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This article was originally published on Oct. 6, 2014. 

By Oliver Lazenby
The Bellingham Business Journal

Ten years ago, as regional vice president of Whole Foods Market, John Clougher developed an admiration for Haggen, the Bellingham-based grocery store chain.

His job at Whole Foods required him to travel to stores throughout the Northwest. Every other week, he’d leave his wife and three young daughters in Bellevue to drive up the Interstate 5 corridor to Whole Foods stores in British Columbia.

As a lifelong grocer, Clougher (his last name rhymes with flour) liked to check out other grocery stores along the way. To him, Haggen stood out.

“When you’re in the grocery industry you’re always checking things out. There are companies that inherently know how to be merchants, and I think Haggen is one of them,” Clougher said. “There were plenty of times when I was leaving Canada and thought, ‘I can’t wait to get through the border crossing because I need to get something to eat at Haggen.’”

In September, after several years in California reviving Andronico’s Community Markets, a struggling chain of specialty markets based in Berkeley, California, Clougher was hired as Haggen’s CEO. It’s a position he’s excited about because he thinks, after a couple of difficult years, Haggen is now ready to grow.

“What I see in Haggen is a company that actually has some really great positive momentum right now,” he said. “It’s really centered itself over the past 18 months into a really stable company. I’m pretty excited with what I’m walking into.”

In an official press release, Haggen board member John Caple said Clougher is the ideal leader for Haggen’s future.

“John has led successful ventures with specialty food retailing opportunities that focus on higher-end, fresh and differentiated products, which is exactly where Haggen’s strength and future lie,” he said.

Clougher, 48, has worked in grocery stores all his life, starting as a sweeper and bagger at Purity Supreme in Boston, a market he likens to Safeway. In 1993, he joined a company called Fresh Fields Market in Rockville, Maryland.

In 1996, Whole Foods bought Fresh Fields. Clougher’s store changed to a Whole Foods, and he stayed with the company, and moved to Bellevue to work as Regional Vice President in 2000. Clougher, who had a young family, wanted to travel less–he spent many nights away from his wife and daughters, who are now 17, 16, and 14.

In 2010, he seized an opportunity to revive Andronico’s. The job allowed Clougher to spend more time with his family. And professionally, it was an interesting challenge, he said.

Andronico’s was struggling after a failed expansion attempt during the recession. Andronico’s stores were great, but they had business issues, Clougher said.

So, Clougher and a team from Whole Foods took on management roles at Andronica’s in 2011, after the store declared bankruptcy, and brought it back to life. Clougher was the board of managers’ executive advisor, and later the CEO, while simultaneously working as CEO of Ag Ferrari Foods – an Italian deli.

“I had a lot of fun the past few years really bringing Andronico’s back to its heyday through basic retail strategies around fresh food and quality customer service,” Clougher said. “I’m really proud of what we did there.”

With Haggen closing 10 stores in the past two years, it may seem like Clougher is walking into a similar situation at Haggen as he did at Andronico’s – a chance to fix a broken business.

But that’s not the case, Clougher said. This summer, Haggen’s sales numbers are up.

Haggen hasn’t had a CEO since 2012, and Clougher is replacing a leadership team of Clement Stevens, John Turley and Ron Stevens. Those leaders did the hard work of closing stores and balancing the budget, Clougher said.

Turley and Clement Stevens are now senior vice presidents with the company. Ron Stevens, who was chief financial officer, left the company in May.

Haggen is almost finished with its “Northwest Fresh” rebranding project, with just two or three stores to go. The rebranding involves remodeling stores, including Haggen-owned Top Food & Drug stores, and rebranding products.

Clougher hopes to be with Haggen for a while, he said.

“I’d like this to be my gig,” he said. “I believe I’m still relatively young. I’d like to make that commitment to Haggen.”

In his first few weeks on the job Clougher went on a roadshow, stopping at every Haggen store and meeting as many of the company’s 2,000 employees as he could. While touring the Barkley Village Haggen with store manager Chris Sharick, Clougher stopped to meet and joke with store employees.

“How come you got to start as a box boy? I had to start as a bagger,” he said to Sharick, who has been with Haggen for 20 years.

The number of long-term employees at Haggen impressed Clougher. He met a lot of people who had been with Haggen for 20 to 40 years.

“There’s a certain set of people who want to work in a grocery store, and that’s me. I’m a grocer for my whole life. And it’s Chris. There’s a lot of that here,” Clougher said.

Before accepting the position, he spent a lot of time meeting with the previous management team to get to know them and discuss strategy. He came to Bellingham from San Francisco seven or eight weeks in a row, and brought his wife along twice.

“I spent a lot of time looking at this opportunity,” he said. “I feel very lucky that there was an open position for me to join the company.”

Clougher wanted to work for a bigger company, but also a special company, he said.

As with Clougher’s last career change, family was an important consideration.

Clougher said his family was excited about moving to Bellingham. His kids still have friends in Washington from the last time they lived in the state.

“My wife feels very comfortable moving to Washington–that’s very important,” he said. “There’s been a lot of positive discussion in our family about relocating. Usually relocating is a very traumatic thing for a family.”

Clougher got into natural markets early. The media still talks about the natural and organic movement like it’s new, Clougher said, but he’s been working in it since 1993.

“It’s still new, but I was lucky enough to get in 20 years ago,” Clougher said.

Clougher said he will use what he learned at Whole Foods to train, educate, and experiment around Haggen’s perishable operations. He considers perishables to be Whole Foods’ expertise.

Though he’s worked in natural markets for most of his career, Clougher doesn’t feel the need to make any visionary changes at Haggen, he said. Nor does he see Haggen as a departure from his career in natural markets.

“Haggen is committed to sustainable programs and traceability programs,” Clougher said. “In some ways it is very close to my background.”

If he doesn’t plan to change Haggen, what is his vision for the 81-year-old company?

It’s simple, he said. Five years from now he wants each Haggen store to be the best grocery store in its community.

Oliver Lazenby, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or olazenby@bbjtoday.com

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