Associated Grocers of New England Inc. was organized in February 1946 by a group of 21 independent retailers resolved to form a company with greater purchasing power than each could realize individually. The organization first operated as New Hampshire Wholesale Grocers in an 18,000-square-foot warehouse facility in Concord, N.H. and later moved to Manchester, N.H. to accommodate growth in members and sales.
In 2006, after two moves and numerous warehouse expansions, a state-of-the-art, 380,000-square-foot distribution center with 11 million cubic feet of space on 74 acres in Pembroke, N.H. became Associated Grocers of New England’s (AGNE’s) home. In 2014, AGNE embarked on a 105,000 square foot expansion encompassing grocery, refrigerated, frozen and office areas.
The facility offers retailers an expansive, and growing variety of products as well as retail support services such as advertising, marketing, store equipment and design, merchandising, bookkeeping and retail systems. A dedicated team of 300-plus employees provides service to approximately 640 independent retailers in the six-state New England region and upstate New York/Albany/Rochester areas. In addition to its distribution efforts, the organization also owns and operates a dozen retail stores across two states.
While offices and enterprises around the globe were shutting down and moving to remote work, frontline food suppliers, transport companies and grocery stores didn’t have that ability. As a critical business, AGNE needed to continue distributing product to independent grocer members as well as its own stores throughout New England and New York, while also dealing with increased freight and procurement demands into the facility during the beginning of the pandemic. In addition, remaining open, meant AGNE had to ensure employee and contractor safety and avoid shutdowns due to outbreaks.
There were a number of challenges for AGNE during the pandemic, and the organization’s Risk Management and Loss Prevention teams stepped up to meet the additional duties and increased workload that required COVID-19 response and mitigation efforts, as well as increased traffic into the facility. At AGNE, Jim Gaudet, Loss Prevention Assistant Manager runs the Loss Prevention department, which reports up to Risk Management led by Director of Risk Management Alan Cote.
When the pandemic hit, demand for products increased and created a heightened potential for supply chain issues due to demand, says Gaudet. The organization’s proprietary security team reports to Gaudet, and he is responsible for all security and investigations at the organization’s corporate headquarters, distribution center and retail grocery stores.
When COVID-19 hit and the organization needed to avoid virus spread that could shut down its facilities, the Risk Management team, which included Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) and Loss Prevention, assumed roles of monitoring the increased inbound and outbound truck traffic to and from the distribution center, health and temperature screenings, as well as other COVID-related procedures including enforcement of its mask policy, stocking of various masks and hand sanitization products and more.
The team needed to divide its time between assisting at AGNE’s retail locations — aiding with increased freight and even shelf-stocking while trying to maintain safety and security with panicked customers — as well as simultaneously dealing with increased inbound freight shipments to the distribution center. With an increase in traffic, the Risk Management team had to increase its staffing coverage to check in shipments, maintain access control credentials and ensure dock scheduling and unloading for continual operations.
“The first point of contact for all in-bound freight is a Security Officer who confirms their appointment, verifies the purchase order, issues an access badge and door assignment, and stages early arrivals pending their appointment,” Gaudet says. “As many states were shutting down restaurants and rest stops, our security officers were often dealing with overworked, stressed out drivers who were exhausted and edgy upon arrival. It’s a delicate balance between maintaining state-regulated COVID protocols and trying to limit non-employees from entering the facility while still maintaining our typically welcoming attitude and environment.” Due to the higher traffic, officers wore latex gloves and masks and the team increased its sanitization and guard booth cleaning schedules to ensure that door handles, counters, phones and keyboards were cleaned each hour.
With higher demand, everyone had to pitch in. Gaudet and Loss Prevention Specialist Bill Robarge supplemented coverage in the early months by taking on guard booth shifts when there were nearly two dozen additional deliveries scheduled each day. Gaudet and Director of Risk Management Cote spent a few weeks at some of AGNE’s retail locations helping out by breaking down loads and putting up stock.
With the extra precautions and scheduling put in place, AGNE was able to keep its doors open at the distribution center, corporate offices and retail locations without interruption and with no widespread outbreaks, Gaudet shares.
AGNE’s Risk Management group remains a dedicated group of professionals and the security team emphasizes training, education and relationships over enforcement. It’s this dedication to education and relationships that dictated how the group responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is also one of the ways the Risk Management group reinforced its value to the organization during the past year and a half.
“[It] gave us an opportunity to show our retail employees that we were there to do whatever it took to help them through some very tough frontline times. Because of the very nature of what we do, it is difficult to remotely conduct many of our daily functions, so it gave us an opportunity to interact with the employees in many different circumstances,” Gaudet says. “I truly believe this pandemic provided our team with the opportunity to again demonstrate its value to the enterprise.”