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Reaping & Sowing

New Wilson Farms owners mull future expansion

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The new leaders of Wilson Farms Neighborhood Food Stores say they plan to upgrade stores and expand the chain's number of locations, following a buyout that reconnects Wilson Farms with its roots, according to a report in Buffalo News.

Several former Tops Markets executives will hold top management positions in the Wilson Farms chain, as reported in CSP Daily News. The investors include members of the Nanula family, one of the founding families of Tops Markets, which launched the Wilson Farms convenience store chain in 1969. The investment [image-nocss] group, known as WFI Acquisition, was created by Nanco Enterprises, which includes Nanula family members, and New York City private equity firm Bruckmann, Rosser, Sherrill & Co., which has $1.2 billion under management.

The buyout covers 122 Wilson Farms stores, 66 Sugar Creek stores and 10 Tops Xpress locations that are not on Tops supermarket properties. The deal is expected to close in the second quarter. WFI plans to keep all 2,400 employees of the c-store operations, said Paul Nanula, president and CEO.

Nanula declined to reveal specifics about the new owners' expansion plans, but he said WFI would infuse capital back into the business and is looking at ways to upgrade its existing locations. Some of those ways include adding gasoline pumps where there aren't any and purchasing additional sites, he told CSP Daily News.

Previous owner Ahold confirmed in early 2004 that it wanted to sell Wilson Farms to focus on its supermarket operations. Ahold continues to own the Tops Markets grocery chain. Stefanie Zakowicz, a Tops spokesperson, told the Buffalo News three serious bidders emerged during the process. But it ebbed and flowed, she said. Ahold did not take a fire sale approach to divesting the convenience stores, she said. They waited until the right buyer came along and everything fell into place.

WFI's leaders said they bring to their new roles familiarity with food retailing, the Wilson Farms chain and the customer base. Savino Nanula, Paul's father and a co-founder of the Tops chain, will serve as WFI's chairman. In 1960, he joined with Armand Castellani and Thomas Buscaglia to create Tops, and later served as chairman and CEO of Tops. I've come full circle, said Savino Nanula, who left Tops several years ago. It's almost like beginning all over again.

Paul Nanula worked for Tops from 1976 to 1998, spending his last several years at the chain as a district manager. Dan Shanahan, WFI's vice president and CFO, held a number of positions with Tops and Ahold in the United States and Asia, and once ran the Wilson Farms and Sugar Creek chain for Ahold.

Wilson Farms has stores in western New York, along with the Rochester and Syracuse markets. Tops acquired Sugar Creek in May 2000 and introduced the Tops Xpress format in 2001. The 10 Tops Xpress locations will be renamed Wilson Farms Xpress once the deal closes, WFI officials said. WFI is also exploring changing the name of all of its c-stores to the Wilson Farms banner.

Paul Nanula said Wilson Farms does not fit the typical c-store profile because it has a wider array of products. WFI will focus on the stores' perishables and foodservice items, including sandwiches and coffee. Only 94 of the 198 stores to be acquired by WFI sell fuel.

The ex-Tops executives say WFI is strengthened by the involvement of Bruckmann, Rosser, Sherrill & Co. (BRS) We found a partner that believes in our vision, Shanahan said. BRS officials could not be reached to comment on the deal.

Burt Flickinger III, a supermarket industry consultant, told the Buffalo News Wilson Farms should benefit from the leadership of people such as the Nanulas and Shanahan, but he said he hopes BRS gives that team lots of decision-making authority.

While he said BRS has enjoyed success with a number of investments in areas, such as manufacturing and health-care companies, he noted that the firm struggled with its investment in another supermarket chain, Jitney Jungle Stores of America, after acquiring it in 1996. Mississippi-based Jitney Jungle ended up filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and later sold or closed its stores.

The retail results were deeply disappointing for all their investors, Flickinger said. But Flickinger said he has confidence in the local leaders WFI has assembled to oversee Wilson Farms. BRS' portfolio includes Au Bon Pain, a bakery cafe chain, and B&G Foods, which makes, sells and distributes a variety of food products.

WFI's top leadership includes two other former Tops officials. Lou Terragnoli, WFI's vice president of construction, capital spending and real estate, was formerly vice president of engineering and construction for Tops. And Nick Gallegos, WFI's vice president of sales and marketing, spent nine years with Tops as its vice president of nonperishables merchandising and procurement.

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