Robert B. Wegman; Supermarket Innovator
Saturday, April 22, 2006
Robert B. Wegman, 87, who introduced the idea of one-stop shopping at his family-owned chain of supermarkets, which are the envy of the industry for their unparalleled levels of customer and employee loyalty, died April 20 at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y. The cause of death could not be learned.
In more than a half-century at the helm of Wegmans Food Markets Inc., Mr. Wegman built an innovative company that combined business success and humanitarian ideals. He pioneered the concept of one-stop shopping and the superstore, with bakeries, imported foods, cafes and photo labs all under one roof. He was a leader in adapting technology to the sale of groceries and helped introduce the Universal Product Code, the identifying computer markings now standard on most packaged goods.
With the success of 70 stores in five states, including Virginia and Maryland, Mr. Wegman helped raise the standards of service in the supermarket industry while instilling an enlightened treatment of his employees. Last year, Fortune magazine named Wegmans the best company in the United States to work for. This year, it was ranked No. 2.
In 1994, supermarket analyst Neil Stern told the Wall Street Journal that he considered Rochester-based Wegmans "the best chain in the country, maybe in the world."
A hallmark of Wegmans is its customer service. The company has been known to send a chef to people's homes to correct a food order and to bake Thanksgiving turkeys for people whose ovens were too small.
In January 2005, Fortune magazine described the Wegmans experience: "Each Wegmans store boasts a prodigious, pulchritudinous produce section, bountiful baked goods fresh from the oven, and a deftly displayed collection of some 500 cheeses. You'll also find a bookstore, child play centers, a dry cleaner, video rentals, a photo lab, international newspapers, a florist, a wine shop, a pharmacy, even an $850 espresso maker. . . . But the biggest reason Wegmans is a shopping experience like no other is that it is an employer like no other."
Each year, Wegmans receives thousands of requests from the public asking the company to open supermarkets in their communities. (In the Washington area, there are Wegmans in Sterling, Fairfax and Hunt Valley, Md.)
"I always said we didn't want to be the largest," Mr. Wegman once said, "but we did want to be the best."
Mr. Wegman was born Oct. 14, 1918, in Rochester, two years after his father, Walter, and his uncle Jack began selling vegetables together. The brothers bought a grocery store in 1921 and quickly built their company into a leading local emporium.
In 1930, they opened a store with a cafeteria and an overhead vaporized spray system to keep produce fresh. They were also among the nation's first grocers to install windows to display refrigerated food.
In his youth, Mr. Wegman was an excellent baseball pitcher and golfer. After graduating from Niagara University in 1941, he spent three years in the Marine Corps during World War II.
In 1946, he went to work as a meat cutter. He became a store manager the next year. After the death of his uncle in 1950 -- his father had died in 1936 -- Mr. Wegman became the company president.