“The thing that runs through all of us is that we love what we’re doing.” Edwards leadership includes left to right Steve Edwards, Jr., Paul Rowton, Gary Proffitt, Steve Edwards.

By John Callahan & Dwain Hebda // Photos By DeWaine Duncan

 

Every company will, in some form or fashion, face competition, hard times and bad breaks, especially in the brutally competitive grocery business. Steve Edwards, president of GES Inc., knows this fact better than most. His grocery company, which consists of eight Edwards Food Giant and five Edwards Cash Saver locations across central and eastern Arkansas, has occupied the bulk of Edwards’ working life, during which he’s seen a little bit of all that and then some.  

 

There’s a great deal of pride in Edwards’ voice when he talks about the company and the three generations of the Edwards family – plus the many employees he regards as such – who have helped build it and continue to do so today. Especially, he says, when he thinks about what it took to get here. 

 

“When we come to a store,” he said, “we bring shopping carts in off the lot, or we pick up trash, or if there’s a mess we’ll pick up a mop. None of us are too good to jump in. I think that’s part of the deal with our employees; when they see key people doing the job we’re asking them to do, they feel like they’re part of the family. It’s their store.”

 

It’s this kind of all-for-one, sweat-the-details attitude that has enabled the company to grow from a small clutch of stores to its continued expansion within The Natural State. Whether you know it as Food Giant, as do eastern Arkansans, or Edwards, more the norm in central Arkansas, the company’s story is one of survival through smart marketing and growing into modern conveniences all while paying attention to certain inviolate fundamentals.

 

“The thing that runs through all of us is that we love what we’re doing,” said Gary Proffitt, vice president of operations. “There’s nothing more rewarding, especially when opening a store. For me, that’s the reward for the everyday work and logistics.”

Edwards

In addition to it’s famed meat department, Edwards Food Giant’s outstanding deli offers variety and convenience.

The story begins with Steve’s father, Oral Edwards, who entered the grocery business as assistant manager of a store in Tennessee in 1959 and who within three years got the chance to become part owner of Liberty Supermarket in Forrest City. Expansion quickly followed as Oral and his partners opened several more stores, consolidated under the GES umbrella in 1968. 

 

At its peak, AES numbered 16 locations in Arkansas and Mississippi, built on Oral’s twin priorities of exceptional customer service and family ownership, both of which have continued to this day. The organizational chart that resembles a family tree: in addition to Steve, who started as a store manager in 1975 after graduating from Arkansas State University, his wife, Laura, is also involved with the company, as is his son, Steve Jr. and son-in-law Paul Rowton, executive vice president and CFO. 

 

And while he’s not bound by blood or marriage, Proffitt is as widely regarded as a member of the family, as he is a key component of the company’s success. This continuity of leadership keeps the principles of the business intact down from Oral himself, who died in 2017.

 

“Growing up around [Oral] was the best job training I could have had, because I saw how he interacted with people,” said Steve Jr. “Even after he passed away, you could walk into a store and see people that knew him and hear stories. Even though he’s not here, his presence is still felt. I still feel like I’m learning from him every day.”

 

The company’s formula, while resolute, is not the only thing that has spurred its growth, or even brought about its survival. Intense competitive pressure took its toll through the years, as colossal supercenters and online shopping steadily cut into the company’s bottom line, starting in the 1980s. The next couple of decades brought store closures and looming questions about the chain’s future until shifts in the market provided a lifeline.

 

“The thing we credit with our survival was that some of our largest competitors decided in 2000 to get out of the meat-cutting business,” Steve said. “They took out all of their saws, their slicers and everything that they sold in their stores was processed somewhere else.

 

“I had been down in Florida and saw how Winn-Dixie branded themselves as ‘The Beef People.’ I came back, we talked about it, and we decided that we would brand ourselves ‘The Meat People.’”

 

It was a bold stroke of genius. Suddenly, the difference between the company’s stores and the competition was clear as day, spelled out in 10-foot letters on the front of each location and proven daily behind the meat counter where hand-cut steaks, fresh-ground beef, made-in-house sausages and master butcher-level expertise was there for the asking.   

 

And while it may have been the meat that brought people in, once there customers delighted in the friendly and helpful attitude of employees, a once-ubiquitous feature of main street independent grocers that seemed to have faded from other chains. Oral’s preachings were proving truer than ever.

“Papa always said, ‘We’re in the people business,’” said Rowton, referring to Oral’s nickname. “We sell groceries as a commodity, but we want to do everything we can to take care of our people, whether that’s our customers, who have been very loyal to us over the years, or our team members, who are really, in essence, a part of our family.”

 

The two audiences are not mutually exclusive, as long-tenured employees demonstrate the levels of expertise and refined customer-service skills that help solidify customer loyalty. In this regard, the company is well-stocked: Bob Childers, former director of meat operations, retired in 2020 after 53 years with the company. Several other employees have retired after more than 40 years, and many still remain at the company with upwards of 30 years of service.

 

As The Meat People tag slowly turned the company’s fortunes, leadership seized upon another opportunity presented by the bankruptcy of Affiliated Foods Southwest in 2009. This put a number of former Harvest Foods locations up for sale and gave GES a major pathway to expansion into the Little Rock market for the first time.

 

“It was an exciting time but an uncertain time,” said Rowton, who cut his teeth with Hershey Foods prior to joining the company. “We weren’t really sure what we were getting into by spreading the company to the central part of the state.”

The gambit worked, and bringing the newly-coined Edwards Food Giant into central Arkansas was successful enough to fuel additional expansion.

 

“We’ve pretty much either opened a store or remodeled a store every year since 2009,” Steve said. “We’re working right now on number 14 and 15 in Little Rock and North Little Rock, so we’re about to get back to the quantity of the old days, but with stores that are a lot bigger, nicer and more sophisticated.”

 

Part of that sophistication lies in retail technology, an area of operations managed by Steve Jr., who graduated from the University of Arkansas and came aboard in 2018, just as the company rolled out its online shopping platform. Introduced in response to customer requests, and to keep up with the Joneses, the system proved invaluable just two years later with the onset of the pandemic. 

 

Covid-19 showed the mettle of the leadership team in other ways, namely foresight and skill regarding inventory logistics. Steve is quick to credit Proffitt for his quick-thinking and leadership, attributes honed over a lifetime in the grocery business. Proffitt’s instincts at the first sign of shortages moved him to action, leveraging suppliers and ordering products by the semi-load to keep shelves stocked. When other grocery outlets ran dry, customers could usually find what they were looking for in quantity at Edwards Food Giant. 

 

“I think they’re trying to get rid of me,” Steve joked with genuine pride. “Every time I get ready to do something that I’ve always done for years, someone else has already done it. Either I’m too slow or they’re better at it than I am.”

 

Leadership also credited the company’s longstanding strategy of investing individual store managers with the authority to make decisions as a key reason for coming through the pandemic, as well as meeting smaller day-to-day challenges. Rather than waiting for orders from above, store managers are given the flexibility to think on their feet and do what they feel needs to be done for their store, from handling personnel to procuring products for sale.

 

“We give a lot of autonomy to our people, especially at the manager level, and I feel like that’s rewarding and exciting for them,” Steve Jr. said. “Nowadays, you hear about how other places are kind of ruled from the offices, and the orders are pushed down to people at the store level. 

 

“When I came to the company I thought it was really cool that each manager had the ability to run their store themselves. Of course we all work together and can push ideas down, but at the end of the day each manager isn’t just parroting orders from someone above them.”

At the heart of store operations – from produce to bakery to meats and more – are the company’s helpful employees, many of whom have decades of grocery and customer service experience.

Today, Edwards Food Giant has the kind of problems that come from expansion, and those are good one to have. There are more jobs and career opportunity than ever with the company, which means hiring is a daily priority. Retail is notorious for turnover, especially at the entry level, so management goes out of its way to show its appreciation to workers from boosting holiday pay to developing internal candidates for advancement, promoting from within whenever feasible.

 

The company has been equally supportive of causes in the communities where they do business. This commitment has gained national attention, and in 2021, the company was recognized with the Lou Fox Community Service Award,  presented by Associated Wholesale Grocers, in recognition of outstanding leadership and dedication to the community. 

 

Throughout all of the ups and downs, changes and advancements, the soul of company remains intact, as one glance into Rowton’s office illustrates. There, a photograph of his two sons, decked out in Edwards Food Giant aprons, provides a foreshadowing of what the family hopes and expects is to come. As Steve points out, there are about 20 years between himself and Rowton, about 20 more between Rowton and Steve Jr., and perhaps another 20 years between Steve Jr. and the lads, a symmetry that’s impossible to ignore. 

 

And while Steve Jr. knows how heavy those expectations can be, he’s also imbued with the spirit of his grandfather, shouldering his corporate responsibilities as part of the family legacy.

 

“You don’t get up, sit in an office, and leave at 5,” he said of the job. “One day you may be in a store, one day you may be in the office, one day you may be on a construction site. There’s something new every day, something new every hour. It’s fun, it’s rewarding and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”