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Return of Tops helps local businesses Grocery chain says local relationships put $20 million into area economy

One year ago, a deal to sell Tops Markets to a new owner was announced.

Within a couple of months, Morgan Stanley Private Equity completed the $310 million purchase from Ahold and begin restoring the hub of the supermarket chain's operations to Western New York.

The return of the supermarket headquarters has benefitted many companies that provide services to support the company's everyday functions. By Tops' calculations, the chain has pumped $20 million in new money into the local economy this year by spending it on businesses providing everything from public relations to legal services to advertising.

"It's coming together as fast as it's possible to do these things locally," said Frank Curci, who became Tops' chief executive officer with the ownership switch.

Under Ahold, Tops was one of several U.S. chains owned by the Dutch retailer. Ahold often sought to control costs by combining operations or using centralized sources outside Western New York.

That is changing. Tops chose Buffalo Newspress to produce its weekly grocery circular, and that company is adding 10 jobs as a result.

Tops' circular had been printed in Virginia, which was feasible for a parent company that had supermarkets in multiple Eastern states, Curci said.

But now that Tops is back to being a standalone chain, with 71 full-service supermarkets and five franchisee-owned stores in New York state and Pennsylvania, bringing the circular's printing back home made sense, Curci said.

Tops is also working with local advertising agency SKM Group instead of using an agency in Pennsylvania. "They know us," Curci said. "They know what Tops stands for in the marketplace."

As part of the ownership change, Tops has brought back a number of its own functions that Ahold had transferred to Carlisle, Pa., home to another chain that Ahold continues to own. Tops still had corporate offices in Amherst during the Ahold period, but many of the chain's key positions were based in Pennsylvania.

Curci said working with local firms is more efficient and allows Tops to support the local economy where its customers live.

Tops identifies fuel as its largest local financial impact. It has gasoline pumps at more than 25 locations and says it has significantly increased the amount of fuel it purchases locally.

Tops is still in the process of shifting some of its corporate functions from Ahold as the chain rebuilds its local infrastructure, Curci said. But one year after the deal was announced, he said he likes the direction.

"So far, things are really going well, almost beyond our expectations," he said.

The chain has "very definite plans" to upgrade stores and add more stores to the network, he said, while continuing to bring more local products back to the store shelves.

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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