An Associated Grocers of New England employee working in the warehouse. Courtesy photo.
The CEO & Family Enterprise Center at the University of NH honors family-owned businesses annually but, in 2020, it is shining a spotlight on those who support them. The center named Associated Grocers of New England (AGNE), a cooperative wholesale grocery distribution center, as the 2020 Family Business of the Year.
“Associated Grocers has grown responsibly, they’ve had strong leadership, … and it is innovative,” says Michelline Dufort, director of the CEO & Family Enterprise Center. The center also awarded Andrew Lee of Mass Mutual and Andrew D. Lee and Company in Massachusetts, one of the center’s founders, with the annual Lifetime Achievement Award. “[Andy] has devoted his career to family businesses,” says Dufort, noting he served on the board for many years and has advised many
AGNE serves more than 640 stores in six states from its warehouse and distribution center in Pembroke, including multi-store independent supermarkets, community grocers, country stores and convenience retailers. More than three-quarters of its 320 members are family-owned businesses, says Michael J. Violette, president and CEO.
And Associated Grocers has been racking up accolades. It was named the 2019 Northeast Wholesaler of the Year by the Griffin Report of the Northeast and The Shelby Report and received a Community Service Award at the National Grocers Association Show in February. It also ended FY2020 with record sales, which is good news for its members, who receive a patronage rebate of the cooperative’s profits.
Dufort says the center is recognizing AGNE most for its support of family businesses during the pandemic. Violette says demand surged on March 13, followed by its largest sales week in the company’s history as stores were overrun.
Violette says their 425 employees stepped up, working long hours to ensure customers were able to stock up on supplies.
While AGNE does not typically deliver on Sundays, it did when the pandemic erupted. “That Sunday was the single biggest night for order selection in company history,” Violette says.
Violette also attributes AGNE’s success to its cooperative model, which allows independent and family-owned businesses to combine their buying power to better compete with larger chains.
Andrew Lee says he is able to assist family businesses because he knows first-hand the challenges they face. His family owned several pharmacies in New York that were run by his father and two uncles. “I can remember the conversation going on in my parents’ living room while I was still in high school. It was clear to me the opportunity my father was creating was not for his brother and brother-in-law. It was for his son,” Lee recalls.
After college, he worked in the family business until tensions with an uncle caused him to strike out on his own. “I wasn’t mature enough to deal with the family dynamics and … my father said, ‘look either buy him out or go find something else to do knowing you can always come back,’” Lee says, adding it was difficult to walk away. “I didn’t want to appear to be ungrateful.”
Andrew Lee, with, from left, Deborah Lee Snyder, daughter; Barbara Lee, wife; and Andrea and Allison Lee, daughters. Courtesy photo.
Lee’s new path led him to life insurance and then wealth management, helping family businesses manage the pitfalls such familial endeavors encounter.
Later in his career, he attended a symposium about universities establishing programs focused on helping family businesses succeed, which prompted him to secure funding from sponsors, including Mass Mutual, to launch such a center at the University of NH.
“I realized if I had a similar program in the late 60s when I was contemplating my family business, I might not have left it,” Lee says. “I was given the chance to create that opportunity for other families.”
“My intent when I got involved with the center was if I could save one family from going through the pain” his family experienced in their business, it would be worth it, he says.
In nominating Lee for the award, Brian Law, CEO of the Law Family Companies in Merrimack, wrote, “Not only is Andy’s work evident in the hundreds of family businesses he has closely counseled and helped, it is evident in every day that the Center opens for business. … Andy has been steadfast in providing support and advice.”