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Neal Berube jokes that his term will be short as president and CEO of Associated Food Stores grocery cooperative, which last year rang up sales approaching $2 billion.

Berube, 57, would have to work at least 17 more years — and two or three more decades — to come close to the terms his three predecessors had served for the Salt Lake-based co-op, which also runs a 1 million-square foot warehouse and 47 corporate-owned stores.

Even though Berube is a 22-year company veteran, he likes to say the lesson is that CEOs come and go but core values of hard work and integrity rooted in small town America remain.

Berube, appointed to the top post last fall, may be entitled to speak for small communities.

Many towns would not have a neighborhood store without Associated Food, a wholesale distributor that supplies 400 independent grocers throughout the Intermountain West. The largest chain buying from Associated Food is Harmons, with 14 supermarkets. The majority of its members own a single store.

"Independent grocers are among the best people you can meet," said Berube. "They're also the underdog, fighting a battle every day of every year."

The industry wasn't much different in 1940 when a group of grocers banded together to increase their buying power to survive razor thin profits, aggressive discounters and fierce competition from supermarket chains.

Berube's abiding admiration for independent grocers is not much different from Richard Parkinson, who retired as president and CEO in November. The similarities, however, may end there.

"As with any leader, they have different management styles," said Dave Davis, president of the Utah Food Industry Association. "Rich was very good at communication while Neal is very good at looking at problems, sizing up those problems and finding solutions."

Parkinson, 62, delegated responsibilities and won numerous awards in industry-related associations. He also was a passionate motivational speaker, extolling patriotism and overcoming adversity.

Berube is more casual, at one time sporting a goatee, and still shying away from black suits and starched shirts, which were Parkinson's usual attire. Although Berube is a certified public accountant, he sees himself as preferring people over numbers. He is known for stopping to chat with truck drivers, order fillers and clerks, and to ask their opinions.

Parkinson appointed Berube to head the troubled Fresh Market stores, the former Albertsons Utah supermarkets. The 2009 purchase from Albertsons parent company, Supervalu, wiped out Associated Food's profits. Six stores have since been leased to other businesses or closed. Two markets remain shuttered.

Analysts had criticized the purchase, saying Associated Food got into trouble by moving away from its long-standing wholesale, distributing business.

But Berube points to 21 other corporate-owned chains operated by Associated Foods, including Dan's, Macey's, Lin's and Dick's Markets. He said it took time to re-brand the Fresh Market stores, and he insists the stores now have positive cash flows. The purchase also gives all members advantages of added buying power.

Berube came to Associated Food in August of 1990, at the suggestion of his friend and colleague Greg Bell, who is now Utah's lieutenant governor. Berube had been employed by Deloitte, and he also worked for United Savings Bank and Western Mortgage Loan Corp.

Associated Food, however, changed his life.

Berube quips that he has an Associated Food baby. He and his wife Jeana had two sons, but were worried about a genetic disorder that could be passed to other children. When Berube mentioned the prospect of adopting a child, a department manager, who also was a LDS Church bishop, put him in touch with a pregnant, single member.

The baby boy, Colton, suffered from Kawasaki disease, an inflammatory condition that affects veins and arteries throughout the body. But the Berubes were no strangers to hospital emergency rooms.

Their eldest child, Ryan, was born with Duchenne's muscular dystrophy, the most severe form of the disease, and their second son, Justin, had undergone a kidney transplant.

"The medical challenges taught my father how to endure the bad times and the good," said Justin Berube. "Those experiences brought a level of humility to my father in the way he treats his employees and coworkers. It helped him develop an empathy with people who may not be as fortunate. It helped him be a better manager and businessman."

Justin, 27, is a Salt Lake City attorney. Colton, 19 is serving an LDS Church mission to Kentucky. And Ryan, 30, is a part-time customer service worker at the Associated Food warehouse.

Berube credits Jeana, his wife of 33 years for his sons' accomplishments.

"She held everything together," he said. "She still does."

The couple met at Weber State University, where Berube graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in accounting. He earned CPA status in 1981. When he was named CEO, Berube brought only few items to adorn his spacious office in the Salt Lake City headquarters. One of the most prominent is a photo of his wife.

Berube said he doesn't plan on being at the office for any length of time. Instead, he'll spread his time between the warehouse, which employs 800 people, the corporate-owned stores and visiting member grocers throughout the Intermountain West.

"I'm a believer that to help people with their problems, you have to understand what those problems are," Berube said. "I can't do that sitting here in the office."

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Associated Food Stores

The Utah-based company is a grocer cooperative. Here's the breakdown.

Cooperative:

• Members — 400 independent retailers in the Intermountain West, including Harmons, Reams, Kent's and Winegar's.

• Sales —$1.8 billion 2010; $1.7 billion in 2009

• Founded — 1940 in Salt Lake City

Corporate-owned stores:

• Fresh Market — 26 stores; Salt Lake, West Valley, Taylorsville, Murray, Holladay, Sandy, Draper, Riverton, Ogden, Park City, Bountiful, Centerville, Kaysville, Layton, American Fork, Provo, Spanish Fork, Richfield, Price and Logan.

• Macey's — 11 stores; Sandy, West Jordan, Ogden, Logan, Provo, Orem, Pleasant Grove, Spanish Fork, Tooele, Clinton and Lehi.

• Dan's — four stores; Salt Lake City and Cottonwood Heights.

• Lin's — four stores; Cedar City, St. George, Hurricane and Overton, Nev.

• Dick's — two stores; Bountiful and Centerville.

Associated Food warehouse:

• Employees —800 in warehouse

• Location — 1825 West 2550 North, Farr West

• Distributor — To members in Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Nevada and Wyoming

• Supplies — More than 750 truckloads of groceries each week, including Western Family Foods brand

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