Sunday, November 20, 2016–
It’s a familiar refrain on tri-state area airwaves — Stew Leonard Jr. chuckling “I’m coming over” to the gatherings of customers uncorking Stew Leonard’s wines. And that refrain has become a chorus of late, with Blake Leonard piping up in unison alongside her dad’s gravelly growl in a new set of radio ads heading into the 2016 holiday season.
Entering July, Blake Leonard became a Stew Leonard’s wine marketing manager, becoming the second full-time member of the family business’ third generation to take a managerial role after her cousin Jake Tavello, who is a store director in Danbury.
Founded in 1969 as a Norwalk dairy store by Stew Leonard Sr. and then expanding under Stew Leonard Jr.’s stewardship, Stew Leonard’s is now years into a process in which it is prepping a third generation to run the company in an industry being turned on its end by any number of trends, including formidable competition from big warehouse clubs and smaller specialty stores touting their roots in regional food production.
Jake and Blake are the first of the younger generation to grapple firsthand with that upheaval. Over the years, Stew Leonard’s has readily publicized its efforts to school the third-generation cousins to work in the business should they choose the path, with retreats to Italy, Alaska and Harvard Business School among other destinations for workshops on the challenges for family businesses in passing the torch.
The company has established a few major criteria for anyone joining the company’s managerial ranks — etched in figurative stone after the fashion of its customer service principles etched into boulders at store entrances. Family members must work three years for another company, obtain a master’s degree and pass muster with an independent panel retained by the family to assess their readiness for the job they are seeking.
Tavello, whose mother Jill Leonard Tavello is executive vice president of culture and communication at Stew Leonard’s, says he had an eye on joining the company from an early age, starting his trek in earnest at age 15 working his way through the coffee, deli and seafood departments before heading off to study business at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island and then at Bentley College for his MBA. After working for Wegman’s — an even more renowned third-generation supermarket business — Tavello oversees Danbury store operations, reporting to Tom Enrico, a store president who has been with the company for 40 years.
“(Their) third generation is running the company now, so they’re a little ahead of us, but we go up and visit them all the time (and) share ideas,” Tavello said. “It was very cool to work with a business that is family-owned that is that size, and it was exciting for me to see what we could become someday.”
For her part, Blake Leonard has difficulty pinning down the moment when she arrived at the decision to join Stew Leonard’s for good — but growing up she does recall being less than enthralled with family vacations to wine country, a favorite destination for her parents.
“At that time, I was (thinking) ‘this is so boring, another wine trip’ — I couldn’t taste the wine, I couldn’t do anything, so my sisters and I always straggled behind,” Leonard recalled. “As I got older, I started to really appreciate it and thought it was just such a fun industry — its people are so passionate about what they do, and it’s also primarily run by family companies.”
Leonard set out to learn the wine business with E&J Gallo in California, before entering Stew Leonard’s Wines and graduating to this season’s holiday radio ads with her dad. On the side she pursued a master’s degree in marketing from New York University.
If Stew Leonard Jr. is the face and head of the enterprise today, he has surrounded himself with seasoned food professionals. Chris Williams, chief operating officer, joined the company in 2005 from Stop & Shop where he was senior vice president and general manager of its New York and Connecticut area stores. Jeff Larson, chief marketing officer, led global marketing for the Milford giant Subway. And Patrick Dentato, chief financial officer, was previously CFO of Kings Super Markets and Balducci’s.
Stew Leonard’s edges closer to the half-century mark in business in 2019 facing myriad challenges, perhaps most significantly a trend toward smaller stores as evidenced by Trader Joe’s and others, a direction Stew Leonard’s may never take outside of its wine stores given its focus on extensive preparation of fresh foods on site which requires ample space and help.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the junior Leonard clan and the cadre of industry professionals running the company? Approximating the frontman that is Stew Leonard Jr., who projects a larger-than-life wit and zest for life. Jake and Blake are not offering any insight as to who might inherit his role one day, whether inside the family or out. If it is Blake’s voice alongside her father’s on the airwaves, Jake is getting grounded in the company’s bread-and-butter business of running a supermarket — this week to include getting thousands of turkeys through checkout. And plenty more grandchildren of Stew Leonard Sr. are working their way through the company’s requirements for its future managers.
“We want to remain a family business, but there’s 13 of us,” Blake Leonard said. “For any of us to think (about) who will be the CEO or that spokesperson personality — we have no idea. … There’s still so much time.”