Key development: Assumed top spot at Wakefern.
What's next: Dealing with leadership transition, competitive challenges.
Joseph S. Colalillo practically grew up in a grocery store.
So when it came time for the 43-year-old, second-generation Wakefern member to take the helm of the country's largest supermarket co-operative in May, he did so without reservation.
"I'm absolutely prepared," said Colalillo, who succeeded Thomas Infusino after Infusino's 34-year tenure in the role. "I've been working side-by-side with Tom for the past six or seven years [as vice chairman], and for the past 15 years as a member of Wakefern."
As president of three ShopRite stores in Hunterdon County, N.J., Colalillo is one of 42 operators running the 200 ShopRite stores that comprise the retailer-owned cooperative, which has retail sales of $8.4 billion.
A young Colalillo was thrust into the role of representing his family's stores within Wakefern after the death of his father, Joseph P. Colalillo, in 1990.
Ron Margulis, managing director, RAM Communications, Cranford, N.J., attended a Wakefern training program with Colalillo that's designed to familiarize second-generation Wakefern members with the company. "It probably wasn't an easy thing for him, being so young and dealing with people who'd been there for 20 or 30 years," Margulis said. "Wakefern is full of strong negotiators, and in order to get things done you really have to fight."
Still, the cooperative, which ranks No. 20 on SN's list of the top 75 food retailers in the U.S., grants each of its members equal input regardless of its size. Both Infusino and Colalillo preside over relatively small operations.
"I learned from Tom that the whole cooperative spirit is stronger than any one individual member could ever be," Colalillo said. "This is not a one-man job. We've got a lot of great members, and it's important to be inclusive."
Additional snippets of advice from Colalillo's predecessor are never more than a phone call away. Despite the generation gap, Colalillo and Infusino, 84, converse on a weekly basis. "Both Tom and my dad grew up in a whole different world," Colalillo said. "They lived through the Depression and a major world war and started an industry. I'm fortunate to be a beneficiary of all of their hard work."
Part of their efforts involved laying the groundwork for Wakefern's committee structure. Colalillo described it as a key to Wakefern's success. "It allows the retail operations to interact with Wakefern's professional staff and keep them plugged in to the ultimate consumers," he said. Wakefern has a committee for each department in the store, as well as committees dedicated to customer satisfaction, advertising and human resources.
Its committees will help Wakefern tackle challenges in the coming year.
Although the ShopRite banner has the No. 1 market-share position in New Jersey -- with its stores averaging weekly sales of $864,000 -- Colalillo anticipates competitive challenges there and in the New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware markets in which it operates.
"We face competition from all formats," he said. "Supermarkets like Wegmans and Price Chopper are entering our markets. We still have to deal with traditional competitors like A&P and Pathmark, as well as alternative formats like CVS, Wal-Mart and Target."
Colalillo also serves as vice chairman of the Food Marketing Institute, is a member of its finance and long-range planning committees and chairs its independent operator advisory board. He is also a member of the New Jersey Food Council. This year, he became the youngest recipient of NJFC's top honor, its Lifetime Achievement Award.
"Joe was recognized because of his efforts to advance the mission of the Food Council, his significant food business accomplishments and his history of civic service with the communities that he serves," said Linda Doherty, president, NJFC.