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At 100, Minnesota-based Coborn Grocery Chain Still Taking “Risks”


NS. CLOUD – In the early 1900s, Chester Coborn worked in a paper mill, trying his hand at a feed store and trading business.

But he was an entrepreneur at heart. So he bought a truckload of apples that had come on the train into central Minnesota.

“He rented a shop on Main Street,” said Chris Coborn, Chester’s great-grandson. “He’s got everything nice and signed and everything shoved into the filthy cellar.”

Chester felt defeated and returned to the paper mill. But in 1921 he tried again and opened a grocery store in downtown Sauk Rapids.

“And we’re now celebrating our 100th anniversary since his second attempt in 1921,” said Chris Coborn, CEO of Coborn’s Inc. “I don’t know if there’s a better way to define resilience or determination. He obviously went a very lasting effect on this corporate culture. “

The employee-run company has now grown to 9,000 employees. It operates 60 grocery stores – as well as dozens of liquor stores, pharmacies, and gas stations – in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

While 2020 sales figures were not disclosed to the Star Tribune, the company had sales of $ 1.4 billion and was recognized by the Minneapolis / St. Paul business journal.

And while Coborn’s has found its niche in midsize markets in the Upper Midwest, it also competes in the narrow Twin Cities market. A look at the retailers in Metro Market Studies’ Twin Cities in Tucson, Arizona gives Coborns a market share of nearly 5%. This puts the company behind Cub, Walmart, Costco, Target, Lunds & Byerlys and Hy-Vee – but ahead of Sam’s Club, Aldi, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and others in terms of market share.

Describing the “madness method” for growth in various retail formats, Chris Coborn says that not every community they looked at needed a traditional grocery store. Maybe it needed a liquor store or a grocery store.

“Coborn’s have taken a very careful look at what their marketplace is and where to thrive instead of just opening stores across the street,” said Phil Lempert, retail grocery analyst and founder of Supermarketguru.com. “I think Chris really focused on where to be successful – and I think that’s smart.”

Lempert, based in Santa Monica, Calif., Said he believes Coborn’s is among the top five or six grocery chains in the country when it comes to merchandising, pricing, and innovation.

“Just because you’re not the biggest doesn’t mean you aren’t the best for buyers,” he said.

Over the years, some risks have produced better results than others. Expansion through diversified services such as liquor stores and petroleum has proven its worth. Video rentals that were once popular have fizzled out. But even the purchase of online grocer SimonDelivers in 2008 – initially thought of as a misstep – proved invaluable to the company.

“That was a really expensive learning experience,” said Coburn. “We bought it and tried to build on it. It was a great marketing company because they had the technology, but they weren’t very good dealers because they were technicians. They weren’t retailers.”

Coborn’s thought of bringing his retail expertise to the technology developed by SimonDelivers would lead to a great opportunity, he said. However, the company found that a decade ago consumers weren’t ready for the service.

In 2019 Coborn’s discontinued its delivery service in the Twin Cities. However, the company continued to use the technology it acquired to enable online shopping and roadside collection.

So when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, Coborn’s was prepared for the surge in demand for online ordering – much like its bigger Minneapolis-based competitor – while others muddled.

“While many other people in the industry had to look for third-party solutions, we were fortunate that we already had our own [system]”Said Coborn. “If we had stuck to this business in the cities, this business would still exist today. But as it turns out, it isn’t. That’s the way it goes sometimes. “

When Coborn started on the payroll in 1974, he was making $ 1.75 an hour, and the company had supermarkets in Sauk Rapids, Foley, and Willmar, and two in St. Cloud: Centennial and Fifth Avenue. The company opened its first liquor store in the store on Fifth Avenue when he was in high school.

He often worked odd jobs, such as fetching beer in Neu-Ulm or dog food in Sunburg when the shelves were empty.

“On the weekends I would pick up anything that I should pick up,” he said.

Like many family businesses, the Coborn kids grew up in the middle of day-to-day business.

“Dad dragged us into the store on a Sunday after church to do some chores while he worked on payroll,” Chris said of his father, Dan. “And if we’d done our homework for Monday, he’d take us on a trip in a semi-trailer – we had that one truck – to our wholesaler in St. Paul to pick up a load.”

Now the fifth generation of the Coborns is setting the tone: Emily Coborn is Vice President of Operations for the East Region and Peter Coborn is Director of Pricing Strategy.

Emily started out as a cashier in the Sauk Rapids store as a teenager, while Peter started out in landscaping. Both tried other things before returning to the family business: Emily worked for Supervalu and Peter worked for Johnson Brothers Distributing. But both found their way back.

“Being in the office and with people really felt like family to me,” said Peter. “And everyone needs food. Making sure you’re helping the communities you serve is a cool, healthy mission, and I’ve always enjoyed that. I mean, we’re a for-profit company, but at the end of the day we try to help people meet their basic needs. “

Dave Meyer, Chief Operating Officer, has worked with three generations of Coborn leaders.

“I started as 3-11” [p.m.] Manager in Mason City, Iowa. And like Chris, I didn’t make a lot of money when I started, “he said.” But my dad knew the Coborn family and he said that if you work hard, you will have a chance. “

The company began building and acquiring more businesses about 50 years ago to allow people to grow within the company rather than leaving the company to look for other opportunities.

“One of the things Chris said when we made these acquisitions – and [his] Dad said the same thing: it comes with human capital. It comes with the people. And many of these people will become future leaders in the company, “said Meyer.

The company is celebrating its 100th anniversary with “Deals of the Century” for shoppers. The Coborn Family Foundation donated $ 1 million in June to the Great River Children’s Museum, which is renovating rooms in a building in downtown St. Cloud, and donated $ 10,000 to 10 local nonprofits or organizations .

“We’re so happy in our region to have her here and to show her continued commitment to employees and the wider community,” said Patti Gartland, president of Greater St. Cloud Development Corp., focused on loyalty and expansion in the St. Cloud area. “You are an industry leader. You cannot reach the size and scope and scale of a low-margin industry like the food industry without being incredibly innovative.”

The company’s next big deal is to partner with Associated Wholesale Grocers, the country’s largest grocery co-op owned by retailers.

“We had to look for souls in the supply chain because [it is] so critical to us, “said Chris Coborn.” We can’t sell off an empty shelf. “

Associated Wholesale, headquartered in Kansas City, Kansas, will act as the main supplier to Coborn early next year, initially from the former Creative Memories warehouse. In the next few years the company plans to build new warehouses for perishable items and dry goods.

Coborn estimated that the first phase of the project will have a local economic impact of nearly $ 100 million. As a partner in the delivery process, the products should also become more affordable for customers.

“We’ve been luckier than smart sometimes. As my father would say, you can create your own happiness if you work hard,” said Chris Coborn. “I hope this next generation will continue to do the same because there really is no secret sauce. It’s about respecting those we work with, having humility, working hard, being smart, taking risks – all of those things – and hopefully in the end you’ll have more wins than losses. “


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