Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Home City Life Family Means Business: The Story Behind Harmons

Family Means Business: The Story Behind Harmons

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Left to Right, Back Row: Mark Hauber, Laurie Harmon, Randy Harmon, Bob Harmon, Jerry Stowe, Brady Harmon, Kristine Harmon. Front Row: Amber Hauber, Alex Harmon, Jamie Harmon, Emily Harmon, Doreen Harmon, Corrine Store, Jenn Harmon, Ashley Harmon.

If you think short term, things will be short term. “But when your family and your business are one and the same, short term is not an option,” says Bob Harmon.

Bob and his brother, Randy—familiar faces in Utah—his mother, Doreen; his sister Jamie and his sister-in-law Laurie are seated around a table at Harmons HQ, a modest building not far from the site of Bob, Jamie and Randy’s grandfather’s first grocery store. A conversation about their family’s business ranges from personal memories to business philosophy—for the Harmons, it’s all one subject.

Taking Root

“We’ve learned more in the last decade than in the previous 25 years. It’s an exciting time in our industry. It’s changed so fast and so much for the better,” says Bob, who, along with Randy, has become the face of Harmons, appearing in print, television and radio ads, as well as in person at store events. That personal, hands-on approach is part of the Harmons legacy.

As Bob tells it, “Grandpa (Jake Harmon) grew up poor.” Born George Reese Harmon in 1912 in Granger (now part of West Valley City), Utah, Jake’s mother died when he was 6 years old and his formal education ended after junior high school. A young man when the Depression hit, he and his wife, Irene, worked in California to make some money. With $325 saved up, the couple returned to Utah and opened Market Spot, a fruit stand, building it from the ground up and investing everything they had. The day of the grand opening, the story goes, Irene turned to Jake and asked “How much money do we have left?” Jake pulled out his pocket lining, chuckled and replied, “Eighty cents.” A man in a garbage truck pulled up and purchased six lemons. So with that sale and 80 cents, Jake and Irene were on their way.

Their son Terry was born in the home behind the store, where Jake and Irene lived until they sold the Market Spot and opened a cafe. But they went back to the grocery business, opening Harmons Market, better known as the Green Store, in Granger in 1945. It was the most modern, best-stocked store in the state—by the ‘60s, grown son Terry and his wife Doreen had moved back to Utah from Arizona to help run things. In 1971, a catastrophe occurred: Fire completely destroyed the Granger store. And the family had no insurance.

With help from vendors, Jake regrouped. He traveled and researched food stores around the country, planning his dream store with Terry’s help. In 1971, they opened Harmons Super Center in West Valley—a big success and thrst of a string of successful stores, the most recent, at City Creek Center, the company’rst urban grocery.

Fresh Values

The American grocery business has changed vastly, just in the last couple of decades. For generations, food shopping in this country was driven by convenience and price—meals were just fuel, after all. When big box and discount stores started to sell groceries at cut-throat prices, a lot of family-owned grocery stores went out of business. They just couldn’t compete with the buying power of the big guys. “We took a look at the whole thing: It was all price driven,” says Bob. “That was the only value. At Harmons, we offer different values, like service. That’s where we can win.”

Americans have changed their food shopping habits, Bob points out, and largely because of information consumers have gathered themselves, not because of marketing information pushed at them. We’re learning that to get the cleanest food, the most avorful food, the locally grown food, we might have to pay a little more.

Bob recalls, “We toured Italy: It made us rethink our business. That food culture is hundreds of years old. The care they took with things. The time. Things like understanding the chemistry of balsamic vinegar. We started reevaluating time and its value. We had to be different.”


Left to right: Randy, Doreen, Jamie and Bob Harmon.

Inspired by foreign food ways and the rising enthusiasm for local products, Harmons changed its emphasis to quality, variety and service. They sent their bakers to the San Francisco Baking Institute to learn about artisan bread. They re-thought their butcher shop, started dry-aging their own meats and hand-cutting their chickens. They made new commitments to buying from local farmers and started cooking schools to teach customers how to use their products. Four Harmons stores are certid organic: Bangerter, City Creek, Station Park and Emigration. The City Creek store has licensed wine educators in its cooking school.

“Unlike large grocery chains, we have the advantage of nimbleness,” Randy explains. We’re able to change quickly. We’re not answering to stockholders. The scale is dierent. We don’t have to worry about knee-jerk reactions to trends; we are able to do more long-term planning.”

“Our business actually grew during the recession,” says Bob. “Instead of cutting back, we decided to re-invest and we didn’t need (to go to stockholders for) permission. We staed up with the goal of providing better service, which is often thrst thing cut in hard times.”

Future Growth

The success rate of third-generation family-owned businesses is about 10 percent.

There’s the founder, who is completely immersed in it. The second generation grows up with it. The third generation enjoys the returns from a successful business. That generation also takes the success for granted and a downward spiral begins.

That third generation is where the Harmons are now. But there’s no downward spiral.

“Instead of looking at our history, we’re always looking ahead,” says Bob. There’s no reverence for “the way we used to do things.”

“But we are building on Grandpa Jake’s example. Arst he was slightly fearful of growth—the founder of a business is there all the time. It’s hard to let someone else run things,” says Randy. “Our dad Terry was the only son, he grew up with the store at the center of family life. It was hard arst for Jake to think of a second store, but he did. He learned to enjoy and take pride in other people’s success. That’s key to managing a family business.”

“It’s about people,” says Laurie, Randy’s wife who is in charge of Harmons human resources, or, as she describes it, “I’m the ‘executive VP for the people.’ We have 16 stores but it feels like one,” she says. “We’re all on the same team, from Bob and Randy to the shelf-stockers.”

Fifteen family members work in Harmons stores now. But according to the family plan, the fifth generation has to work elsewhere until the age of 21. No one is forced or expected to join the family firm.

“Our family is a strength, but it’s also a potential weakness,” says Bob. “We do a lot of family therapy because those family relationships are business relationships, too.”

Four generations of the Harmon family now work in the grocery business Jake and Irene Harmon founded in 1932—the hope is that future Harmon generations will have that opportunity, too. Keeping up with swiftly changing times requires extraordinary nimbleness and close communication—the Harmons have honed both, allowing them to take an optimistic view of their future as Utah’s go-to grocers. To be, as their motto says, remarkable.

Next>>>Harmon’s Outsider on the Inside and their Milepost timline.

Back>>>Read other stories in our December 2013 issue.

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