Martha's Vineyard News | Cronig's Owner Maps Innovative Succession Plan – The Vineyard Gazette – Martha's Vineyard News

For 35 years, independent grocer Steve Bernier has run Cronig’s Markets with a highly personal touch. He works longer days than any of his staff, consistently supports local causes and offers an ongoing, no-strings-attached discount to customers who are Vineyard residents.
A genial presence around his stores, Mr. Bernier has been an implacable foe to Stop & Shop, going so far as to thwart the supermarket chain’s expansion on Water street in Vineyard Haven by purchasing a derelict house down the block and donating it to the Island Housing Trust in 2012.
Stop & Shop was also on Mr. Bernier’s mind when he decided to sell his business to Andrea Donnelly, a 26-year Cronig’s employee who has been the company bookkeeper for the last two decades. The transfer should be completed by the end of the year, he said this week.
“Stop & Shop would love to buy these two stores, okay? They would own the market, they would raise the prices 20 per cent . . . and have a field day,” Mr. Bernier told the Gazette Wednesday, in his office over the flagship Cronig’s in Vineyard Haven. The company’s Healthy Additions retail store is located behind the State Road market, with the Up-Island Cronig’s a few miles up the road in West Tisbury.
Now 74, Mr. Bernier had been reflecting on a succession plan to keep Cronig’s independent since not long after the business celebrated its centennial in 2017, he said.
“By fiduciary law, if this goes off to my will and the trust officer, it has to be sold for the highest price,” he said.
“Here comes Stop & Shop, here comes somebody from L.A., here comes somebody from New York, and Cronig’s goes out the window and no longer is a community grocery store.”
The Covid-19 pandemic, which flooded the stores with customers, overwhelmed the staff and sent Mr. Bernier himself to Boston by air ambulance for emergency treatment at Beth Israel Hospital late last year, threw a harsher light on the need to secure the markets’ future, he said this week.
“The nurses told me that they think that . . . I was the worse case that survived, on this Island,” he said.
“So that just took what we’re talking about here, and it said, ‘Do this while you’re alive and participatory. This should not be done on your deathbed. This should not be done at a fire sale. This should not be done at an auction. This should be handled appropriately. Signed, sealed and delivered to the Edgartown courthouse, and then let’s get back and then I don’t have to worry about [it].’”
There was one problem with Mr. Bernier’s plan: He had to convince Ms. Donnelly to accept her role as his chosen successor.
“She thought I was out of my mind. ‘No, you’re acting crazy, start making sense, c’mon,’” he recalled of their earliest conversations.
But Mr. Bernier was convinced that Ms. Donnelly, a neighorhood resident who had worked her way from the grocery floor to the top financial role, was the right next leader for Cronig’s.
“I was talking to someone who just graduated from Harvard Business School, okay, and knew how to run an office and push numbers, but he was lousy with people; he didn’t know his business very well, didn’t understand a customer,” Mr. Bernier said. He continued:
“Andrea, having worked here for 26 years, gave me the chance to see her in all different kinds of roles, so it helped me realize what should I be looking for, what’s going to be successful, and it ain’t about the money. It’s about community.”
Ms. Donnelly’s character and values are exactly what Cronig’s needs, Mr. Bernier said.
“Boots on the ground, [the] customer matters, this is our community, what goes around comes around . . . [she has] high marks,” he said.
“In her character, in her DNA, in her humbleness, in her spirit: A, A-, A+, A-, A . . .  It’s all those things that we value, and when we live with those values, and we function from those values, the equation changes,” he said.
Having eventually brought Ms. Donnelly around to his thinking, Mr. Bernier structured a sale in which no money will change hands, for a sum he wouldn’t specify but said was drastically below what the business would bring on the open market.
“I think I could sell this for twice what I’m selling it to her for,” he said. He is also financing Ms. Donnelly’s purchase over 30 years, he added.
“And it’s proved out to be maybe the wisest business decision I’ve made, because we’re in year 104 and there should be a lot more years to come thereafter, so for me to just sit there and think about my 35 years here is being short-sighted. It’s really about the next 35 years.”
Nonetheless, both Mr. Bernier and Ms. Donnelly are feeling some jitters, he said.
“We’re both scared now, it’s a big deal, there’s a lot on the table. It’s a small business, but in our little world, it’s a big business,” he said.
Gesturing toward a photograph of himself with Robert Cronig, who sold the family stores to him in 1986, Mr. Bernier recalled his own nervousness about taking over Cronig’s, even with 22 years of mainland supermarket experience below his belt.
“I stepped into this world. I joined up to be part of this world. I learned to respect and be a good working member of this community,” he said.
And it’s the Island community that makes his unconventional deal with Ms. Donnelly possible, Mr. Bernier said.
“It’s breeding itself in the perfect petri dish called Martha’s Vineyard that’s going to give this a chance to succeed, where out there on the mainland, I maybe wouldn’t even think or dare to do this,” he said. “But here, it seems quite probable and right to do.”
Cronig’s customers won’t notice a difference after Ms. Donnelly becomes the owner, Mr. Bernier said. The two won’t even exchange offices at first.
“I’m selling the assets of this to her . . . but it’s a partnership,” he said. “She needs me here for the next 10 years to teach her how to own a business, be a leader, be a manager of the front office. So we’re dependent on each other.”
While Ms. Donnelly hires new workers for the payable, receivable and payroll functions of her bookkeeping office, Mr. Bernier will be showing her the management ropes, he said.
“On the day the paper is moved, we have to come back. We’ve still got to do our job. So there’s no fanfare, there’s no parade going down Main street, okay, just sign this here and tomorrow morning get your butt back to work and let’s go.
“The thing is, retail foods is an every day event and you’re no better than the day you’re doing,” Mr. Bernier continued. “Whether she owns it or whether I own it . . . we have a job here to do for our customers and this community. You can slice it any way you want; get your ego out of the way.”
Just as his off-Island experience prepared him to own his own markets on the Vineyard, Mr. Bernier said, the years running Cronig’s — where he still begins each day with a broom in his hand, sweeping the parking lot — have readied him for the coming transfer to Ms. Donnelly.
“This next chapter in the book is the best part to come,” he said. “So I want to hang around for the next 10 to 15 years and watch this dream unfold. I want to participate and be part of the success for that transition. Thirty years from now, Andrea can do the same thing all over again.”

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