By Kayla Collier
In the last 13 years, Mike Comeau has built a personal empire, piece by piece, establishing five independent grocery outlets — Shelburne Market, Village Market of Waterbury, Johnson’s Sterling Market, Richmond Market & Beverage and Jericho Market.
But he’s decided it’s time to quit while he’s ahead, selling off the lot for the benefit of his employees — and his own family.
“I’m not saying that my wife and I won’t be sad to be out of the business — we’ve loved running the stores — but we will embrace the change,” Comeau said. “I think the ultimate plan for the stores was always to sell them. I never planned to run them forever, and like most things in life, you can’t always choose the timing.”
The sale price has not been disclosed.
This year, the stars aligned just right for Comeau to take that leap.
Interest rates are low, he still has long leases on all of his stores that a buyer could take over, and he could never have asked for a better buyer to come along, he said.
“What if we waited, and in five years, they [were] not able to buy,” Comeau said.
Associated Grocers of New England Inc. is set to close the deal on Comeau’s stores on Jan. 18. The co-op was formed in 1946 by local grocers who wanted to combine for greater buying power and a better distribution network. It has grown into an organization whose 300-plus employees service more than 600 stores in New England and upstate New York. It also operates a handful of corporate stores.
As one of Vermont’s largest independent retail grocery chains, Comeau’s markets not only serve the needs of local communities, but also offer a character and products unique to each town.
The sale won’t change the local feel that communities have supported, and the associates with whom residents have made personal connections.
Associated Grocers is not a giant conglomerate like the Golub Family, which owns Price Chopper, or Hannaford Brothers Co. It is a cooperative that operates for the benefit of its member stores.
“My employees were a big reason for the sale,” Comeau said. “I’ve reached a pivot point where I have a good group, but they are looking for more opportunities. They will have a lot more access to opportunities like better health insurance than I can currently offer, better 401K plans and benefits, and chances to move up the ladder.”
Financially, Comeau just couldn’t provide his employees more than he already does without selling, and he feared that if he waited any longer, the stores would lose valuable associates.
Comeau feels the weight of his employees’ rent and car payments every day, and wanted his stores to continue to provide a livelihood to people, and families, who live and work there.
“We think this is a wonderful thing for our employees,” said Jessica Perrault, human resources manager for MAC Corner Market LLC, Comeau’s parent company.
“Our heart is in our stores, and while we will no longer be involved in operations after the closing, we will continue to shop there,” Comeau said of himself and his wife.
Comeau’s markets have been members of Associated Grocers of New England for years and will continue to be members of the cooperative. To Comeau, it’s not a corporation that is buying the markets. It’s 300 people just like him, who built their own independent chains for their communities.
The Associated Grocers niche has always remained in small grocery chains, and with 25 percent of its market situated in Vermont, Comeau doesn’t expect much to change.
The president and CEO of Associated Grocers backed him up on this claim.
“Locally owned, independent grocery stores are the backbone of our company. It is rare to have the opportunity to acquire a retail group and have the ability to provide continuity to extremely well-run stores,” Mike Violette said.
The plan is to retain all current employees and the upper management team Comeau has assembled.
The team will continue to be responsible for the day-to-day operation of each store, and will help the company carry on the tradition of offering a wide range of local products such as Johnson’s Boyden Farm Beef and Pete’s Greens produce down to small niche products like Douglas Sweets shortbread cookies made in Shelburne. Such decisions to stock shelves with local items can be “difficult to do internally” at a larger corporation, store officials said.
“We are thrilled to continue with the successful formula that has fueled the success of Mike Comeau’s five stores here in Vermont,” Violette said. “We don’t want to change a thing. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
Violette traveled to Vermont on Tuesday to get to know the associates at each location.
Comeau sits on the Associated Grocers board of directors, and his term runs until June, but after the sale of his stores, he will no longer be involved in their operation, recusing himself from any discussions around the five locations.
He will be available until June if Associated Grocers has any questions. After that, Comeau plans to take some time with his wife and dogs, traveling and rekindling his passion for fishing, before figuring out his next steps.
Kayla Collier is a reporter for the Morrisville News & Citizen