New Haggen CEO ready to write next chapter in grocery chain’s history

As John Clougher settles in as CEO at Haggen Inc., he’s become even more convinced that he made the right choice in coming to the company.

Haggen announced last month that it had hired Clougher, who was most recently the CEO of Andronico’s Community Markets in the San Francisco area. In his first 10 days on the job at Haggen, he’s been busy visiting the company’s 18 stores, meeting with employees and customers to get feedback on what is working and what needs to be improved. The tour of stores and the feedback he’s been getting has him upbeat about starting Haggen’s next chapter.

“Things are good at Haggen after going through some tough times,” Clougher said. “I feel lucky to come in at this time, after all the work that was done to get the company to this point.”

The grocery chain has gone through quite a transition in recent years. After a Florida private investment firm purchased a majority stake in Haggen in February 2011, the Bellingham-based company has spent the past few years creating a Northwest Fresh brand, remodeling each of the stores. It also has closed some underperforming stores, with eight shutting down in 2013.

Sales have improved this summer, and particularly so far in September, according to Clougher. Chris Sharick, manager at the Barkley store, said the recovering economy is a factor, but he also credited the company’s focus on connecting with customers.

“They let me be the best I can be, which makes me proud to be here,” Sharick said.

The company said earlier this year it is now through that period of closures and is focused on moving forward. The hiring of a CEO appears one of those steps. Clougher replaces the transition team of Clement Stevens, John Turley and Ron Stevens. Clement Stevens and Turley remain with the company as senior vice presidents, while Ron Stevens, who was the company’s chief financial officer, left Haggen a few months ago. Blake Barnett replaced him as CFO.

Cougher said his professional passion has always been the grocery store business, having started out as a floor sweeper in a Boston store called Purity Supreme. He has more than 30 years of grocery-related experience, including being the Northwest regional president for Whole Foods Markets. His management style, he said, is being in the stores as often as possible in order to connect with customers and employees.

One reason Cougher became interested in Haggen was the Northwest Fresh theme. Calling it “right in his wheelhouse,” Cougher wants Haggen to be known for its quality, including locally made products as well as items the store makes from scratch.

“I want to take Haggen from great to superb,” he said.

With five of its stores and headquarters in Whatcom County, this area remains the key market for Haggen. Competition for the grocery dollar in Whatcom County has increased recently, with the opening of WinCo Foods in Bellingham and the scheduled December opening of Safeway at Sunset Square. Clougher said Haggen doesn’t have the purchasing power to be the low-price leader in the community, so the company has to make up for it in other ways, such as offering better products and service.

“For a supermarket to be successful, it must carry products that people want,” he said, adding that by being smaller, they can be more nimble and react more quickly to consumer changes. “There is room in the market for different styles when it comes to stores.”

For now, Clougher is still in an information-gathering mode and doesn’t plan on any major changes at this point. He’s already received some feedback from customers and employees about new bringing in new product, which he plans on doing.

“This is my one opportunity before my desk starts getting covered with paper,” said Clougher when talking about this early period of getting to know his employees and customers. “It’s been a wonderful experience.”