H.E. Butt Grocery Company
H.E. Butt Grocery Company
Founded: 1905 as C.C. Butt Grocery Store
Sales: $7 billion (1998 est.)
NAIC: 445110 Supermarkets and Other Grocery (Except Convenience) Stores; 447110 Other Gasoline Stations; 311511 Fluid Milk Manufacturing; 311421 Fruit and Vegetable Canning; 311520 Ice Cream and Frozen Dessert Manufacturing; 311610 Animal Slaughtering and Processing; 311812 Commercial Bakeries; 311830 Tortilla Manufacturing; 326160 Plastics Bottle Manufacturing; 812920 Photofinishing
H.E. Butt Grocery Company (H-E-B) is the nation’s 15th largest grocery chain in revenue terms and is one of the leading chains in Texas, with number one positions in Austin, Corpus Christi, and San Antonio. The largest private company in Texas, H-E-B has been owned and operated by the H.E. Butt family since its early 20th-century founding. Of the company’s 269 units, most are large-format, combination food and pharmacy stores. About 90 of them are H-E-B Pantry Stores, which are smaller-sized, feature extra low prices, and are designed to be particularly convenient; these are mainly located in rural areas between southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana. Approximately 60 of the company’s stores feature self-service Gas N Go gasoline islands. In addition to its units in Texas and Louisiana, H-E-B runs six stores in Mexico in states that border the United States. Among the products that the company makes or processes itself for sale in its own stores are milk, yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, ice cream, baked goods, tortillas, meat, orange juice, and fruit drinks. The company also makes its own plastic bottles and operates a photofinishing laboratory.
Early Decades: From Kerrville to San Antonio
H-E-B started out as a single store in Kerrville, a small town in the Texas Hill Country. Charles C. and Florence Butt moved to Kerrville from Memphis, Tennessee. Charles was suffering from tuberculosis, and they hoped that the drier climate would improve his condition. Once the family was settled in Kerrville, Florence was faced with supporting the family herself. She decided to open a grocery store. The family purchased a two-story house, planning to live upstairs and operate the store downstairs. With investment capital of $60, the family opened the C.C. Butt Grocery Store on November 26,1905. They began selling food in bulk as a charge and delivery operation. Florence’s young sons delivered the food via baby carriage until they could afford to buy a little red wagon.
By 1908 the Butt store had established itself within the local community as “dealers in staples, fancy groceries and fresh meats.” The boys had even been able to buy a horse and wagon to make deliveries. Also, Florence was building a profitable fresh-baked bread business as a sideline. She arranged for bread to be delivered by train from San Antonio and then immediately delivered to residences by her sons. The market for fresh bread was relatively new at the time because many women were hesitant to buy bread for fear of being considered too lazy to bake their own. Nevertheless, bread deliveries increased, initiating what would become a legacy of innovation at Butt Grocery.
All three of the Butt brothers—Charles, Eugene, and Howard E.—worked in the family business while they were growing up. However, it was Howard who took an early liking to the business, and was even described in company annals as a “grocery man” from the beginning. At the age of 22, in 1917, Howard was still working in the grocery store. Shortly after the United States entered World War I, however, Howard joined the Navy. After a two-year tour he returned to Kerrville to take over the store. He had a lot of ideas and was eager to implement them. His first move was to relocate the store to a busier corner in the burgeoning downtown area. In the new location, Butt installed the first in-store meat market and delicatessen. He also began a policy of constantly offering new and different items to patrons.
Importantly, Butt also tried a risky new experiment. Traditionally, customers had delivered or phoned in their orders, and the grocer had gathered and delivered the groceries along with a bill due at the end of the month. By the early 1920s, though, a growing number of people had their own cars and were able to more easily transport their own groceries. Butt believed that those customers, and maybe many others, would be willing to wait on themselves, pay cash, and transport their own groceries if they could save money. The savings would come from reduced labor and equipment costs at the store, and from the elimination of unpaid grocery bills. In December 1921 Butt sent out handwritten penny postcards to his customers, explaining the change. On New Year’s Day the store opened under the new name of C.C. Butt Cash and Carry.
The cash-and-carry experiment was an instant hit. In fact, Butt decided in 1924 that it was time to expand. He opened a new store about 60 miles from Kerrville in a town called Junction. Although other stores were already established there, Butt’s innovative cash-and-carry system and superior inventory allowed his store to thrive. Meanwhile, Butt continued to tweak his formula by experimenting with new services and products. Most importantly, he began to question why a housewife should not be able to get common household items other than food and staples from a grocery store. Throughout the 1920s he slowly began adding to his inventory: everything from pots and pans to tools and textiles.
In 1926 Butt discovered a new avenue to growth. Piggly-Wiggly, a grocery store chain that had become well-known in the region by utilizing many of the same tactics that Butt was using, began selling franchises. Butt purchased some of the franchise rights, reasoning that he could successfully combine his views about customer service, as well as his experience with cash-and-carry, with the recognized Piggly-Wiggly name. Butt opened his first Piggly-Wiggly in Del Rio in 1926. The success of that venture led him to open two more stores in 1927 in Brady and Gonzales, purchase three additional Piggly-Wiggly’s in 1928, and build two more new outlets in San Benito and Harlingen. After roaring through most of the 1920s, Butt moved the company’s headquarters to Harlingen in 1928 to get closer to his Piggly-Wiggly stores. By that time, Butt’s first Piggly-Wiggly store in Del Rio was serving 5,000 customers each day.
The stock market crashed in 1929, spawning the Great Depression. Fortunately, Butt was relatively well positioned for the downturn in comparison to many other businesses at the time. His stores were geared for value, and grocery items were among the last goods that people stopped buying during the Depression. In fact, rather than slowing down, Butt continued to grow during the late 1920s and early 1930s, opening stores throughout the Rio Grande Valley and remodeling existing stores. By 1931 Butt Grocery was operating a total of 24 stores, and plans were being made for new outlets.
Butt suffered a major setback in 1933, when a hurricane swept from the coast into the Rio Grande Valley and damaged many of Butt’s stores and warehouses. Interestingly, Butt’s Piggly-Wiggly in Harlingen was the only grocery store in its area to open immediately after the hurricane. Despite the bad luck, Butt quickly restored his businesses and even managed to pursue a charitable venture. In 1934, when he was still in his 30s, Butt formed the H.E. Butt Foundation, a charitable organization created to aid the community. That effort was the first of many charitable acts that would earn Butt a reputation as a dedicated philanthropist. In 1935 Butt changed the name of his company to H.E. Butt Grocery Company.
H.E. Butt began to integrate vertically when it opened its own bakery and purchased a canning company in 1936. By that year, Butt was generating about $2 million worth of business annually from 31 stores. A new outlet built in Kerrville sported a parking lot with 100 spaces—quite a step up from the horse hitching post stationed in front of the original Kerrville store. In 1938, moreover, Butt expanded into the 75,000-person Austin market, the largest metropolitan area that it had entered. The company was also doing business in San Antonio by 1942 and was increasing its presence in its established markets. Meantime, headquarters were moved again in 1938, this time to Corpus Christi.
Postwar Era: Expansion of Scope and Facilities
Butt Grocery contributed to the World War II effort during the 1940s by supplying canned vegetables and fruits from its canning facility to troops overseas. In addition, many company employees served in the armed forces. At the same time, the company continued to progress. It opened the first air-conditioned grocery store and also began offering frozen foods, which were considered a novelty at the time. Shortages of many food items continued after the war, but by the late 1940s Butt’s business was back to normal. Encouraged by the success of the air-conditioned store, Butt opened one of the first truly large grocery stores in Texas in 1949. The Corpus Christi store had 22,500 square feet of space and was the first to have a separate drug department, cosmetic area, and lunch counter.
The large grocery store was a hit, and H.E. Butt focused on the concept from that point forward. In 1950 the company opened a large store in Waco—the company’s 53rd outlet—that featured an unheard of 12 checkout stands, two parking lots, and a self-service meat counter. Within two years several similar stores had been built and H.E. Butt’s chain had swelled to 58. The company continued to push for more growth. To increase sales at existing stores, it began operating the Texas Gold Stamp Company as a subsidiary in 1955; the promotion gave customers stamps for each purchase, which they could then exchange for household items. Butt continued to add new stores during the late 1950s and early 1960s. One store even featured spectacular “magic carpets” (automatic doors), parking for 300 cars, and 12 separate departments.
We remain committed to providing our customers with three things: consistently superior Customer Service, the best quality and freshness in all of our products, and low prices with great value. Attaining these goals each day makes H-E-B the best it can be in each community we serve.
By the end of the 1960s, H-E-B, as it had become known, was ready for a change. The dynamic and innovative Howard Butt officially passed the torch to his sons, Howard E., Jr., and the younger Charles. After Howard, Jr., took over management of the H.E. Butt Foundation, Charles Butt, a Wharton graduate, assumed the helm as president in 1971, a year in which sales of $250 million were recorded. He restructured the company’s management and recruited several experienced grocery executives to help him make H-E-B a force in the 1970s and 1980s. To that end, H-E-B opened its own ice cream plant, a new bread bakery, a large pastry bakery, and new offices and warehouses during the early and mid-1970s. The new president in 1976 abandoned the firm’s long-outdated policies that barred the sale of alcohol and kept the chain’s stores closed on Sunday. In addition, H-E-B gained dominant shares of its major markets by drastically lowering its prices, forcing a number of competitors out of business. Butt also began designing the company’s first “Futuremarket,” which would incorporate a gourmet deli, flower market, and in-store bakery among other features. Meanwhile, Howard E. Butt, Sr., fulfilled a longtime dream when, in 1974, he opened the H.E. Butt Camp, an 1,800-acre camp in the Texas Hill Country where nonprofit and Christian groups could retreat.
1980s–90s: New Store Concepts
H-E-B opened its first superstore, or Futuremarket, in Austin in 1981. The then massive store had 56,000 square feet and was considered a one-stop shopping center. Also in the early 1980s, H-E-B began selling generic goods and added a photo-processing plant to support in-store photo departments. Going into the mid-1980s, H-E-B was operating nearly 150 stores throughout central and south Texas and serving more than one million families. It continued to expand its store offerings with an array of new departments ranging from seafood shops and salad bars to nutrition centers and fast-food, take-home departments. Furthermore, Charles Butt was branching into new markets outside of the grocery store industry. Most notably, H-E-B opened its first H-E-B Video Central/H-E-B Video Superstore outlet in 1987 to capitalize on the booming home video industry; within a few years, H-E-B would tag more than 20 additional video stores onto that division. Another headquarters shift occurred in 1985, when the company moved into San Antonio’s Arsenal Complex, the renovated U.S. Army Arsenal; H-E-B had purchased the arsenal from the U.S. government in 1981 and maintained its historical landmarks as part of the renovation.
A secondary benefit of H-E-B’s foray into the video store business was that it gave the company an inroad into the massive Houston and surrounding East Texas markets, which it still had not entered by the late 1980s. Indeed, in 1988 H-E-B entered the East Texas market with a new store concept called H-E-B Pantry Foods. These stores were smaller than the superstores and featured only four departments: grocery, meat, produce, and health and beauty. They also focused on value, attempting to minimize operating costs by eliminating nonessential, low-profit departments. H-E-B quickly added to the chain and by 1991 was working to build 22 more Pantry stores in Houston within a year. Debuting in San Antonio in 1991—a year in which the company reached $3 billion in sales—was a much larger format, the H-E-B Marketplace, which spanned 93,000 square feet and included restaurants and a coffee shop/ice creamery. Also in 1991, H.E. Butt, Sr., died. Among his legacies was the successful Howard E. Butt Foundation that he had established in 1934. By the time he died, the foundation had built libraries, swimming pools, charitable food centers, and other amenities in the communities in which Butt stores operated. It had also reached out to the needy in other parts of Texas and even Mexico, among other initiatives. In 1993 H-E-B sold its 33-unit video store chain to Hollywood Entertainment.
At the same time that H-E-B was expanding with smaller stores, it was also engaged in the development of a new venture that would lead to the chain’s biggest ever store. In the late 1980s, the innovative Charles Butt dispatched a team to study the great food merchandisers of the world in London, New York, Atlanta, and other places. He used the ideas they brought back to create the unique Central Market, a superstore that threw out the concept of one-stop shopping and emphasized perishable goods. The company opened the first Central Market in Austin in 1994. The store boasted 60,800 square feet and a large, tree-shaded parking lot. In contrast to conventional superstores, the Central Market offered a plethora of fresh foods and flowers, including many exotic goods, while it shunned common items such as detergent, packaged baked goods, and ordinary sodas and cereals. Although the store still emphasized value, it was geared more toward upscale buyers with a greater amount of disposable income.
- Florence Butt opens the C.C. Butt Grocery Store in Kerrville, Texas.
- Howard E. Butt, son of Florence, begins experimenting with a cash-and-carry format.
- H.E. Butt Grocery Company name is adopted.
- Vertical integration begins via new bakery and canning facility; company generates sales of $2 million.
- The chain’s first truly large grocery store, with 22,500 square feet, opens in Corpus Christi.
- Charles Butt, son of Howard, assumes the helm as president; sales reach $250 million.
- First superstore, with 56,000 square feet, is opened in Austin.
- Headquarters shift to San Antonio.
- 93,000-square-foot H-E-B Marketplace, including restaurants and a coffee shop, opens in San Antonio; company reaches $3 billion in sales.
- First expansion outside of Texas occurs with the opening of a Pantry store in Louisiana; James F. Clingman becomes the first non-family member named president.
- Sales reach $7 billion.
Mid-1990s and Beyond
By the mid-1990s, the H-E-B chain included 230 stores—65 of the Pantry format. Sales surpassed $5 billion in 1995, when the company celebrated its 90th anniversary. Growth remained on the agenda, and H-E-B took its first step outside of Texas in 1996 with the opening of a Pantry store in Lake Charles, Louisiana. That same year, Charles Butt retired as president of the company, remaining chairman and CEO; James F. Clingman then became the first non-family member to assume the title of president.
The following year H-E-B ventured south, entering Mexico with the opening of a store in Monterrey. By the end of 1999 the company was operating six stores in Mexico—five in Monterrey, a prosperous city with a population of 3.5 million, and one in Saltillo, a town located about 60 miles southwest of Monterrey; one of the stores operated under the name EconoMax, and was similar to the H-E-B Pantry stores. The retail food industry in the United States was becoming increasingly competitive, with H-E-B feeling pressure from retail giant Wal-Mart’s move into the grocery trade and from the entrance of the country’s number four grocery chain, Safeway, into the Texas market through its 1999 acquisition of Houston-based Randall’s Food Markets, Inc. There thus appeared to be more opportunities for growth in Mexico than in the United States. H-E-B succeeded in its first foreign foray by catering to the local consumer—offering only Mexican-made products, which had the additional benefits of lowering transportation costs and eliminating any duties. Meanwhile, back home, H-E-B opened a second Central Market in Austin in 1999.
By the end of the 1990s H-E-B held commanding shares in two of its major markets: 61 percent of the $2.1 billion market in San Antonio and 56 percent of the $1.7 billion market in Austin. In Houston, the company was the number four chain, with 10.1 percent of a $5.4 billion market. Thus, the company began looking both north and south for expansion and began laying the groundwork for a move into the $4.8 billion Dallas/Fort Worth market, with tentative plans to open its first stores there in 2000. In Mexico, where H-E-B was finding the competition less severe and the profit margins higher than at home, the company was planning aggressive growth. H-E-B envisioned a total of 40 stores by 2004 or 2005, with additional stores slated to land in Monterrey; in the border towns of Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros; and further afield in the south central Mexican towns of Aguascalientes and San Luis Potosí.
Albertson’s, Inc.; Brookshire Brothers, Ltd.; Brookshire Grocery Company; Carrefour S.A.; Controladora Comercial Mexicana, S.A. de C.V.; Costco Companies, Inc.; Drug Emporium, Inc.; Eckerd Corporation; Fiesta Mart Inc.; Food Lion, Inc.; Grupo Gigante, S.A. de C.V.; IGA, Inc.; Kmart Corporation; The Kroger Co.; Organizacion Soriana, S.A. de C.V.; Randall’s Food Markets, Inc.; Rice Food Markets Inc.; Safeway Inc.; 7-Eleven, Inc.; Tosco Corporation; Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.; Walgreen Co.; Whole Foods Market, Inc.
“Charles Butt Fulfills Dream,” San Antonio Express-News, February 21, 1997.
Douglas, Michael, “H-E-B Bites into Houston Market with Discount Grocery Stores,” Houston Business Journal, November 4, 1991, p. 12.
Dunlap, Lisa, “HEB Cracks Houston Market with Videos Instead of Groceries,” San Antonio Business Journal, January 9, 1989, p. 3.
Garry, Michael, “HEB: The Tech Leader?,” Progressive Grocer, May 1996, pp. 63–64, 66, 68.
Halkias, Maria, “H-E-B Coming to Area: Grocery Chain Strong in Other Texas Cities,” Dallas Morning News, January 14, 1999. p. 1C.
Harper, Roseanne, “H-E-B Store Connects to Cuisine, and Sales Cook,” Supermarket News, July 21, 1997, pp. 23–27.
Hicks, Leslie, “H-E-B Growth to Include Louisiana, Maybe Dallas,”San Antonio Express-News, April 15, 1996.
The History of H.E. Butt Grocery Company, San Antonio: H.E. Butt Grocery Company, 1994.
“In an Unfamiliar Limelight: Shy H-E-B Boss to Be Honored for 36-Year Career,” San Antonio Express-News, January 12, 1996.
Kamerick, Megan, “H-E-B Has Big Plans for Mexican Market,” San Antonio Business Journal, April 2, 1999, p. 1
. Nannery, Matt, “Minding the Store,” Chain Store Age, April 1998, pp. 61–63.
Pletz, John, “H-E-B, Then and Now,” Austin American-Statesman, September 12, 1999, p. J1.
Sharpe, Patricia, “Central Marketing: H.E.B.’s Research Said Austinites Would Rush to a Huge Gourmet Grocery. It Was Right,” Texas Monthly, May 1994, p. 98.
Stuever, Hank, “A Gourmet World in a Paradigm Shift,” Austin American-Statesman, February 21, 1999, p. L1.
Sultenfuss, Diana, “H-E-B Processes 130,000 Gallons of AMPI Milk Daily,” San Antonio Light, March 28, 1992.
“Trying to Bag Business: Supermarkets Like H-E-B Hope to Fend Off Wal-Mart in a Soft Economy,” U.S. News & World Report, February 26, 1996.
Vaughan, Vicki, “H-E-B to Go Further South,” San Antonio Express-News, September 10, 1999.
—updated by David E. Salamie