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Brent Battistelli's small-town grocery store is all about community and people.

The laughter floats through the line of cashiers at the front of Battistelli’s Your Independent Grocer in the northern Ontario town of Lively, just outside of Sudbury. It is a typical, busy Saturday morning and a longtime customer has brought in his university-bound son to catch up with his old hockey coach, the owner of the store, Brent Battistelli. As Battistelli chats with the player about school and sports, a smile broadens across the grocer’s face.

This is Brent Battistelli’s favourite part of the job–coming down from the “bird cage,” as he jokingly refers to the office upstairs where paperwork is done, to walk the store floor and have a chance to chat with customers. Just like this Saturday morning in August, he can catch up on how one of his hockey-playing students is doing since going away to school. Later, he explains to me the reason why he enjoys these encounters so much. “It’s not the building that makes the store, it’s the people, the staff and the customers.”

It’s a philosophy that Battistelli has maintained ever since he got into the grocery industry, 30 years ago, and it’s one that will certainly be important as he takes on a wider role this fall–that of chair of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers. The job will take him across the country and he’ll be an important advocate for independents during his term over the next year.

Battistelli will oversee an association that has, in the last year, added four big new members, after the dissolution of the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, another industry association. John Scott, CFIG’s president, says Battistelli is the man for the job. “We are like a family, and Brent will be the leader who makes sure the family sticks together.”

Battistelli knows all about how important family is, especially in the grocery business. Growing up in Sudbury, Brent’s dad, Frank, was the assistant manager at a local Loblaws store, managed at the time by Steve Rome, a well-respected grocer in the Sudbury area.

Independent Grocer

An ex-hockey player, Battistelli tells his staff: “Don’t lose in your own barn.” The old sports nugget is a reminder to deliver great customer service

Young Brent learned about the grocery business from his father. But as a teenager he had other career aspirations: hockey. At 16, Battistelli left home to play for the Ontario Hockey League’s famed Peterborough Petes. A year later he joined the Ottawa 67s. A left winger, Battistelli was also team captain and in his last year with the Ottawa squad scored 26 goals in 61 games. “I was on pace for 40 goals at Christmas,” Battistelli remembers, “but then I had a groin injury and had to sit out for a while.” Afterward, he continued to play hockey at the University of Ottawa, competing in tournaments in Europe.

It was while he was away at university that Brent got a phone call from his dad. The senior Battistelli had an opportunity to take over a Valu-Mart store in Lively. Should he take it? Brent thought it was a good idea, as did Rome, who also encouraged Brent to get involved in the store. “Brent was very mature for his age and good in school even while pursuing hockey,” recalls Rome. “And today he is a progressive retailer. I see him as the next generation of grocers. When John asked me if I had anyone in mind to represent northern Ontario, I always had Brent in mind. I thought he would be a good fit for CFIG.”

After graduating from university, in 1991, Battistelli came back to work in the store full time. He brought with him an economics degree and, of course, his passion for hockey. Both have come in handy–economics for obvious reasons in an industry with skintight margins; but hockey may be just as important.

Battistelli, who still coaches midget hockey, sees more than a few parallels between sports and running a retail business. He can be heard sometimes using coach’s sayings to encourage his staff. “Don’t lose in your own barn,” he’ll tell them. It means when the customer walks in the door sta have the opportunity to serve that customer, to win, and for shoppers to leave happy. It is perhaps Battistelli’s No. 1 rule of retailing. “We serve the customer. And focusing on the simple things customers want helps us great rapport,” he says.

Battistelli Loblaws

“My business mantra is that everything we do is based on relationships,” says Battistelli. “How you treat people makes all the difference”

Among Battistelli’s top priorities every day is making sure products are fresh and the store is well stocked and clean. “We worry about what we can control. When there is change, which is inevitable, we adapt,” says Battistelli. “When we overhear people mention our store, they talk about our great service and cleanliness, and those are things that are important to customers.”

With that in mind, Battistelli says being a franchised associate with Loblaw is a benefit. He can leverage the bigger corporation on elements such as signage, design and programs that have been proven to work in other stores, freeing him up to focus on the other important parts of the business, like customer service.

The Battistellis switched to Loblaw’s Your Independent Grocer banner in 1995, and Brent says the franchise arrangement gives him enough autonomy to run the store the way he wants. “My dad and I are both very much people-oriented,” says Battistelli. “We don’t get that turnover common in the industry. It’s the people who work with me that make this store unique.” Many of the 100 employees he has working with him have been loyal workers for more than 20 years. “My business mantra is that everything we do is based on relationships. How you cultivate those relationships, how you treat people from the top of an organization down to anybody within it, makes the difference,” says Battistelli.

Lively was once a company town for mining giant Inco. Though it’s now a Sudbury bedroom community, Battistelli’s 30,000-square-foot store, situated across the street from the original Valu-Mart his dad worked at (he’s since retired), is the only grocery store within a 12-kilometre radius. And maintaining the store’s small-town feel is especially important.

Lively Local Freshness

Once customers enter the sliding doors they are greeted by a bulletin board of colourful notices–yard sales, rummage sales and items and pets for sale. Possibly considered a bit old school today, a visit here is not only about picking up your weekly groceries, but also a place where neighbours and friends meet up, like a community centre where you run into friends while grabbing your groceries. “The industry has really changed and competition is heavy, with a lot of corporate players now,” Battistelli says. “When you are a franchise or an independent, you really need to  nd your niche and be good at it because you are competing against a lot of big stores.”

Battistelli takes over as chair of CFIG during a year that has been tough for him personally. In January he lost his wife, Cheryl, to breast cancer after a long fight, leaving him with their three children between the ages of 11 and 18. Knowing what Battistelli was going through, Scott, CFIG’s president, offered to let him delay taking over the chairmanship. But Battistelli decided to go ahead anyway. “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” he confides. “The kids are resilient and getting through it, but they are left with a hole that will never be filled. We are very close and this brought us even closer.”

CFIG, meanwhile, is celebrating its 50th anniversary next year. Plus, this past spring it expanded with the addition of several large members, including stores a liated with Co-op Atlantic, Federated Co-ops and British Columbia’s H. Y. Louie Company. Battistelli’s ability to lead and his keen understanding of what matters to independents will help move the association forward. “Brent is incredibly solid,” says Scott. “He is very insightful. He reads people and situations extremely well.”

Battistelli, meanwhile, looks ahead to an exciting year. True to his philosophy that good relationships and people are the backbone of any business, he adds: “It’ll be a good time to nurture relationships that we have built with other organizations and amongst our industry.”

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