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updated: 4/1/2014 8:38 AM

How Mariano's CEO created his grocery empire

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  • Video: Mariano's CEO, Bob Mariano

  • Bob Mariano of Inverness and CEO of the growing Mariano's grocery store chain at the new Northfield store on March 6, 2014.

       Bob Mariano of Inverness and CEO of the growing Mariano's grocery store chain at the new Northfield store on March 6, 2014.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Mariano's Fresh Market employees get ready for the store's opening in July 2010 in Arlington Heights in this file photo.

       Mariano's Fresh Market employees get ready for the store's opening in July 2010 in Arlington Heights in this file photo.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer File photo

  • One of the international food aisles at Mariano's Fresh Market on Northwest Highway in Arlington Heights that opened in July 2010 in this file photo.

       One of the international food aisles at Mariano's Fresh Market on Northwest Highway in Arlington Heights that opened in July 2010 in this file photo.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer File Photo

  • Workers install windows near the front entrance of the newest Mariano's that opened recently in Lake Zurich on Route 22.

       Workers install windows near the front entrance of the newest Mariano's that opened recently in Lake Zurich on Route 22.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Scott Sanders/ssanders@dailyherald.comUpscale grocery store Mariano's opened last October to a throng of customers in Wheaton. Maureen Derwent, left, from Wheaton gazed at the colorful cakes on display. "It's awesome," she said.

      Scott Sanders/ssanders@dailyherald.comUpscale grocery store Mariano's opened last October to a throng of customers in Wheaton. Maureen Derwent, left, from Wheaton gazed at the colorful cakes on display. "It's awesome," she said.

  • Dave Whiteside of Mount Prospect tries out the smoked beef brisket sandwich at Todds BBQ inside the new Lake Zurich Mariano's grocery store that opened in February.

       Dave Whiteside of Mount Prospect tries out the smoked beef brisket sandwich at Todds BBQ inside the new Lake Zurich Mariano's grocery store that opened in February.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 

Bob Mariano of Inverness walked around the newly converted Mariano's grocery store in Northfield like a proud father. He looked at the colorful produce section, admired the European-style floral department and studied changes made to the former Dominick's store.

Stepping onto those wooden floors was a coming home, of sorts. Mariano, a former Dominick's executive, has returned to his former stomping grounds to offer customers a new choice, branded after himself, under parent company, Milwaukee-based Roundy's Inc.

This wildly popular grocery choice is a dominant force in a competitive industry.

Competition has forced key players out of the market. "Many of us invested decades to help build up Dominick's to what it was, so it was very sad to see it go," Mariano said. "Mr. D (late owner Dominick DiMatteo) was a great man and his namesake will no longer be present here. ... But there were mistakes made on how Dominick's was run, some bad decisions. Well, I've made bad decisions in the past, but you sit down with your team to decide what to do. Mistakes make us all human."

After Safeway, parent company of Dominick's, pulled out of the Chicago market, Mariano looked to acquire some of those sites. Scooping up nearly a dozen empty grocery stores, he plans to expand stores around the region, possibly introduce a Mariano's house brand line and is considering new technology to help consumers shop.

At the beginning

Robert Anthony Mariano was born in Chicago and lived a short time on the Northwest Side before his parents moved to Arlington Heights, where he was raised with two brothers and two sisters. His mother, Dorothy, now lives with her daughter in Downers Grove.

He attributes his strong work ethic, professionalism and desire for excellence to his late father, Robert John Mariano, who worked for Oscar Mayer.

But rejection was part of his early years. Young Bob was 17 when he started as a part-time deli clerk in 1967 at Dominick's. He attended Loyola Academy and aimed to be a pre-med student. When he was denied from five medical schools, he felt his skills were more in pharmaceutical sales. He was rejected by 13 pharmaceutical companies.

"I still felt confident that I was a good salesman and I had good skills," Mariano said.

He took a job as a salesman with Oscar Meyer in the early 1970s and stayed less than two years before returning to Dominick's, this time as an assistant manager at a store in Des Plaines. "That was store number 13 and I considered that a lucky 13," he said.

He was right. It eventually led to a blossoming career in the grocery industry under the wings of the owners, the DiMatteo family.

After a few years, Mariano felt he lacked growth at the company and looked for other possibilities. Owner, Dominick DiMatteo, affectionately called Mr. D, got wind of the job search.

A changed path

After a heart-to-heart talk with the boss, Mariano was promoted and the company helped to finance his MBA at the University of Chicago, he said.

"Mr. D was a marvelous man," Mariano said. "He was great, very down to earth and he was a foodie before the term foodie was even out there."

He looked at Mr. D as a mentor in the grocery business and often had the old man's ear.

"He treated me like a son," Mariano said. "We were both very passionate and strong willed and we would get into some heated arguments privately. And we always talked like that in private. After all, he was still the owner and I was respectful of that."

He said Mr. D never got mad at him when Mariano disagreed on business strategy. In fact, the old man enjoyed the debates, he said.

Changes ahead

Mariano worked his way up the corporate ladder. He became president and a director at Dominick's and then CEO in 1996 until the company sold to Safeway two years later. He became a consultant for a few years and then named to his current position as CEO at Roundy's.

Now, Mariano aims to grow his own brand and possibly bring in new products under the Roundy's parent company.

In 2010, Mariano's launched its first store in Arlington Heights, where he grew up. The company has since opened 17 Mariano's stores, including 3 former Dominick's locations.

An additional 8 former Dominick's also are planned to transition into Mariano's by the end of the year. The company aims to have about 50 Mariano's stores in the region, Mariano said.

Experts say Mariano made a smart move. Bob Mariano made the right decision to buy some former Dominick's stores and expand, said grocery industry analyst Bill Bishop, chief architect for Barrington-based Brick Meets Click.

"Mariano's has been extremely successful in the Northwest suburbs winning business from all the competition and I can think of no reason why they can't continue to do this," Bishop said. "Mariano's uses a unique blend of great, fresh food and good prices to draw customers past other stores to shop them -- that's a winning formula."

Bob Mariano believes he also helped revolutionize stiff competition here. He noted that Trader Joe's and Costco started the innovation and attracted more consumers. That's why he felt his stores had to offer something different, not just another shelf for Tide or Bounty products.

"We were looking for the extraordinary," Mariano said. He strives to be ahead on trends.

For example, his team latched onto gluten-free products, when the term was "just a whisper," he said. "And pressed juices -- a year ago you didn't hear much about pressed juices." They are now the craze.

Some things you won't find in a Mariano's store include cigarettes and lottery vending machines, he said.

"That was a conscious decision," Mariano said. "We just wanted the food experience. It was a more valuable use of our space."

The focus has turned to smart foods and nutrition and how to cater to the consumer wanting to lead a healthier lifestyle, he said.

"You really have to step back and hear the customer," Mariano added. "With all the changes in the health care industry, consumers want to take care of themselves. This is something they can do for themselves. They change what they eat."

In addition, Mariano's is exploring partners to enhance the shopping experience using new technology. Grocery chains in other states are experimenting with how to reach consumers via their smartphone and tracking shopping patterns.

He's also exploring a new house brand line named after himself. The Mariano's line is expected to launch sometime next year, possibly partnering with the current Roundy's house brand. But the product line, like the stores, has to stand out, he says. "Many people were familiar with the Roundy's name, so we used that in Mariano's," he said. "It's been accepted very well. ... but the Mariano brand won't be just another olive oil, that category is just too busy. It has to be unique."

Spotting upcoming trends

In an effort to be unique, Mariano has brought a touch of Italy to his stores with cafes, gelato and an airy atmosphere.

He and his wife take annual trips to Italy to pick up the latest European trends. Mariano said he listens closely to his wife of 8 years, Nina, as she has a keen sense for style. They agree color, texture and presentation are important to both fashion and food presentation.

They brought the popular winter white trend to their floral departments before it was popular here. "I remember coming back from one trip and asking my team what are we doing with 'winter white,'" he said. "And they just looked at me like I was out of my mind."

The team huddled and developed a floral winter white display that became an instant hit with customers, he said.

Mariano also takes a unique approach to raising his children. Just because he's CEO doesn't mean they have a ready-made job at the company, he said.

One day, his son Robbie asked for a job at his store. Instead, Mariano drove his teenager around town, stopping at several businesses with hiring signs in the window.

"I took him out to find a job on his own," Mariano said. "I told him to go and ask those people for a job, and he went in and they said they weren't hiring. So I took him to another place and he filled out an application. He eventually got himself a job, completely on his own. It's all about life's lessons and you have to be able to say 'I did it.'"

Teaching lifelong skills starts at home and carries into the business for the grocery chain leader.

"Bob is first and foremost a great merchant who's also a good manager and leader of people; he's very demanding and knows exactly what he wants," said Bill Bishop. "Most CEOs in the grocery business today do not have this unique set of talents."

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