Sterling Market sold to Associated Grocers of New England


Gunter Kleist

Sterling Market

Last month, Mike Comeau finalized the sale of his five Vermont grocery stores to the Associated Grocers of New England (AGNE), which included Johnson’s Sterling Market, Village Market in Waterbury, Shelburne Market, Jericho Market and Comeau’s first store, the Richmond Market.

AGNE is a New Hampshire-based cooperative founded in 1946 by a group of independent grocers. The coop specializes in supplying independent grocers and distributes to about 100 stores in Vermont, about one-quarter of its market.

“The plan had always been for me to sell the stores,” Comeau said in an interview with the Burlington Free Press. “Like most things in business and life in general, you don’t always get to choose the timing.”

AGNE says shoppers can still expect to see local products in the stores like beef from Johnson’s Boyden Farm, as well as products from Pete’s Greens in Waterbury. AGNE’s continual expansion of their Manchester, New Hampshire, headquarters allows them to maintain and distribute items that are traditionally slower to move, such as specialty and organic items.

AGNE plans to keep all current employees, including upper management. Comeau’s Vice President of Operations Mike Evans said that people are happy about the sale across the board, and that he’s excited to be a part of the AGNE team.

“It’s a fantastic way for our company to grow with synergies, infrastructure and things of that nature,” Evans said. “Mike [Comeau] left our company in really good hands with AGNE.”

Comeau’s success in the grocery industry is due to his “hybrid” approach, carrying not only traditional groceries, but organic and specialty items as well. This strategy is part of what drew AGNE to the stores, and why Comeau has had such success in Vermont.

Comeau’s purchase of the Richmond Corner Market in 2004 wasn’t his first foray into the grocery world. His father was a wholesale food salesman, and Comeau himself started working at Grand Union when he was 16.

Not long after graduating high school, Comeau was able to purchase a small apartment building. The venture proved successful, and he went on to purchase four more apartment buildings. Seizing opportunity, he sold one of his rental properties to purchase the market in Richmond.

After opening the new Richmond Market in 2010, Comeau had the chance to invest in markets in Waterbury and Johnson, and did so with the help of Ernie Pomerleau and his family. The Pomerleaus owned the Grand Union site in Johnson, and Ernie helped procure grants, town money and a bank loan.

Comeau credits his risk-taking with the success of his businesses.

“The Richmond Corner Store was an opportunity and I thought it was as far as I would go, but then I had the opportunity to build another store and it went from there,” he said. “Each time I went all in, and each time could have been the failure of all of them.”

The sale is a welcome change for Comeau who says he’ll miss the stores, but that AGNE is a perfect fit. AGNE has been by his side since the opening of the new Jericho Market. He says they’ve been like a partner and helped him with equipment and design.

AGNE President and CEO Mike Violette is equally excited about the sale.

“We are thrilled to continue with the successful formula that has fueled the success of Mike Comeau’s five stores here in Vermont,” Violette said in an interview with the Stowe Reporter. “We don’t want to change a thing. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Despite some inevitable bumps, Evans says the transition has been going well and the employees are happy about the new venture. Comeau insists that his employees are a large motivator behind the sale. He says that being part of a larger company will provide more opportunities for his employees, like better health insurance and 401Ks, among other things.

The mostly smooth transition comes after Sterling Market sustained severe flood damage last month.

“We as a company, and with AGNE, pulled together and opened that store in seven days after it had knee-deep water in it,” Evans said. “It was the local town, the fire department up there in Johnson and the employees in that store that really pulled that thing together and opened it in seven days. It was a miracle.”

The building flooded in the spring of 2011 while it was occupied by Grand Union, after which the store did not reopen. The loss was felt heavily in the town, and Pomerleau approached City Market as a viable option to fill the space. Although there was an outpouring of support, nothing materialized and the town waited two years before Comeau’s Sterling Market opened.

With AGNE’s history, it’s easy to see why Comeau and his employees are excited about the transition. The coop was founded more than 70 years ago by a group of 21 independent grocers who wanted to form a company with greater purchasing power. The company has grown substantially since then, now servicing more than 600 stores across the northeast and employing roughly 300 people.

“I think the atmosphere is positive and I think we’re ready to move on to this new venture,” Evans said. “The CEO of AGNE is a people person and always has been, and that’s one of the reasons why AGNE is so successful, and we can follow suit as well.”