C&S keeps Vermont connection, even as it looks south

C&S keeps Vermont connection, even as it looks south

Marcel, Joyce

One of Vermont’s richest and fastest-growing companies, and a mainstay of the Brattleboro economy, C&S Wholesale Grocers Inc, is slowly slipping south.

“We already have a dominant position in New England, which limits our ability to grow in the market,” said corporate spokeswoman Kim Keyes. “The opportunity is in the south. We grow from taking new customers and accounts.”

The company insists it will remain in Brattleboro.

“We have no intention, in the immediate future, of leaving Brattleboro and closing the facility,” Keyes said. “It’s a good location. We have a workforce we value, and a significant facility.”

In Brattleboro, C&S has a grocery distribution facility, a large freezer, and “a little over 1,000 employees,” Keyes said. However, some of that freezer space is leased to neighboring Northeast Cooperatives, and the major portion of the company’s employees and warehouses are now located in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The perishable goods distribution center the company used to run out of a leased warehouse in White River Junction was closed a few years ago, and the building is now used for storage.

“When we closed our White River Junction facility, we moved a number of people down to North Hatfield (MA), and a number of people from our freezer in Brattleboro have moved down to Westfield (MA),” Keyes said.

As a warehousing and distribution company, C&S buys 53,000 different grocery and non-food supermarket products from around the country and the world and has them shipped to its various warehouses. It then redistributes the merchandise into orders for its individual supermarket customers and trucks it down the East Coast.

The privately owned, family-run company grows larger every year.

“We’ve had tremendous growth,” Keyes said. “It’s the result of consolidation in the industry and acquisitions by our customers. Our fiscal year ended in September 1996. We had sales of $3.4 billion. It makes us the 36th largest private company in the United States, as listed in Forbes. Hallmark is number 35.” The year before, the company had sales of $2.5 billion.

The company primarily uses its Brattleboro facility, once its main warehouse, to ship inside Vermont.

“In Vermont we supply 40 Grand Unions, over 20 A&Ps, and many mom-and-pops, or independent grocers, such as the Brattleboro and Putney Food Co-ops, Capital Candy in Barre, Killington Market and the Putney General Store,” Keyes said. “We have a significant base of business locally.”

The southward movement does not reflect a change of corporate philosophy about Vermont as much as it reflects the realities of the company’s growth and the demographics of its customer base, Keyes said.

“Our customer base is moving south,” Keyes said. C&S has developed a strong customer base in the mid-Atlantic states. It has contracts with Safeway, which has 125 stores in the Washington, DC, Delaware and Virginia area; with Grand Union, which has 210 stores in the New York-New Jersey area; with Stop & Shops and other markets in Long Island.

“In the past, we went through the midAtlantic region to distribute in Miami, and to some Wal-Marts up and down in the southern states, but now there’s a concentration to the south,” Keyes said.

The company’s growing concentration of customers in the south makes its warehouse expansion in Massachusetts and Connecticut seem logical, but in a now-famous Act 250 battle, the company first tried expanding in Brattleboro.

In the early 1990s the company, with headquarters on Brattleboro’s Old Fern Road, planned to build an 800,000 square-foot refrigerated warehouse in another area of town, the Southern Vermont Industrial Park. located between Brattleboro’s main shopping strip and Interstate 91.

When appeared that the project would have a difficult time making it through Act 250 because of its proximity to the scenic highway, the company quickly expanded at Old Ferry Road instead.

It then scaled down its plans and applied for an Act 250 permit to build a 202,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse in the SVIP.

That permit was vigorously contested because of the number of trucks the project would introduce into the shopping district. During the drawn-out battle, which went through six hearings at the district level and another six at the board level, it was revealed that the company was in violation of other Act 250 permits, for which it was fined, and that it had an accident rate almost four times higher than the state average for private Vermont industry.

Ultimately, the Environmental Board gave C&S a conditioned Act 250 permit in 1993. But the company had already turned its sights further south and was in negotiation for property in Hatfield, MA. It never used the SVIP permit, and the Environmental Board which granted it was condemned by Governor Howard Dean and almost immediately dismantled by furious Senate Republicans.

In retrospect, considering the company’s rapid growth, even if C&S had built its originally-planned, 800,000-square-foot warehouse, that would not be enough space.

In Hatfield, the company first refurbished an old wallpaper company, cleaning up hazardous waste on the site and ending up with 325,000 square feet of space for a grocery distribution warehouse. a reclamation center, and offices.

“Then, when we were still distributing our produce from White River Junction, one of the farmers that we were buying our potatoes from in Hatfield — he was delivering his potatoes all the way up to White River Junction — heard we were looking for a new facility,” Keyes said. “He said, ‘I live in North Hatfield, and there’s a site down there that’s ideal.’ Of course, he might have been thinking that he wouldn’t have to drive too far, but we listened to him and went down and looked at the site. We built our perishable warehouse, where we keep flowers, meat, deli and produce, there.”

After a resent 110,000-square-foot expansion there, the company now has approximately 50,000 square feet in North Hatfield.

In 1995, the company leased a million-square-foot warehouse in Windsor Locks, CT, for use as a grocery distributor facility, and in May 1996, the completed construction of a 350,000-square-foot freezer facility in Westfield, MA.

“We have about 600 people working in Windsor Locks and close to 1,300 people working in Massachusetts,” Keyes said.

The town of Brattleboro, which derives over $1 million in property taxes from C&S, hopes the company’s main offices will remain in town. Even with that, Brattleboro still has one of the highest tax rates in the state.

“We have good communication with C&S,” said Town Manager Jerry Remillard. “He think they’re an integral part of the community, like any big employer is, and we look forward to a long continuing relationship.”

Copyright Boutin-McQuiston, Inc. Apr 01, 1997

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