BILLINGS, Mont. -- Paul Vanderjagt, 70, has been in the grocery business for 50 years. His lifelong commitment to the industry has earned him a 2005 IGA International Retailer of the Year award. It's the second time he's won.
Vanderjagt's years in the industry give him long perspective: "From a little cash register that only rings up the amount, to the new computer system that we have to work with now -- it's unbelievable," he told SN.
Vanderjagt owns the 34,000-square-foot Van's Evergreen IGA here, which he bought from Supervalu in 1999. He owns six other supermarkets in the state. His stores feature bakery, floral, service deli and seafood departments, gourmet cheese bars and meat smokehouses, pharmacies, ATMs, pet sections, and photo and video centers.
The supermarket veteran visits each store no less than once every two weeks, despite the fact that 500 miles separate the two most-distant stores. "I drive probably 1,000 miles a week. [IGA officials] probably feel sorry for me being in it for that many years [hence, the award]," he joked.
Vanderjagt was brought into the business by his wife Connie's family. He took over their Teeple's store in Browning, Mont., in 1956. Since then, he opened the others. He became affiliated with IGA in 1962.
Vanderjagt is still expanding his business. Last September, he purchased a store in Forsyth, Mont. There's always work to be done in the stores: "We upgrade all of them all the time. Whenever one needs an upgrade, we do it, regardless of our competition. We do work in every store every year."
Vanderjagt said his biggest challenge is Wal-Mart Stores' two supercenters in town. However, service, quality and friendliness are the three factors that give Van's Evergreen IGA a competitive edge. "Nobody can beat [Wal-Mart] on price. So we just concentrate on the three important factors. We just want to keep upgrading and promoting, and giving the customer a nice place to shop with fair prices."
There's more competition, too. On a stretch of five blocks, Van's Evergreen IGA is between a Wal-Mart supercenter and an Albertsons store. Being embedded in a highly competitive market has resulted in the IGA becoming more community-focused. In April, brown bags are donated to nearby Rimrock Elementary School, where students decorate them for Earth Day. The decorated bags are later hung in the store. Then they're used for customers' purchases. On Mother's Day, the store gives Rimrock students seedlings in a paper cup. The cup can be painted by the children as a gift for mom. Vanderjagt also said he donates money to nearly every civic organization in the area, including the Council on Aging, Meals on Wheels, 4-H, the Boy Scouts and several public school districts.
The supermarket business has undergone many changes, but one thing remains the same: Vanderjagt is still happy working as a grocer. "I enjoy just about everything, good or bad. I've looked forward to going to work every morning for 50 years."