SAN DIEGO -- Rick Keil describes his journey to being named one of IGA's Retailers of the Year as "long and twisty," complete with overcoming Fleming's bankruptcy and prospering during the four-month labor strike in Southern California. He doesn't see it as anything special, however.
"I don't know if beyond that I've done anything special to merit this kind of distinction," said the third-generation grocer. "But I'm happy and proud just the same."
Keil's retail voyage began when Safeway and Vons merged in 1990. The attorney general at the time forced those retailers to sell some of their stores, and Keil purchased one in the outskirts of San Diego in Clairemont. That was not his first experience in the business, however. His father owned a grocery company based in Vancouver, Wash., for 30 years before selling it to Safeway in 1985; his grandfather began working at Safeway in the mid-1920s.
Keil runs two 25,000-square-foot IGAs, one in San Diego and a newer location in Phoenix. One source stated the annual sales of the San Diego store to be $13.5 million in 2003. Keil credits his success in the grocery business to the fact that his company is completely self-sufficient. "We have built our company on being self-sustaining and self-reliant. We don't have anybody do our accounting, advertising, merchandising or anything."
That attitude helped keep Keil's IGA alive after Fleming Cos. declared bankruptcy. Within a week of the announcement, Keil's IGA had changed back to Unified Western Grocers, the same distributor it had originally worked with in San Diego. According to Keil, while this transition was not painless, the switch was easier because they ran virtually all aspects of the company.
Regardless of any problems, Keil said he has made his customers a top of priority. "We've had a practice of trying to build a fence around our business, and making customers into shoppers, and making shoppers into friends."
During the four-month labor strike that affected Albertsons, Kroger and Safeway, Keil's IGA was able to be attentive to the growing number of customers shopping its store by giving personal attention and utilizing the staff of locals. Keil's IGA actually ended up hiring many of the striking employees, and with the new employees came new customers.
Keil understands his market stature. "In the San Diego market, we are a flyspeck. In our neighborhood, we are king. But when you get more than two or three miles away from the store, people don't even know how to spell Keil's Food Stores. We are not a dominant force, but in our neighborhood, we're key. People love us."
Keil's success also stems from his involvement in other areas of business. In July 2002, Keil's IGA helped create Business Strengthening America (BSA), a self-run, multi-year, peer-to-peer effort to engage America's business leaders in service and community programs.
A commitment to customers, community and adapting to the bumps in the road has earned Keil four stars on his operational assessment rating from IGA for two consecutive years, in addition to the pride of continuing a family legacy.