INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Passion, people, planning

From the moment I met Stanley Levandowski, a 78-year-old grocer from Lansing, Mich., I felt connected. Indeed, his appearance was familiar—white hair, dress shirt and tie, hands that have bagged countless groceries over the years. Perhaps it was his love of family and employees or his Polish heritage that captured my attention. Whatever the reason, I realized that the president emeritus of L&L Food Centers could teach me a lot about the supermarket business—and I was right.

Seventy-one years of passion, people, and planning. Through it all, this wise grocer has never stopped growing, and neither has his company.

What his father started in 1931 as a corner store named Walter's Grocery has under third-generation leadership evolved into a respected force in the Lansing market. Leading the charge for L&L are Levandowski's oldest son, Stan Levandowski II, 51, president, and Ersin Bayraktar, 46, the general manager. Together, they've developed a strategy that allows Lansing's lone independent to contend in a fiercely competitive market.

"It's important to understand the pulse of the market at all times," says Stan Levandowski II. "Experience tells us that change in this business happens much too fast. Those wanting to be successful can't afford to move along like turtles with their heads down. At L&L, we never want to look up and realize that the wall is just three feet away." He continues, "Our associates are the task drivers of this organization, and they're relying on our vision to grow the company and create new opportunities."

Fortunately for L&L associates, those opportunities have been plentiful. During recent years, the company invested in eight additional locations, building one supermarket in nearby Rochester Hills and purchasing seven others.

Today, the Levandowski organization operates 11 conventional supermarkets in a market consisting of 120,000 people. Meijer is the leader, while L&L and Kroger are in the race for second. A&P's Farmer Jack division is quietly bidding for sales with two locations. And so far, just one Kmart in Lansing has closed.

Changing wholesalers

In 1999, when Grand Rapids-based Spartan, L&L's wholesaler of 42 years, began acquiring stores, effectively competing against its retail customers, L&L began searching for a new supplier.

The retailer signed on with Fleming in September 2001. As an inducement to the deal, the wholesaler assigned to L&L one of its most respected development executives, Bruce Kamph, who was charged with developing and implementing for the new customer a written strategic growth plan.

"Retailers must understand that a strategic plan is a living, breathing document," says Kamph. "You don't develop it in three or four days and stash it in a filing cabinet. It's to be used as a road map. And because there are sometimes detours, we must continually update the plan."

He stresses the importance of sharing the plan with company associates so they feel ownership.

Another growth vehicle at L&L has been its focus on employee and community relations. "What's not in writing here is a program on how to treat employees," says Bayraktar. "We relate to our associates face to face and on a first name basis. We want to know as much as possible about their families and interests. Our approach is simple, yet complicated. What's most important is that we are genuine and informal."

While its 1,200 employees are clearly a priority for L&L, so are the greater Lansing and Rochester Hills communities. "We sponsor many charitable projects," says Stan Levandowski II. "But the event closest to our hearts is the Annette Levandowski Torok Memorial Golf Outing. The fundraiser is held every August in memory of my younger sister, who was just 38 when she died of cancer in 1995. This year, we raised over $10,000 at the event and over 50 percent of the proceeds were donated to the St. Vincent's Home for Children."

Reflecting on his many years in the business, the elder Levandowski offers this parting comment: "As a little boy, my first job at Walter's Grocery was simple. I scooped ice cream cones and made customers happy. Things really haven't changed during the past 70 years. It's still my job to make people smile."

Adds his son, "Whether we're serving ice cream, bagging groceries, or updating our strategic plan, we have to work hard to satisfy customer needs. As long as we do that, we'll continue to grow."

Independent Retailing editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].
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