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They're just wild about Harry: CEO Harry Janson of Little Rock-based Harvest Foods steps out to sway consumers.

IF YOU HAVE TURNED ON the television lately, you've probably seen Harry Janson.

The president, chairman and chief executive officer of Harvest Foods Inc. has been getting his share of TV time lately. And radio time. And print space.

A month ago, the Little Rock-based grocery chain began a high-profile regional advertising campaign.

"You're gonna love the change at Harvest Foods," is the campaign mantra.

And Janson is the corporate guru tapped to persuade disenchanted shoppers to give Harvest Foods a second chance. Shades of Lee Iacocca.

Many customers Janson must sway are former devotees of Skaggs Alpha Beta or Safeway Stores Inc., two of the grocery store chains that a New York-based partnership, Acadia Markets Corp., bought in the late 1980s and renamed Harvest Foods.

Satisfied Safeway and Skaggs shoppers sensed abrupt, inferior changes Acadia made in the stores, and still complain.

Janson has heard those complaints.

He says he's read each of the 50-75 comment cards arriving weekly, scanned every message from the newly instituted "President's Helpline" (or personally taken the calls) and solicited concerns during a "town meeting."

That forum also served as a backdrop for taping the first round of Harvest Foods commercials.

Yes, the town meeting was for real, says Watty Wills, president of the Frank J. Wills Co., a Little Rock firm the Frank J. Wills Co., a Little Rock firm that handles Harvest Foods' advertising and public relations.

Wills says the roughly 75 people present at the first town meeting were real complainers, not company-friendly plants.

Though Janson doesn't seem to mind being a human clearinghouse for complaints, he says he initially had his reservations about the town hall setting.

"It was kind of awesome to look at all these people in the audience," he says. "They unload. They'll tell you what's on their mind and you have to be able to handle that well and respond back well.

"You know what they're looking for? They're looking for somebody to vent their frustration. They want to trade with you, but somebody didn't treat them right. You lose more customers because of indifference and bad attitude at store level."

Janson says he's issued a simple directive to store employees: The customer's always right, and don't dare challenge them.

"You don't challenge them," he says emphatically. "It's not your prerogative."


A New Jersey native, Vietnam War veteran and the son of emigrant parents (an Italian mother and Swedish father), Janson has developed something of a reputation as a trouble-shooter with a knack for reversing the fortunes of financially troubled grocery stores.

That reputation was developed during his 20-plus years in the grocery business. It led Acadia to recruit Janson in March 1991 from Foodarama/Basics Supermarkets in Maryland to pinpoint Harvest Foods' problems and turn the company around.

Acadia, the majority stockholder in the privately held Harvest Foods chain, operates 54 retail grocery stores in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

The chain is Arkansas' largest with almost $500 million in annual revenues.

"They didn't know where the problems were," Janson says of the marching orders he received. "All they knew was that there had to be a problem" because management thought the company should be performing better.

"We want you to go find it," Janson was told.

He came to Little Rock as Harvest Foods' chief operating officer. What he found was an alleged scheme to divert funds from Harvest Foods for personal gain.

In September 1991, Don Pennington, then company CEO and the man at the helm of the Little Rock division of the Safeway chain, and Bill Mathis, a Harvest Foods' meat merchandising manager, resigned.

At the time, Harvest Foods offered no explanation for the departures. But, last May, the company filed a civil lawsuit against the two men and others for allegedly conspiring in the diversion scheme from 1990 until their resignations.

With Pennington's departure, Janson took over.

That's when the belt-tightening began.

"We've tried to streamline the organization, eliminating waste and fat, unnecessary positions ... so that we wouldn't have to raise prices and so we could do some of the things that we're currently doing," Janson says.

Complementing those efforts was the restructuring of a $155 million debt load carried by Harvest Foods. That was completed about a year ago.

Janson says the restructuring has cut the chain's debt service in half, improving cash flow and enabling the company to meet its financial objectives.

Most importantly, it has freed needed cash for all-around improvements in the chain.

This year, 40 of the 54 stores will undergo substantial renovation.

Some of the physical improvements customers can expect are new IBM registers at every checkout lane that process all major credit cards; direct-store-delivery scanning machines that ensure cost control from the back door to the front register; and new freezer display cases.

Also, the restructuring has allowed Harvest Foods to put more money into promotions such as the Harvest Foods Gold Club discount program.

Started in February, the program allows shoppers age 55 and older to receive a gold card entitling them to a 5 percent discount on their grocery bill on Thursdays.

Another promotional tool Harvest Foods will introduce soon is Catalina Coupons, a system whereby coupons are issued instantly upon checkout based on a shopper's discretionary buying pattern.

The Harvest Foods chain will make another important operational change when it soon begins selling wholesale to independent grocers and military commissaries through its new wholesale division, Southwest Grocers. Janson says his company discovered a lot of commissary business was going to out-of-state wholesalers, a trend Southwest Grocers hopes to reverse.

Janson also expects Harvest Foods to eventually have a public offering, whenever market conditions are right.

"If they did that, they'd retire probably most or all of their debt," he says.

Consumer Dislikes

Before Harvest Foods began its current advertising campaign, extensive market research was done to determine what consumers did not like about the grocery chain.

They repeatedly pointed to three main things: They wanted faster checkout, better selection and better pricing.

Harvest Foods officials began addressing those concerns. Through the ad campaign, the company is trying to let the consumer know how it has responded.

Wills says the advertising campaign was about change and responsiveness to the customer. He thought "the change" at Harvest Foods had to be personified; Janson was the obvious person to embody that.

"People need to see somebody who can cause change before they can accept what you're doing," Wills says.

Wills acknowledges there were some concerns about whether people would respond to Janson, whose strong dialect and busy, expressive hand mannerisms clearly distinguish him as a Yankee.

Janson notes good-naturedly that his wife is an Alabama native, but her dialect has yet to rub off on him.

In this electronic age, Wills says he discounted the dialect issue, believing Arkansas were worldly enough not to tune Janson out simply because of it.

"I thought Harry being visible as the entity that affected change far superseded any dialect |concerns~," Wills says.

"I'm not sure I agree with that rationale," says Bill Neece, an advertising and marketing professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

A native Southerner with his own strong dialect, Neece says he thinks Janson's dialect interferes with the message Harvest Foods is trying to convey.

"This guy is not coming across in that commercial as being part of the local community," Neece says. "As a Southerner, I think people tap into that."

Neece also notes, "Most of the time, chief executive officers do not make good spokesmen for their company."

But, without knowing more about the ad campaign strategy, Neece says he cannot gauge whether Janson is making inroads with consumers.

Wills admits the jury is still out on the commercials.

For his part, Janson says he feels relatively comfortable with his role as the face of change at Harvest Foods.

"It's OK. I guess it bothers my kids more," he says. "You know, it's like, 'Dad, did you have to do another commercial?'"

Janson's children probably should resign themselves to seeing their father in the media.

For a while, at least, Harry Janson isn't going anywhere.

The 'Changes' at Harvest Foods

Two's Company, Three's a Crowd -- A policy that says when three customers are in a checkout line, a new line opens.

The Top 500 -- A storewide effort to bring the 500 top items down to any competitor's price.

More Frozen-Food Items -- A conversion to vertical freezers from "coffin cases" to increase inventory.

More Produce Variety -- Now carrying about 235 items in produce.

More Products Low in Sodium and Fat -- A consumer request for more of these products, which will soon be flagged with easy-to-see signs.

Remodeled Stores -- Renovating all existing stores before adding stores.

State-of-the-Art Registers, Scanners -- Ensuring accurate pricing and more efficient checkout.

Total Quality Management -- Newly adopted management principles emphasizing continuous improvement.

Higher Freshness/Cleanliness Standards -- Higher trim standards on meat, stringent seafood and produce size requirements.

Tighter Controls -- Correcting vendor theft and human error in pricing to keep prices down.

New Item Display -- New items out for 30 days at front of store.

Catalina Coupons -- Offering coupons to shoppers at checkout, based on spending patterns.

Larger Price Tags -- Enlarging unit tags in response to customer complaints about the size.

Harvest Foods Gold Club -- A 5 percent discount program on Thursdays for those 55 and older.

Customer Comment Cards -- Readily available in all stores.

President's Helpline -- A toll-free line into the corporate office.
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Article Details
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Author:Walters, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Apr 19, 1993
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