The Copps Corporation
The Copps Corporation
Incorporated: 1892 as E.M. Copps and Company
Sales: $560 million (1999 est.)
NAIC: 445110 Grocery Stores; 422410 Groceries, General Line, Wholesaling
The Copps Corporation is one of Wisconsin’s largest privately held businesses. It owns and operates 18 supermarkets and is a wholesale distributor to more than 50 supermarkets throughout Wisconsin. The company’s stores operate under the names Copps IGA, Duke’s Finer Foods, and Copps Food Centers. In addition to traditional grocery fare, Copps Food Centers feature floral departments, fresh-squeezed vegetable and fruit juices, in-store bakeries, nutritional foods departments, liquor stores, video rental departments, and delicatessens. Copps is also testing a meal solutions center, which combines IGA (Independent Grocers Association) and Kraft products in different weekly recipes. The company sets aside as much as 1,400 square feet per store to stock organically grown produce. Copps is owned by fourth generation members of the founding Copps family, and is ranked number 422 in Forbes magazines Private 500 listing.
Post Civil War-Era Entrepreneur
Egbert Morton (E. M.) Copps founded the Copps Corporation in 1892. Prior to starting the business, E.M. served as an Army captain, having risen from the rank of enlisted private. In 1865 he was offered a commission as a major if he remained in the Army. E.M. refused the offer, writing that he was “anxious to get home for work on the farm or to go into business.” He returned to Chateauguay, New York, the town of his birth, but soon went west, in search of fresh opportunities. He settled approximately 900 miles away in Marinette, Wisconsin, where he used the remainder of his Army pay to build a lumber mill on the banks of the Menominee River. He also purchased a stand of timber a few miles away, near Peshtigo. E.M. and his wife, Florence, a Green Bay school teacher, traveled to Peshtigo on the night of October 8, 1871, the night that would become known for “The Great Peshtigo Fire.” Alerted to the conflagration, the young couple fled to the river, and managed to survive by remaining in the water until daybreak, haunted by the screams of the 1,200 residents who lost their lives that night. Coincidentally, The Great Chicago Fire (which claimed 300 lives) happened on the same night, overshadowing the tragedy in Peshtigo. The rest of the country heard nothing of the Peshtigo fire until two days later because the telegraph lines had been destroyed.
Plagued by fire a second time, E.M.’s Marinette timber mill burned to the ground two years later. He and his wife decided to move to a new location, trying their luck with another mill along the Wisconsin River near downtown Stevens Point. Within the next 12 years, two more fires struck their businesses, and in 1877 his uninsured lumber yard burned, taking both his lumber and that of his customers. Company records state that “Tenacity was certainly E.M.’s virtue. In July 1885, a fire was caused by two lads throwing fire crackers into a pile of sawdust. E.M. faced losses many times greater than the insurance coverage. Yet, he rebuilt the mill, profitably sold it and moved to Tomahawk to manage a sawmill and planing mill.” Before long the couple had seven children to feed. They wanted to return to Stevens Point where they had left so many friends behind. The couple agreed that owning another sawmill was out of the question, but they decided that the agricultural town was growing and in need of a wholesaler for basic supplies including coal, salt, seeds, feed, flour, hay, and grain. At the age of 52, E.M. opened the doors to his grocery business, E.M. Copps & Company. The business supplied the local loggers, river men, farmers, and neighbors.
The couple’s second son, Alfred, joined the business five years later. In 1897, young Alfred took it upon himself to sell a rail car of molasses to area retailers. Successful at that, he was soon delivering other grocery items, until it became necessary for the family to build a second warehouse across the street. When the Spanish-American War was declared in 1898, Alfred was one of the first to volunteer, satisfied to do his part for the country, returning to the business in the following year. As E.M. approached the age of 70, another son, Clinton, joined the firm as a full-time salesman, freeing Alfred to take on more of the management responsibilities. Alfred was operating as buyer for the business and recognized an opportunity in selling potatoes—Portage County was Wisconsin’s potato growing capital. He profited by some large-scale potato deals, entering negotiations with another potato dealer, Len Starks, who had been asked by the Soo Line Railroad to build a warehouse for storage. Starks, in turn, convinced Alfred that he should build and own the building for storing both his (Starks’s) and Copps’s potatoes. Alfred’s memoirs explained that “At the time we were storing our grocery items in three warehouses. This was overly expensive, so Stark’s idea was sound, but we did not have the $30,000 needed for construction.” He continued, “But, Starks had instant access to the money through his Chicago bank. So within days we had a 30-year property lease with the Soo Line and this 30-year agreement with Starks.”
Marketing Under the Deerwood Label: Post World War I
During this period the company name was changed to The Copps Company. In need of a larger sales force Alfred recruited his brother Clinton, who, it was said, “could sell icicles to an Eskimo.” Items that were outside the line of groceries, such as feed grains and seeds, were dropped. The retail coal business was retained and taken over by C.G. Fletcher and Len Starks took over all the warehouses and the entire potato business as an even trade for the amount of the potato loan. Copps then became recognized as a wholesale grocery house. Clinton decided that private labels would be a lucrative venture, selling coffee as the first of many “Deerwood” products. He showed grocers how to freshly grind and roast the coffee at each of their stores. Premium quality eggs, peanuts, and a limited array of items were sold under the Deerwood label. Total assets at this time (1918) amounted to approximately $108,000. In the post-World War I years, cash was scarce. Copps needed about $25,000 for the purchase of grocery stock to be sold over the winter months. The family was unable to obtain a bank loan because conditions in the money market were so bad that E.M.’s bank, where he served as a trustee, refused to loan them money. Alfred told the Copps salesmen that they would have to do more to ensure that customers paid more promptly, an effort that quickly made a difference. The brothers then switched to another bank in town for financing, and were given the needed funds.
Alfred served as company president after the death of his father. He constructed a two-story addition to the main building. During Prohibition the company was faced with difficult ethical decisions. As dealers of cane sugar, they were overwhelmed by the large volumes of sugar requested by some of their customers. Aware that the sugar would probably be put to use for the production of illegal alcohol, the Copps brothers refused sales to “suspicious looking bag men laying stacks of bills on our counter….” Alfred commented, “I didn’t want to spend 20 years in the Federal Pen.” Despite refusals of such profitable opportunities, the business had accumulated assets in the range of $300,000 by 1930.
Alfred realized that grocery retailing would be a great business for the future. He enlisted the help of his son, Chandler, who had worked in Washington, D.C., with an A&P store following his graduation from Ohio State University. Alfred hoped that Chandler could contribute what he had learned about retailing in the urban grocery industry. Clinton’s son, Don, also began working for the business, specializing in the produce department. Alfred joined the United Buyers group of wholesalers, becoming a board member and serving until 1944. After Chandler’s death in 1942, Don’s other brother, Gordon, took over in the sales department. When business was slowing down, Gordon and Don became impatient and went to Chicago to discuss possibilities with members of the then new Independent Grocers Association. They learned that they should be able to cut costs from the 10 to 11 percent they were operating with, to nearly four percent, by signing up 90 retailers with Copps wholesaling compared to the 560 they were dealing with. The plethora of very small independent retailers was dropped since they were too small to order the minimum $275 weekly that would make business lucrative for Copps. In addition to selling dry goods to the qualifying retailers, the company would also sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Copps did manage to bring the costs down to the four to five percent goal. Gordon Copps also established a subsidiary company, utilizing a cash and carry policy in order to continue supplying to many of the smaller retailers within proximity to the Stevens Point Warehouse.
1960: Building a Forerunner to Superstores
Copps finally entered into the retail business when it purchased a store in Black River Falls through another small subsidiary company, the Central Wisconsin Company. Copps acquired several other retail stores before building the first “Foodliner,” the East Side IGA, in Stevens Point—the forerunner to the Superstore creations of the 1980s.
By 1964, Copps was operating 12 foodliners in nine cities. A 93,600-square-foot warehouse was built on Stevens Point’s south side to accommodate the wholesaling operation. With Gordon in charge of warehousing, the latest warehouse had 20-foot ceilings to enable high vertical stacking with forklifts. The office was fitted with an IBM computer system, with automatic billing and other mechanical and technological conveniences. Several smaller buildings were also acquired for storing frozen food items. By then the company had 137 employees and wholesale revenues of $20 million.
Copps people have delivered the goods since 1892.
Gordon and Don, serving as chairman and president, respectively, saw innovation as the ticket to success. They envisioned one-stop shopping and experimented with several combinations of food and discount department stores in both the wholesale and retail markets. Following Gordon’s death in an automobile accident, Don took over as chairman until his retirement in the 1980s. The sons of Don (Michael and Lucky [Don, Jr.]) and Gordon (Tim, Fred, and Tom) stepped in when needed, and after Don’s retirement his son Michael took over as chairman, while Lucky served as executive vice-president. Gordon’s sons took over as president, executive vice-president, and vice-president. The new team—the fourth generation of grocery managers—decided to quit the general merchandise discount stores, focusing on wholesaling and retailing grocery products. They began thinking in terms of Superstores. The prototype Superstore, with 60,000 square feet of shopping space, was opened in 1984, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Other Superstores soon opened in Manitowoc, Appleton, Green Bay, Stevens Point, and Fond du Lac. The produce section was highlighted and positioned as the first stop for shoppers. Engineers designed spotlighting, dark ceilings, and wooden bulk bins in an attempt to highlight the polished products and downplay fixtures. Some of Copps’ stores housed banks, travel agencies, post offices, complete service desks, and floral and natural foods departments.
The 1990s: Helping People Make Healthy Choices
The company set up consumer boards for each store, made up of frequent shoppers who met regularly to discuss the pros and cons of shopping at Copps. The company continued to pride itself on giving customers what they wanted. With the growth in awareness concerning healthy diets, Copps made every effort to inform consumers about the choices available to them. It started using “Nutri-Guide” product labels to simplify shopping for customers with special dietary needs. The Copps Consumer Affairs department started a Food for Life program, helping shoppers choose groceries for healthy eating with free recipes and pamphlets.
Still very active in the wholesale business, Copps built another Stevens Point warehouse for $5 million in 1991 to house perishable and dry goods. The company also sponsored a Silent Partner program, providing financing help to smaller independents who could not borrow funds at the same lower rate that Copps could borrow at. The company also sponsored financial planning seminars for independents, in addition to an employee training program.
Since the scale of the Superstores (sometimes as large as 80,000 square feet) was overkill for many smaller Wisconsin communities, the company experimented in the early 1990s with scaled-down models (around 44,000 square feet). In smaller towns like Wautoma, that had year-round populations of 1,500, an even smaller store was constructed. Copps management realized that people from outlying areas would shop at these stores, bringing the customer base in Wautoma, for example, closer to 5,000. Mass merchandiser Wal-Mart asked Copps to share its shopping center in Stevens Point, thinking that Copps would be an added traffic draw. The Copps family worried that if they refused the invitation, Wal-Mart would ask one of Copps’s competitors. Since Stevens Point was the company headquarters, Copps wanted to maintain its dominant status there, and accepted the offer, replacing one of two Copps Food Centers already operating in the town. The 450-item produce department was labeled the “Garden of Eden.” A simulated tree trunk reached from the floor to an artificial skylight that dominated the department’s ceiling space. Artificial leafy branches and banners promoting healthy eating hung from the skylight. Periodically, a soundtrack of rain and thunder, reinforced by a misting of the produce—and flickering lights simulating a lightning effect—attracted the attention of customers.
To remain competitive, Copps implemented a natural foods strategy to attract the growing numbers of nutrition-conscious customers. It hired people who had already integrated natural foods into their lifestyles, and who were knowledgeable about the products. The company’s Madison store was its best natural foods market, and when Whole Foods revealed plans to enter that market, Copps company directors encouraged department heads to travel to Chicago to see what the competition had to offer at their stores. The director of the Copps natural foods department in Madison explained that “This way, when Whole Foods does open up, the impact would be felt less because consumers would see us as providing alternatives to Whole Foods,” according to Lisa Saxton of Supermarket News. The company offered 75 bulk items, including a wide variety of bulk spices. Emphasis was placed on the freshness and quality of its products, and competitive prices. The fastest-growing natural foods category at Copps was its frozen foods, featuring five doors worth of easy-to-prepare items. Copps offered a large five-sided juice and melon bar with an open center where employees squeezed the fresh juice for the weekly juice program and prepared “watermelon boats,” watermelon halves stuffed to the brim with other fruits. Some stores also offered a Muro citrus peeler, which peeled, cored, and segmented citrus fruits.
In a company document, Tom Copps, executive vice-president for public affairs stated that: “In this business, you have to grow or die. You can’t sit idle.” Apparently, in the Copps family, “sitting idle” simply was not in the genes.
Cub Foods; Sam’s Club; Piggly Wiggly Southern, Inc.; Whole Foods Market, Inc.
- Company is founded in central Wisconsin, supplying the basic necessities.
- E.M. Copps dies.
- Copps aligns with IGA.
- Copps builds first “foodliner,” the East Side IGA, in Stevens Point.
- Company experiments with combination food and discount department stores.
- Prototype Superstore opens in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
- Company celebrates 100 years in business.
Alaimo, Dan, “Copps, K-VA-T Enter Shared Transaction Fee Program Arena,” Supermarket News, May 13, 1996, p. 53.
Bennett, Stephen, “Acid Test,” Progressive Grocer, December 1993, p. 36.
Ingram, Bob, “A New Beat in the Heartland,” Supermarket Business, August, 1995, p. 35.
Saxton, Lisa, “Natural Cause: Copps Corporation Is Hoping a Stepped-Up Emphasis on Natural Foods Will Stave Off Inroads from Specialty Competition,” Supermarket News, October 16, 1995, p. 35.
Stickel, Amy I., “Rising Self-Service: The Bakery Department in Copps,” Supermarket News, July 24, 1995, p. 48.
"The Copps Corporation." International Directory of Company Histories. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/copps-corporation
"The Copps Corporation." International Directory of Company Histories. . Retrieved February 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/copps-corporation
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