Harps Foods CEO shares life lessons, competing against Walmart

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 2,124 views 

Harps Foods CEO Kim Eskew didn’t choose the grocery business, it chose him. Growing up in tiny Piggott, Ark., Eskew said his father was a hard worker with two jobs in addition to being the church custodian.

Speaking at the Cross Church Business Summit on Thursday (March 14), Eskew said he was nearly grown before he realized most people didn’t trap rabbits and gig frogs for their dinner, or that vegetables were also sold in tin cans. His family raised or caught most everything they ate.

His older brother was training for the ministry and holding summer revivals around the area when he was still in high school. Eskew said his parents took him to Missouri to a church where his brother was holding a youth revival and they had a car accident on the way home. Eskew was 15 years old. His mother stayed in a coma for 49 days before she died.

“Those were some traumatic times as my dad then suffered depression and I had to take on more of the responsibility around the house and farm,” Eskew said. “My dad and I didn’t have a close relationship when I was kid because he worked all the time. If I wanted to spend time with him I had to work alongside him. But after my mom died, he and I over time did develop a stronger relationship.”

He got a part-time job in a local grocery store while he was still in high school and said he didn’t have any designs on staying in the grocery business because all he knew from his small hometown grocer was there really was no money in the business.

He moved to Springdale to attend the University of Arkansas after high school and made plans to be an engineer. Needing money, he got a job at Harps Foods as a part-time sacker. He saw the position as a means to get him through college. Within a year, Eskew said he began to listen and learn more about the grocery business and discovered there was money to be made in store management and he changed his major to business administration and kept working his way up the chain.

“I started at the lowest of the low, sacking groceries and carrying them out to the cars,” Eskew said. “I nearly got bit by several dogs in the cars. It was always the little dogs that wanted to bite. I also got to see how well people maintained the inside of the cars. Plenty of times I had to hunt a place to put the groceries.”

Eskew said his dream job was to become a store manager and he worked to get there. That meant doing some things which are not allowed today such as working off the clock. He became a closing manager and said that meant working lots of nights. Then he was promoted to grocery manager for a store in Mountain Home.

“There I worked for two years for the meanest man in the world,” Eskew recalled. “He tried to fire me four times in the first year and he would have if the folks in Springdale would have approved it. What I didn’t know at the time was that he had someone else in mind for that job and corporate sent me instead.”

Eskew did become a store manager and then moved into corporate management where he continued to climb the ladder. Eskew became CEO in late 2016 after 39 years with the company. In 2018, he also became board chairman. In the 89 years that Harps Foods has been in operation, Eskew is just the fifth CEO and is the second non-family member to run the company that continues to be owned by the employees. Eskew replaced Roger Collins, who held the CEO post for 16 years before his 2016 retirement.

Eskew said a question he is often asked by those in the grocery industry is how the company has survived 89 years in Walmart’s backyard.

“It’s really tough here because the Walmart stores that operate all around us in Northwest Arkansas are the best-run Walmarts in the country. They are a formidable competitor. We try and do things a little differently and really emphasize our quality but it’s tough every day,” he said.

Eskew said Harps not only has to compete with Walmart for customers it has to compete for talent, which is hard given so many people want to have Walmart on their resume.

“I will say the mantle of being the world’s largest retailer is very heavy to carry,” Eskew said. “The responsibility of those who work for Walmart is great and requires a lot of time. We try and offer our management more life/work balance. I tell my management they can take off early to attend their child’s ballgame three hours away because no one can go for them. It matters, the time we spend with our kids and family. At the end of life, no one ever says I wish I would have spent more time at work.”

He said Harps Foods continues to invest in local stores despite the saturation of Walmart stores.

“We just opened a new store in Lowell. Right now there is not a Walmart across the street but I expect one at anytime,” Eskew said jokingly. “We had the audacity to put a store on Walton Avenue in Bentonville and they put two other new stores around us, one is just across the street.”

Harps is in the midst of a big store expansion at its location in Bella Vista. Eskew told Talk Business & Politics it is long overdue and is one of the most expensive renovations in the company’s history. The store will close March 24 and will remain closed until the new store opens this fall.

Bella Vista does not have a Walmart store, though the retailer had plans to build a Neighborhood Market there in 2012. The retail giant pulled out after much of the community voiced opposition to another traffic signal. The retailer did not get the signal approved and without it, there could be no store.

Eskew also was asked about how technology is impacting the grocery business. He said online grocery delivery is a losing-money proposition even through some of the biggest players act like it isn’t. He said groceries are too cheap and too heavy and that makes the break-even much higher than for apparel or electronics.

He said Harps Foods has a small technology team of developers who continue to focus on applications to keep the company competitive. He said those who don’t invest in technology and delivery options will likely be left behind.

Eskew said it’s scary to think of all the investment going into something like grocery delivery that might be totally irrelevant in three years. Harp’s recently teamed up with Instacart to offer grocery delivery in Northwest Arkansas and Fort Smith. He said Harps is investing to stay relevant though he isn’t sure grocery delivery will ever be financially sustainable.