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Running supermarkets is a family affair for Wegmans New Dick Road store to open on April 2

Danny Wegman and his daughter Colleen visited their company's new store in Depew last week, inspecting the latest replacement store the chain has built in a $225 million, 15-year reinvestment strategy in the region.

For the chain, the new Dick Road store that will open April 2 represents a return to where it started here. The store stands on the site of the area's first Wegmans, which opened during the Blizzard of '77. The Dick Road store is the fifth in the region that Wegmans has either replaced or extensively remodeled.

The visit also reflected the more prominent role that Colleen Wegman has taken on in the company. Just over a year ago, she was promoted to president, working alongside Danny, the chief executive officer, and her grandfather Robert, the chairman. They lead a chain that includes 11 stores in Erie and Niagara counties.

"In the almost 30 years, we've gone from newcomers to being an integral part of the fabric of the community," Danny Wegman said.

The chain continues to expand into other states, while upgrading some of its Buffalo area stores.

Tops Markets remains Buffalo Niagara's market share leader, but Wegmans has made inroads over the years. Danny Wegman recalled how Wegmans struggled at first to establish its identity in the Buffalo market.

"When we came here, the Castellani family had done a wonderful job of operating the Tops Markets, and I think for a number of years we tried to emulate some of the things they did," he said. "We finally began to realize that if we didn't know how to serve our own customers our own way, we would never be successful."

Asked about possible expansion here, Danny Wegman said the chain is "relatively comfortable" with its current store count. At the Buffalo division's size, he said, the individual stores generate high volume that allows the chain to pay its employees well. It also creates a large enough customer base in the stores to make use of the "customer knowledge" that the chain trains its employees to provide.

"Our strategy at the moment is, we're happy with the number of stores we have, and doing more volume in the stores," he said.

Colleen Wegman said she sees a difference between the Buffalo area and some of the new regions where the chain has expanded: In Buffalo, customers visit more often, since in its newer areas, the stores are farther apart.

The higher frequency of visits, she said, allows employees to make personal connections with customers, and share more knowledge with them about food and food preparation. In some cases, she added, the customers pass on their own knowledge about certain foods or dietary needs.

Danny Wegman offered this view on the Buffalo market: "Buffalo is without a doubt the friendliest place where we do business. People are just nice, happy people, and that's how they are in our stores, too."

That positive feedback, he said, pushes Wegmans' employees to try to serve their customers even better.

Danny Wegman said he and Colleen frequently visit stores, but he views the company's style as decentralized. He often refers to the corporate values that he said are the basis of Wegmans' program: caring, high standards, making a difference in the community, respect and empowering people.

One element of caring, he said, is how they pay people. Fortune this year ranked No. 2 on its list of the "Best Places to Work," and reported that Wegmans' most common salaried position, department manager, paid nearly $47,000 a year.

"We want the folks at Wegmans to be able to have a good life," Danny Wegman said. "We figure if you can't do that, then you're always worrying about that."

Colleen Wegman said the values had long been at the company's core, but putting them down on a list displayed in stores and shared with employees gives them more clarity.

"That's a great way for all of us to connect," whether employees are in Buffalo or somewhere else, she said.

While the chain continues to grow into states such as New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia, requests for more Wegmans stores pour in. The company receives about 4,000 emails and letters from people asking for stores to be built in their community.

When Wegmans debuted in Dulles, Va., in 2004, former upstate New York residents descended on it, Danny Wegman said. "I don't know if we had any new customers, or if they were all expatriates from Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse," he said with a laugh.

While Super Wal-Mart has become a dominant force in the supermarket industry, that effect hasn't been fully felt yet in the Buffalo area. Danny Wegman calls that chain a "formidable competitor," but said it doesn't have the same focus as Wegmans.

"I think what they're trying to do is very different from what we're trying to do, which frankly I feel is very good," he said.

While Wegmans has about 4,500 employees in Buffalo Niagara, it remains a family business, with executives spanning three generations. Robert is 87, Danny is 59 and Colleen is 34. Still, Colleen is comfortable trading differing opinions with her father. "Rigorous debate is very productive," she said with a smile.

Industry observers describe Danny Wegman as a student of the retail industry, eager to learn about the best practices of other companies. Burt Flickinger, an industry consultant with Strategic Resources Group, said the CEO has helped create a sense of loyalty among managers.

"No one leaves because there is a great sense of both family and team at the same time," he said.

Observers view Colleen Wegman as a rising star in the retail world. Daniel Fulham, a partner in Bridgepoint Partners in Buffalo, said she has built her credentials through industry experience and her educational background.

"She doesn't overplay her family name or her family legacy," Fulham said.

The two Wegmans spent part of a day last week walking through the Depew store to check on its progress. The new store will have 340 employees, compared with 200 when the old store closed.

Helen Giamberdino has worked in the store ever since it opened. The Cheektowaga resident had mixed emotions about seeing the old supermarket go away, but she saved 28 bricks from it as a keepsake.

Now she is working in the replacement store, carrying on her own tradition. "They treat you so well, how can you switch?" she said as she was helping stock shelves.

Fred Jensen, the receiving manager and another original employee of the store, welcomed the new supermarket, but described seeing the old one go away as "bittersweet." "I will still miss the old store," he said.

For Colleen Wegman, the opening of the replacement store brings back Wegmans to its local debut almost three decades ago. "We just feel like this is kind of a homecoming for us, which is very exciting," she said.

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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