Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Centro Mart-Stockton Chairman, Veteran California Grocer Jimmy Lam Has Died

The Insider - Heard on the Street

Veteran California grocer Jimmy Lam, who was always quick with a smile, a firm handshake and a positive word, died on Sunday, January 30 at his home in Stockton, California. He was 80-years old. His wife of 55-years, Mary, was with him when he passed away, according to a family member.

Lam (left) spent 65-years in the food and grocery retailing business, all in Northern California. Most of his six-plus decades in the industry were spent at the now eight-store Centro Mart grocery chain, headquartered at 2150 W Alpine Avenue in Stockton, California, which he and a group of partners bought from its owner and Lam's employer at the time, Diamond Properties, Inc., in 1973. As part of the acquisition, Jimmy Lam became Centro Mart Inc.'s managing partner and head buyer-merchandiser.

Jimmy Lam, the third of seven children, got his start in the grocery business at age 15, working as a part-time grocery clerk at the former Daylight Market #38 in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area city of Brentwood, California, while attending Lowell High School in San Francisco. Lam graduated from Lowell, which has long been one of the top high schools in the United States, in 1948.

At age 21, Lam became a store manager for Diamond Properties Inc., eventually becoming the regional field operations manager for all of the chain's stores; then its corporate head of retail operations.

Starting in 1973, Jimmy Lam and his partners carved out a niche for Centro Mart as a locally-focused neighborhood-oriented grocery chain, focusing primarily in the Stockton metropolitan region and San Joaquin County, which today has a population of nearly 400,000. Stockton is the county seat. Because of Lam's leadership and success as managing partner and head of buying and merchandising, the partnership made him president and CEO of Centro Mart Inc. 12 years later, in 1985,

Lam continued to run the day-to-day operations of Centro Mart for many years after being named president and CEO in 1985, eventually bringing his son Ken into the business. Another son, Ron, who's a businessman in Southern California, is a member of Centro Mart Inc.'s board. Yi Chang is currently the CEO of Centro Mart.

Even after retiring some years ago from day-to-day operations at the Stockton-based grocery chain, which in addition to having stores in the city and nearby Lodi, also has supermarkets in the Easy Bay Area cities of Brentwood and Oakley (both are less than an hour's drive from Stockton), Lam remained very active in its operations as chairman, a position he held right up to his death on Sunday.

Jimmy Lam and his grocery chain were a favorite, particularly in the 1970's-1990's, of sales managers, representatives and food broker reps, not only because of the CEO's charm and friendly manner, but also because Centro Mart was a "buying chain," meaning a sales person for a consumer packaged goods company or food brokerage firm representing a manufacturer could make a presentation to Lam and his buyers, and if the deal was good, walk out of the grocer's headquarters office in Stockton less than an hour later having made a big sale, including full-truck sales/buys. No red tape. No waiting for weeks to hear back from the buyer. No buying committee to wait for.

The Centro Mart stores are also display-friendly, which is something sales managers and reps in the grocery trade, who get bonuses based on how much they sell, like. And back in the 1970's and 80's particularly, Centro Mart liked to buy and display, especially when it came to fast-moving items like paper goods, soft drinks, mayonnaise, canned foods, canned tuna and other similar products.

"Stack it high and sell it cheap" was a phrase often uttered and heard in the Centro Mart buying office in Stockton in those days, according to a couple veteran sales managers, who also happen to be Fresh & Easy Buzz readers, who did business with the chain for many years.

Even after he moved up from head buyer-merchandiser to president and CEO in 1985, Jimmy Lam was known to briefly duck into meetings his grocery buyer was having with a sales manager or representative, particularly if he had a history with the seller, and participate a little bit in the deal-making, often even helping the rep close the deal - if the deal was a good one for Centro Mart. That's what grocer's love to do, after all. Buy and sell.

Lam was recognized by the Northern California grocery trade for the way he treated sales people and others who supplied his stores. For example, during his career he received numerous honors from local trade organizations, like the San Joaquin/Central Valley-based Quality Travelers Club, a group of consumer packaged goods' and food brokerage sales people, and the San Francisco Sales Managers Club, to name two such trade groups.

Lam was also recognized for his executive abilities: During his long career in the grocery business he served on the boards of the Northern California Grocers Association., Tri-Valley Wholesale Grocers, Bank of Trade in San Francisco, Diamond Properties Inc. (all in Northern California) and United Meat Packing Co. in Taiwan.

Under Jimmy Lam's leadership through today, Centro Mart focused on being a neighborhood grocer; a high-low operator offering competitive everyday prices, combined with "hot" weekly specials.

The stores are "meat and potatoes" supermarkets - not upscale or specialty stores. No frills. Speaking of no frills, Centro Mart doesn't even a website, at least that I can find. And it's version of social networking involves face-to-face conversations in the stores' asiles, because the grocer-without-a-website certainly isn't on Facebook or Twitter.

Customer service and knowing regular customers by name are emphasised to employees by management. Many of Centro Mart's customers have been shopping at the stores for decades, particularly at the Stockton markets. Many customers also are second generation customers, having shopped at the stores with mom as kids.

Full-service checkout and bagging are the norm, as is an offer to carry customers' grocery purchases out to the car in selected cases.

Today Centro Mart operates pretty much like it did under Jimmy Lam's management. After all, in large part it remains a family effort. And despite the competition being stiffer today for the local grocer than it's ever been, Centro Mart has managed to survive among the giants, keeping its headquarters in Stockton and continuing to operate eight supermarkets.

And since Lam retired from day-to-day operations some years ago and has been serving as chairman, a management team is in place to carry on his tradition, if the partnership desires to do so, which appears to be the case.

Of course, like most independents Centro Mart is feeling the heat from the ever-increasing chain competition, which in Stockton includes a growing presence by Walmart with its supercenters.

But "local" is once again becoming popular. And Jimmy Lam was a local grocer in every sense of the word, including donating money and giving time in service to his adopted city of Stockton.

Although he was raised in San Francisco, which is about an hour's drive from Stockton, Lam adopted the Northern San Joaquin Valley city of Stockton as his own, donating money and time to numerous civic causes and efforts, including the Stockton Symphony Orchestra, the local YMCA and other programs to benefit young people, according to family, friends and people in the grocery trade.

The veteran California grocer was also a leader and respected elder in Stockton's sizable Chinese-American community, as well as serving as a role-model and mentor for children in that community.

Always quick with a smile, a firm handshake and a good word, regardless if you were a "wet-behind-the ears" sales representative making his or her first sales call at Centro Mart or a fellow grocery industry executive at a California Grocers Association convention, Jimmy Lam, who is survived by his wife Mary and three children (and their spouses) - Tricia Lam and Thomas Heenan of Laguna Beach; Ken and Diane Lam of Stockton; and Ron and Michelle Lam of Simi Valley, plus six grandchildren - was an old school grocer - and a gentlemen - in the best definition and tradition of both.

Jimmy Lam is also an important player in the history of food and grocery retailing in California, particularly Northern California, which is why I wanted to devote my column today to his passing.

[Note: A service will be held for Jimmy Lam from 3 p.m. -to- 6:30 p.m., February 4, at Evergreen Chapel, Cherokee Memorial Park and Funeral Home, Highway 99 at East Harney Lane, Lodi, California. A celebration of life will be held at 12-noon, February 12 in Morris Chapel on the University of the Pacific campus, 3601 Pacific Ave., Stockton, California.]

- 'The Insider'

[Editor's Note: 'The Insider' column appears regularly in Fresh & Easy Buzz. The opinions in the columns are those of 'The Insider,' and not necessarily shared by Fresh & Easy Buzz. Below are links to 'The Insider's' first column of 2011, and to a selection of 2010 columns, published in Fresh & Easy Buzz.]

'The Insider' - Columns: 2010-2011


Unknown said...

Thank you for posting this article on Jimmy Lam. I started my 35 year career in the food industry calling on Jimmy Lam and Centromart. After numerous moves across the US I have fond memories of my time calling on Mr. Lam and Centromart. As a fledgling sales rep, Jimmy was not only patient with my nievity but taught me much about the grocery industry that served me well throughout my career. Having called on numerous grocers across the country over the years, I will remember Jimmy Lam as one of the nicest, compassionate and professional people in the industry.

Bob Giacomelli
Lincoln, Ca.

Del said...

I also want to that you for posting about Jimmy Lam's passing away. After spending 10 years in retail, I started my career in grocery sales with a food broker in Northern California in the 70s. My first accounts were the independents and small chains in the valley, like Save Mart and New Deal in Modesto and Centro Mart in Stockton. Jimmy Lam was the head buyer at Centro Mart then. He could not have been more helpful to me. He made me feel like a veteran salesman because he made sure to give me a good natured ribbing like he gave the seasoned guys. He also offered advice, such as how to better structure a deal so he would buy more product. My best to his family.