I have concentrated on is getting Chase-Pitkin woven into the fabric of the Wegmans corporation,” he says.
The Chase-Pitkin headquarters now is called Winton Road instead of Chase- Pitkin. Wegmans headquarters is referred to as Brooks Avenue.
“Basically by doing that, the implication is there is no separation, no walls or barriers between us besides a little geography,” he says. “It has really helped us to continue to improve the operation.”
In fact, long-term strategies and philosophy are determined by Robert and Danny Wegman, chairman and president of Wegmans, respectively.
“Bob Wegman is captain of the space shuttle here,” says Strassburg, who has relied on the elder Wegman’s advice greatly over the years. He started at Wegmans as a market analyst in 1977, shortly before he received his MBA degree in marketing and finance from the University of Rochester’s William E. Simon Graduate School of Business Administration.
It was Wegman who encouraged Strassburg to switch to food operations in 1986 and to learn every job there was from doughnut filler to manager. It also was Wegman who asked Strassburg to jump over to the Chase-Pitkin presidency.
When Strassburg took over as president, Chase-Pitkin was successful in the paint and garden markets. Since then, product lines have been expanded to include plumbing and electrical supplies, floor and wall coverings, and expanded hardware and tool sections.
So far, the strategy has worked, and Chase-Pitkin has staved off competition from national chains.
“There’s been an evolution of chains,” Strassburg says. “Fifteen years ago, Grossman’s was one of the biggest chains in the industry, and they came into Rochester and are no longer here.
“Ten years ago, Hechinger was the leader in the industry. They came into town and have since closed their stores,” he says. “Five years ago, Builders Square opened a store and announced that they were going to have from three to five stores in Rochester. So far, they’ve only built one.
“And now the latest is Home Depot coming into our market,” he notes. “Five years from now, there’ll probably be another one to deal with.”
Strassburg does not take the competition lightly. Chase-Pitkin must take on its competitors at every level, he says.
For one thing, the company must fight to get goods at the same price as its national competitors, he explains. Federal law states that, unless they can prove increased efficiency–for example, if a company buys a truckload instead of a half truckload of goods–distributors must charge everyone the same price. But sometimes distributors need to be reminded of the rules.
For its part, Chase-Pitkin is pushing increased efficiency at the warehouse level, Strassburg says. In a few years, except for rare exceptions, all goods will be shipped directly to stores or be in the warehouse only to be sorted and placed on another truck.
Chase-Pitkin also has decided to concentrate on increasing its customer base in the Rochester area–vertical expansion–more than spreading its stores geographically–horizontal expansion.
In the past two years, Chase-Pitkin has hired professional plumbers, electricians and contractors, and added new products to expand into the commercial sector.
The company also started offering store credit through the Shoppers Club for Business, something required by many contractors, Strassburg says. It added a toll-free line to order goods by phone, and started packaging some goods in higher quantities.
For do-it-yourselfers, Chase-Pitkin also is offering credit, plus it is expanding its installation service and continuing to concentrate on local products and concerns.
“We know what the local customer wants, for example, when to bring in the nursery stock,” Strassburg says.
Turfline fertilizer and heartier stocks especially for northern climates are stocked, and the spring plants are not sold until Chase-Pitkin experts are sure the weather will not kill them.
“Because of these local roots, and because of our knowledge of the local weather conditions,” Strassburg says, “we are able to react quickly to changes.”
For example, he says, Chase-Pitkin was the only local chain to ship in generators when the ice storm hit in March 1991.
“The reason was, the disaster was in a very small area–the city of Rochester and Monroe County–so all our national competitors that had retail locations here didn’t really think it was a big deal, didn’t really realize how dramatic the problem was,” he says.
“Rather than having a cookie-cutter approach that is good for any Mr. and Mrs. John Doe in Anytown America, we can key in on what is important for our customers,” he says.
Being part of the community is an important goal for Chase-Pitkin, Strassburg says. The company won one of the top United Way of Greater Rochester Inc. prizes for giving this year.
Involvement also is important to Strassburg, although he says almost all his time is eaten up by his work and his family. He is a member of the Seneca Zoo Society board and the Mid-Town Tennis Club. He and his wife, Tammy, also are members of the Oak Hill Country Club and live along the golf course.
His home fulfills a childhood dream. His father took him to the U.S. Open there in 1968, and he says the houses “awed” him.
“It was my thought process that if I would go on vacation, where would I go? I’d go to a resort that would have a golf course, swimming pool and tennis court,” he says. “In 1986, I bought the house and plan on being there a long time.”
Strassburg is an avid golfer, playing on the college team at SUNY at Albany, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in finance. Playing golf, he says, is for relaxation and exercise.
“I never got too involved in the competitiveness,” Strassburg says.
Reeve says he is not so sure about Strassburg’s assessment.
“Don’t let him tell you he’s not a competitor,” Reeve says. “He’s a good loser, but he doesn’t lose much.”
Burris says she sees in Strassburg a true commitment to community service.
“But he still knows the importance of balance between work and family,” she says. “It’s nice to see.”
Strassburg keeps the sign announcing the birth of his 14-month-old, Leah, up in his office, and one table is committed to pictures of her, his wife and his two sons, 6 and 3.
“If I’m having a tough day, all I have to do is look at one of the pictures of the kids, and realize how lucky I am,” he says, “and it’s not a hard day.”

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