Last week, a scrappy bunch of independent-minded ball players from Boston made sports history with a victory over their longtime arch-nemeses.
"There are 25 guys on this team, and that's the way we play," said Johnny Damon, the hero of the Boston Red Sox's seventh-game victory over the New York Yankees in the American League Division Championship Series.
If teamwork and camaraderie could lift the Red Sox -- known throughout the year for their eccentricities and enthusiasm for the game -- over the decidedly more corporate Yankees, perhaps there's a parallel to the longstanding battle independent retailers have waged against their own seemingly invincible rivals.
In this week's cover feature beginning on Page 14, executives from some of the nation's leading retailer-owned wholesaling cooperatives proclaim that teamwork is paying off in the supermarket business as well. Many of these co-ops -- formed through the partnerships of disparate independent food retailers -- have posted some impressive revenue gains in the last two years, scoring a figurative grand slam after the bankruptcy of leading wholesaler Fleming Cos.
Before Fleming's collapse put billions of dollars in supply contracts up for grabs, however, the retailer-owned cooperatives had already loaded the bases, so to speak:
Like the Red Sox, the co-ops are fielding teams filled with top talent. Consolidation has weeded out some of the weaker players -- both co-ops and independent retailers -- leaving only the most powerful sluggers at the plate.
The Red Sox brought in management that could get the job done, like the co-ops that have built up their businesses to the point where they are now able to attract savvy executives, observers say. These leaders have replaced territorial complacency with competitive zeal.
The Red Sox forged a solid game plan around a heavy-hitting lineup, like the co-ops that have beefed up their capital structures by changing the way they pay patronage dividends to put their members' productivity to work for the collective organization.
Evidence of the strength of retailer-owned cooperatives can be seen around the country. In Yankee-land, Wakefern grinds out victory after victory with its co-op network of ShopRite stores, forcing its rivals to play constant defense. In the Midwest, Associated Wholesale Grocers pulled off a quadruple steal last year with its acquisition of four warehouses that had been owned by Fleming.
In the South, co-ops like Associated Grocers of Baton Rouge, La., and Associated Grocers of Florida both added to their line-ups with the addition of former Fleming customers and facilities. Others like Affiliated Food Stores of Salt Lake City did the same out West.
Like the Red Sox, independent supermarkets and the co-ops they own still have games to play, however. Some of the retailer-owned wholesalers are struggling, and observers predict further consolidation in that segment of the industry.
In addition, cooperatives weren't the only wholesalers to benefit from the departure of Fleming. Companies like Supervalu, Minneapolis, and C&S Wholesale Grocers, Keene, N.H., also bolstered their rosters, and they remain rivals to the retailer-owned co-ops in many markets.
While the big victories may not come in every contest, the co-ops have proved that at least they belong in the game.