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Long-time grocer Lawrence P. Castellani, the former head of Amherst-based Tops Markets Inc., is trading fruits and vegetables for batteries and exhaust pipes.

The Niagara Falls native has been named chief executive officer of Advance Auto Parts, one of the largest automotive parts and accessories retailers in the nation, effective Feb. 1. The Roanoke, Va.-based auto parts chain operates more than 1,600 stores, clustered in the East and Midwest, including more than a dozen in the Buffalo market.

The privately held company, which has announced plans to open another 150 locations in the coming year, currently employs more than 25,000 workers.

Castellani, who was not available to comment Monday, joins Advance Auto Parts following a lifetime of experience in the grocery business. Most recently he served as Royal Ahold's president and chief executive officer, Support Services, Latin America, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Castellani, whose family built a local grocery business into a regional retailing force that was acquired by Ahold in 1991, started as a Tops stock boy in 1962, moving up the ranks to become its director of operations in 1975, and president of Tops' retail division in 1980.

He was named president of the fast-growing supermarket and convenience store company in 1989, and was promoted to the role of president and chief executive officer in 1991. In mid-1997, Castellani accepted a corporate assignment with the Dutch parent company, initially acting as a Buffalo-based consultant on international market expansion, then being reassigned to South America to oversee Ahold's growth in Chile and Argentina.

Castellani will replace Garnett Smith, who announced his departure as the chief of Advance Auto Parts late last year, citing his wife's health problems.

"We are all excited to welcome Larry into the Advance family," Smith said. "His retail expertise will be invaluable to Advance and his commitment to customers and employees will make him a welcome member to our team."

Smith, who will become vice-chairman of the board of directors of the chain's parent company, Advance Holding Corp., will assist Castellani in the transition. The former Tops executive will also become a member of Advance Holding's board.

The former grocer comes to Advance at a time when the company is looking to stabilize its finances, while it embarks on new growth opportunities. The company reported a $22.9 million loss on sales of $1.21 billion during the first half of last year, with much of the red ink blamed on the cost of integrating the more than 600 auto parts stores it purchased from Sears in 1998.

Despite the loss, Advance recently announced plans to be part of a joint Internet venture that will be called

The partnership, which brings Advance together with CSK Auto and Sequoia Capital, to create a mega-automotive resource that will be able to draw on a combination of 2,700 retail stores, 3,000 delivery trucks, 59 distribution facilities and $1 billion in inventory. The goal is to offer same-day delivery of parts to customers in all 50 states, plus the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

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