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Foodie keeps chain focused on its niche

CEO Frank Curci leads Tops Friendly Markets, one of the largest employers in the region. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)

Behind a more than 50-year-old brand, 161 stores, 16,000 employees and $2.5 billion in revenues is Frank Curci.

The CEO of Tops Friendly Markets LLC leads one of the country’s largest grocery retailers.

“I am a fairly quiet person, and obviously in this position you have to be somewhat outgoing and try to motivate people, but I think I’ve always let my actions speak louder than my words,” Curci says. “I think that’s paid off for me in life. I’m not somebody who will outwardly boast about what I’ve accomplished.”

The company has some 2,620 employees in the Rochester area, ranking it No. 10 on the RBJ 75 list of the region’s largest employers. It has 14 stores and 1,600 associates in Monroe County, one store in Livingston County with 92 associates and four stores in Ontario County with 370 associates.

A northern New Jersey native, Curci, 63, attended Rutgers University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees, earning a business administration degree and an MBA. He started his career at Arthur Andersen LLP in New York City in 1974. But he found that addressing only the financials of a company was limiting.

“After doing that for a couple of years, I knew that I wanted to be in industry and actually be doing something rather than reviewing something,” Curci says.

He became the director of financial reporting for the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., a national supermarket, food, drug and liquor store chain based in Montville, N.J., in 1980.

A&P, however, was in perpetual decline and Curci set his sights on something smaller. He joined ShopRite Supermarkets Inc., the largest retailer-owned cooperative in the country, in 1982 as controller. He was able to get involved in acquisitions, public financing and the intricate details of the business. After five years he left to become the chief financial officer of Foodtown, a supermarket cooperative owned by Mayfair.

“(The supermarket industry) wasn’t an overt plan, but what I loved about it was that it was a real business,” Curci says. “When I was in public accounting most of my clients were financial companies—they were mostly brokerage houses and banks and to me that was never a real business. Food marketing, the thing I loved about it was it was something that you could see and touch and feel—no matter who you are you’ve been in a supermarket.

“It’s the kind of business that you get a report card every day,” he adds.

Foodtown’s owner was aggressive in the pursuit of opportunities. When the owner’s health began to fail, Curci helped him think about the future.

“I drew up a business plan for how I thought we would go forward from there and what I thought we should do, and he loved the plan but he wanted me to be the person to run the business,” he says. “He was a real mentor towards me, and I really felt like I learned a lot about running the business from him.”

Curci was promoted from CFO to the president and chief operating officer. He ran the company for two years. It had 45 stores and roughly $900 million in sales.

It soon became necessary to sell the company because of the needs of its owner. It was sold to Koninklijke Ahold NV, a Dutch international retailer.

“I really got to the point where I felt like I was comfortable in that role,” Curci says. “We had to sell the company because that was his only asset.”

Joining Ahold
Ahold asked Curci to relocate to Greenville, N.C., in 1996. He began in the financial and real estate end of the business with Bi-Lo Foods LLC, a southern grocery market chain with stores in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Each experience in the supermarket industry led to new understandings of the business, Curci says.

“I’ve been very lucky to be involved in almost every possible ownership structure, every possible size of company,” he says. “A&P was a huge company; it was in decline; ShopRite was a public family-owned company that was growing, (Mayfair/Foodtown) was a group where the owner wanted to own the world so we got involved in all kinds of things. And then going to Ahold—this was the world of large multi-unit, multi-banner kind of companies.

“At Bi-Lo we were $3 billion in sales and we had 600 to 700 stores in eight or nine states. It was something I had never seen before.”

After nearly five years down south, Curci was asked to move to Buffalo to run Tops as CEO in 2000.

“That was my first experience being the president and CEO of a large business,” Curci says. “At the time (it) was going through some struggles.

“Tops has a long and proud history, and it’s had many different ownership structures. (When) I got up here, really it was like coming home to me.”

Tops was purchased by Ahold in 1991 and had difficulties under its new leadership. From 2003 to 2007 Ahold combined operations, centralizing Tops’ finance, information technology and merchandising into Giant Carlisle in Carlisle, Pa.

That move was a mistake, Curci believes.

“The thing I’ve learned about this business is local is important,” he says. “Tops is really embedded into not only the Buffalo community and into Western New York but Upstate New York in general. The mistake that Ahold made, which turned into a real opportunity for us, was combining operations. It was terrible for this business.”

Morgan Stanley Private Equity purchased Tops Markets from Ahold on Dec. 1, 2007, for $310 million. After six years the firm has been transitioned to management ownership led by Curci.

“I believe Frank has been so successful because he is the perfect combination of visionary and communicator,” says Kevin Darrington, Tops’ chief operating officer. “Frank has been the architect of both the original purchase of Tops Markets from Ahold and the later management buyout purchase.

“In both purchases Frank not only needed to see the future of what Tops could be but (also) had to communicate that vision to all impacted parties, which in many cases had very different opinions,” Darrington says. “Frank’s ability to relate to all of our different constituencies in a simple, clear and, most importantly, very genuinely honest approach was imperative to the execution of his vision.”

The move has allowed the company to return to an independent, locally operated organization.

“That was the scariest point because now you’re cutting the cord and going out on your own,” Curci says.

He talked to Morgan Stanley about local management running the company and bringing it back to Buffalo.

The management team thought they could improve the results and the sales, and that happened almost from day one, he says.

“We continue to grow and prosper,” Curci says. “I don’t know that I could have ever dreamt that. I always figured that Morgan Stanley would sell the business to somebody, and maybe the last year we started to think about that but it’s obviously a huge commitment.”

Four years ago, Tops completed a court-approved acquisition of a majority of Penn Traffic Co.’s—known as P&C Foods Inc., along with Bi-Lo Foods and Quality Markets—assets, officials say. Its assets included 79 supermarkets. Tops operates 55 of those locations.

“Frank certainly possesses the analytical abilities and professional skill to impress in the boardroom, with investors or with bankers,” says John Persons, Tops’ executive vice president of sales, marketing and merchandising. He has worked for Curci for the past 15 years. 

“What really makes Frank different is his ability to honestly connect with people at every level of the organization,” Persons says. “Frank is very well-respected for the manner in which he interacts with people—no matter who they are. (Another) reason for his success is his absolute drive to make sure that the key managers in our organization fit the culture of Tops. From an operational perspective there is almost no higher priority for him.”

Curci’s financial background has served him well in his career. He also learned that, a business is much more than its numbers.

“The biggest thing that you learn is it’s not all about the balance sheet,” he says. “You have to do things that maybe take some time to bear fruit, but you have to really run the business for the long run.”

His holistic approach to problems and level-headedness translates to his parenting style as well, says Jessica Curci Krop, his oldest daughter.

“He is intelligent and fair and has a great sense of humor,” she says. “He has a fantastic way of evaluating a situation and finding the appropriate levity. He is both decisive and accepting, someone my siblings and I always felt we could talk with and get a straight answer.”

Today Tops operates in Upstate New York, Northern Pennsylvania and Vermont.

“The customer really does matter,” he says. “The one thing that I learned from the gentlemen who made me president was you have to concentrate on the customer and you have to understand what they want and you have to do that in a way that makes sense for you as a business owner.”

Failure is no longer a scary prospect, he says. The learning that comes from mistakes or shortcomings only makes a business stronger.

“In an industry like this we do over a million transactions in a week,” Curci says. “If you’re wrong on 1 percent of them that means there’s 10,000 people who are not happy. That’s a pretty good track record if you can do that. You have to learn to deal with failure, and dealing with failure I’ve always felt was the best training because you learn how to deal with situations, and you have to get used to that.”

Fierce competition
Competition is fierce in Upstate New York for supermarket chains.

“As our top leader, Frank dedicates equal time to both setting the direction of the company—the visionary piece—and on the operational aspect of the business,” Persons says. “He believes in his people having the autonomy to run their areas of the business but likes to stay involved with helping to direct strategy and with creativity.”

Tops, Wegmans Food Markets Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. are the major players, and all have different offerings, Curci says.

“Having been in different markets, the level of supermarkets in Upstate New York is outstanding,” he says. “There’s such population growth in the South that a lot of people want to be in that area, so no one store gets to really be able to do it right; so everyone kind of struggles with low volumes. And here it’s really a three-company market: Tops, Wegmans and Wal-Mart.”

Tops’ market strategy incorporates gas stations, promotional marketing and a local focus.

“Each one has a very strong profile to the customer and each one differentiates on various things,” he says. “Wegmans does a great job of doing what they do—the best of anyone in the country in what they do, in my opinion—but we don’t try to do what they do because we’d do it second best. We’ve carved out a niche for ourselves that’s different and I think we do it better than anybody else.

“That’s what’s exciting about this business. You may think that one way’s better than the other, but that’s why there’s room for the three of us in this marketplace because we’re so different,” he adds.

Competition is good for the region. It elevates the products, service and quality of each operation, Curci says.

“We deal with two of the companies who are the best at what they do, so that forces us to be better. We’ve been competing with them for 40 years so we have our niche. It’s a profitable niche, it’s a big niche; we have our share of the market. They’re never going to try and be us; we’re never going to try and be them,” he says. “We do fight for people in the middle, there’s no doubt about it.”

A different path
Curci never planned on being a business owner.

“My dad was a truck driver, and all going through school I thought I’d be a truck driver,” he says. “I remember one of the turning points there in sixth grade I had a teacher say to me, ‘You know, you’re pretty smart but you act so stupid. Don’t you want to be something someday?’

“It was the first time in my life I kind of stepped (up) and said maybe I should study or do something.”

Once expectations were set for him, Curci’s internal drive helped him to believe he could do whatever he wanted in life.

“My grandparents emigrated from Italy so nobody in the family had ever gone to college before,” he says. “I was the oldest male of an Italian generation so there were big expectations. My dreams were small in the beginning. It hasn’t always been easy, every new position was scary in a way but I never thought that I couldn’t do something.”

In recent months, Curci has made some staffing changes that are expected to help transition the company in 2015. It is about getting new ideas into old processes, he says.

“This is a dynamic business that continually has to change,” Curci says. He brought in David Langless as chief financial officer in November and changed some responsibilities in the management team.

“The biggest challenge is to run a business locally but think more globally about what’s going on in the world. And how do we continue to improve and do things differently for our customers as they change?”

Off the job
Food is not only his industry, it is his passion: Curci is a self-proclaimed foodie.

“Food is like my life,” he says. “People who know me well will tell you as soon as I finish one meal I’m planning my next meal, so I’m always thinking about food.”

Curci lives in Clarence Center, Erie County, and enjoys running and playing golf.

Though his children are grown, they have learned to be self-motivated like their father in their careers, Curci Krop says.

“He is incredibly driven,” she says. “I don’t know if he has always known where he wanted his career to go, but it certainly seemed that way to me, growing up and watching his career evolve. When my siblings and I were children he would always encourage us to do our best and try our hardest and always learn from our mistakes—words probably taken from his own experiences.”

The industry is always changing and the pace of technology will continue to speed up. It used to be big box stores were king, but Curci has found smaller stores are more efficient and that each area requires specific consideration.

A store has to fit its region, a problem of the company in the past in areas such as Rochester.

“We have an interesting history in Rochester, and for a long time when we were a family company we built the wrong size stores in Rochester,” Curci says. “Obviously as we dominate Buffalo, Wegmans dominates Rochester. In the beginning—the ’70s and ’80s—we tried to go in with the same stores that worked in Buffalo in Rochester and, quite frankly, it just didn’t work.”

Renovations and remodels of current area locations such as Spencerport and Greece stores have helped the company prosper locally.

“That’s always been a burden on the company financially because those stores didn’t work so well so the investment in that area was not always that great because the return wasn’t so great,” Curci says. “Over these past five or six years we’ve had the opportunity to make that right, and I couldn’t be more proud of our store base in the Greater Rochester area.”

Rochester’s downtown is something the firm is keeping an eye on. For the right opportunity, a new store could work there eventually, Curci says.

Buffalo always will be home, but Rochester is a vital market for the grocery retailer, Curci says.

“We’re a very different business today in Rochester than we used to be,” he says. “Our stores are different; our stores are better. I think we’ve carved out a nice niche. We know that there are other alternatives in Rochester, but we have a whole fleet of new stores in the area that we’re very proud of and that are very different than what we’ve done in the past.”

Gas stations were added to the company’s offering in 2000, starting with Buffalo. Despite current lower prices, people are always looking for discounts on gas and food, a strong pairing Tops has taken advantage of, Curci says.

Evolving means growth. Adding stores is in the firm’s future, officials say.

“Shopping is local,” Curci says. “We’ll continue to push on our borders, but there’s a lot of opportunity still here in Upstate New York. Rochester’s been a huge market for us.”

With some 16,000 employees, Curci is able to see lives change on a daily basis—it is the best part of his job.

“It’s more exciting than ever,” Curci says. “I wake up in the morning and I can’t wait to get to work. Now more than ever it’s a passion and I want to see the business continue to grow. It’s about building a business that’s going to stand the test of time in the future.

“We have a great team here at Tops…When you see somebody who progresses and is doing well in their career and they’re able to do it here—it’s the greatest thing in the world.”

Frank Curci
Position: CEO and president of Tops Friendly Markets LLC
Age: 63
Education: B.A. in business administration, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., 1973; MBA, Rutgers University, Newark, N.J., 1974
Family: Wife, Robin; daughters Jessica, 36, and Allison, 29; son, Michael, 33
Residence: Clarence Center, Erie County
Activities: Running, playing golf, outdoor activities
Quote: “Food is like my life. People who know me well will tell you as soon as I finish one meal I’m planning my next meal, so I’m always thinking about food.”

1/2/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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