Skip to main content

Alex Campbell, industry legend passes away


Trailblazer. Innovator. Legend. These are all words used to describe the great grocer Alex Campbell who passed away on Tuesday, at age 70.

From modest beginnings as the son of a nurse and court clerk, Campbell, as co-founder of B.C.’s Thrifty Foods, built a $260-million mini-empire that focused on customer service and fresh food.

He started in the grocery business bagging groceries at age 15 in 1956, according to a Times Colonist article, where he made 85 cents an hour at a Super-Valu.

On the Thrifty’s website, Campbell said: "When I was 15 years old going to school, working in the supermarket was the best job you could have; it was the best pay and relatively clean, and there were lots of opportunities to meet people, you know, fellow employees and customers.”

Growing up, Campbell said he was a pretty shy kid, but grocery helped him overcome that because he had to interact with people shopping in the store. “It was hard work but it was fun and we enjoyed it. We did all the jobs from cleaning washrooms to the front-end service to managing departments,” Campbell recalled.

With his hard work ethic, Campbell eventually become district manager for Shop Easy stores in Vancouver. Then, in 1973, he went into business for himself with the purchase of the 49th Parallel Grocery in Ladysmith, B.C.

Campbell was known for his great business acumen. In 1977, at a time when the market was dominated by big-name chains, Campbell and Ernie Skinner (whom he met while working at Shop Easy) opened Thrifty Foods in Victoria's Fairfield community.

While Campbell brought with him experience from the corporate side, Skinner provided knowledge from the independent retailer end, recalled Skinner.

"We were both passionate about treating people well; we wanted to have a pleasant place to work for our staff," said Skinner.

Even before going into business together, the two drew up top-10 lists of what they wanted the business to focus on. When they exchanged lists, it was amazing to see how identical they were, said Skinner. "We both had high on the list a respect for people and a focus on family values," he said.

Campbell knew that Thrifty could set itself apart from bigger competitors by focusing on the basics: exemplary staff relations that transcended into exceptional customer service and a strong commitment to the community.

In fact, in a Canadian Grocer cover story from 2005, Campbell said he and Skinner were passionate about community involvement, believing successful businesses are obliged to invest in their community. Click here to read the full story.

“Sure, maybe a million a year or whatever would look good on the bottom line,” Campbell told the magazine. “But right from the first couple of weeks we were open on Fairfield Road, where we sponsored a Little League baseball team to the present, we have always tried to help out.”

In addition to community involvement, Thrifty Foods was also a trailblazer in product differentiation, often jumping on trends before they became mainstream–something that led to the chain's impressive 40 per cent market share on Vancouver Island back in 2005.

Thrifty was, for instance, a leader in the region at offering organic products as well as an extensive lineup of HMR and private-label fare.

In the early 1990s, Thrifty's first organic food section opened at its Broadmead location. With more than 70 types of organic fruit and vegetables, the chain quickly became known for offering a greater variety of organic produce than any other supermarket. Today, Thrifty carries more than 400 organic grocery items throughout its stores, including a wide variety of organic cheeses.

Also, in 2002 Thrifty Kitchens opened a 20,000-sq.-ft. food production facility to create more than 300 ready-to-eat fresh food meals for time-pressed shoppers.

Although Skinner and Campbell parted ways in business in 1990, they remained friends.

Skinner said: “We respected each other's strengths and weaknesses and both shared a strong sense of family loyalties that helped us in business."

In 2007, with 20 outlets and 3,700 employees, Campbell sold Thrifty Foods to Sobeys for $260 million, but he still remained in the know, as the company’s chairman emeritus.

Far from retiring, Campbell remained busy by advising former Thrifty employees on setting up their own businesses.

Throughout his career, Campbell not only gave back to the community through his stores, but through his roles as chair of the Daring to Believe campaign that raised $6.4 million for the Island Cancer Centre; honorary chairman of the Better Together Campaign for the Victoria Hospital Foundation; and as a member of the B.C. Progress Board.

In February, Campbell received the lifetime achievement award at the Victoria Leadership Awards, the latest in a string of career honours. In 1999, Campbell received the Order of B.C. in 1999 and, in 2000, Royal Roads University and the University of Victoria awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Laws degree. He was also enshrined in B.C.'s Business Hall of Fame.

Campbell was also a dedicated member of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers (CFIG), serving on the board as well as the executive committee.  Campbell was also the first chair of Grocery Showcase West, one of the first recipients of the Life Member designation and his stores were perennial winners of the Canadian Independent Grocer of the Year awards.

“Alex was an advocate for the independent and his steadfast loyalty served us well through some difficult times in the last decade,” said John Scott, CFIG president and CEO. “After selling Thrifty Foods to Sobeys in 2007, Alex remained active as a confidant to me and as the originator of the ‘Advice from the Legends’ series at Grocery Showcase West.”

Campbell has also been honoured by the grocery industry with the Golden Pencil, the Astra and the Robert Beaudry Awards.

Canadian Grocer's consulting editor George Condon said "I first met Alex 30 years ago. Not only was he the perfect independent grocer, he was generous to a fault, a great family man, and a wonderful man to know."

Scott added that Campbell was one of the most prolific entrepreneurs in the history of the Canadian grocery industry. "Few will ever leave a legacy to their industry and their community as has Alex Campbell,” said Scott. "A true legend in our industry, a great community and family man and a wonderful friend."

Campbell is survived by his wife of 49-years, Jo, and three children: Lorne, Bonnie and Alex Jr., their spouses, and seven grandchildren.

In an obituary in the Times Colonist, the family said: "Dad, if love could have saved you, you would never have died."

A public celebration of life for Campbell will be held Oct. 30 at the Victoria Conference Centre, with doors opening at noon for the 1 p.m. event.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the B.C. Cancer Foundation.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds