Mr. Independent

Top Stories — By on September 11, 2013 11:36 am
“What I’m really good at is bagging groceries and getting shopping carts in from the parking lot.” -- Bob Baesler ISU Photo/Rachel Keyes

“What I’m really good at is bagging groceries and getting shopping carts in from the parking lot.” — Bob Baesler
ISU Photo/Rachel Keyes

During 13-hour car rides from Terre Haute to Florida for vacation, Julie Baesler and her two then-young sons would beg her husband, Bob, to turn off the inspirational books-on-tape. The tapes focused on positive mental attitude, she said, which included speeches by Charles “Tremendous” Jones, a passionate promoter of books, enthusiasm and a belief that life is tremendous. 

The name Charles “Tremendous” Jones may not be familiar, but this statement might be: “You will be the same in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.” That, according to Jones, was one of the greatest thoughts he’d ever heard. The key to success, said Jones, was to read, think and share.

Robert W. “Bob” Baesler, a lifelong dedicated reader, took that to heart and gave his sons Nick and Casey a list of books to read at a young age.

The thinking and sharing part, he took to heart also.

Baesler owns three Baesler’s Market stores — in Terre Haute, Sullivan and Linton — and also operates fuel, flower and bakery businesses. He’s an independent grocer, an entrepreneur, who graduated from Indiana State University in 1972 with a degree in business administration.

Reading. Patrons of Baesler’s Market who read business books may detect the influence of two books in particular: “The Nordstrom Way: The Inside Story of America’s #1 Customer Service Company,” by Robert Spector and Patrick D. McCarthy, and “Differentiate or Die: Survival in our Era of Killer Competition” by Jack Trout.

Thinking. People who know Baesler know that he retains what he reads and a conversation with him is likely to be peppered — in a non-dominating and non-boastful way — with references to everything from current data on grocery industry topics to anecdotes and illustrations from inspirational or business books he read 30 years ago. When a concept comes into his experience and arouses his curiosity, he’s relentless in pursuit of the facts about it.

Sharing. In addition to mentoring college students, Baesler and family’s community service contributions are too long to list — ranging from Terre Haute Boys/Girls Clubs to the Spay-Neuter League. How about the United Way “Real Men Read” program? Absolutely. But, according to his wife Julie, Bob downplays his popularity in that program by remarking that the warm reception he receives from the children is because he always brings food.

As a fourth generation grocer, Bob carries on a family tradition begun 119 years ago with the Baesler and Wittenbrock Meat Market formerly located in what today would be the 1300-block of Wabash Avenue. But despite decades of business experience and achievements ranging from national leadership roles in industry organizations to myriad roles in community and area endeavors, including service as a member of the ISU Board of Trustees, Bob said: “What I’m really good at is bagging groceries and getting shopping carts in from the parking lot.”

As a fourth generation grocer, Bob carries on a family tradition begun 119 years ago with the Baesler and Wittenbrock Meat Market formerly located in what today would be the 1300-block of Wabash Avenue.

“In all honesty, you really can’t be too very smart to want to be in business for yourself,” he said. “There are so many things that can go haywire. Someone like me actually doesn’t think about all those things and I just go ahead and do it.”

He credits more than 400 individuals, including about half who are full-time, with the success of his businesses. Nordstrom puts all their emphasis in their hiring process, he said. “They spend very little time, if any, on training. That’s sort of what we copied,” said Bob. “I’d spent 20-some years thinking I could hire somebody with a lousy attitude who didn’t like to smile and I could train that person to be pleasant and friendly and helpful and I finally figured out you can’t do it.  Now I get compliments all the time on our employees about how we must have an extensive training program and I say: ‘No, just thank their parents or thank their guardian.’ It’s the truth.”

Bob has a short answer for what also contributes to the success of Baesler’s Market: cleanliness, a suggestion board and differentiation.

Industry experts conduct surveys year after year and the most important aspect of the store where people shop is cleanliness, he said. “It’s important to customers and it’s important to us. We try to determine things not based on what we want, but what customers want.”

The suggestion board is part of how Baesler’s differentiates itself from other stores. Customers make comments, requests and sometimes post complaints, said Bob.  “If a complaint is about an individual, we take it down. But if it says the cashiers talk too much, we leave it up.” The board lets customers request special products. Baesler’s reliability for follow-through on requests has earned the store lots of referrals from both customers and other retailers.

Before Bob, in 2000, opened the then-26,000-square-foot store at 2900 Poplar Street, a number of people told him they couldn’t imagine what he was thinking to try to compete with Walmart and Kroger. “One guy did tell me that I must not be very smart. I had to agree with him.”

In 2005, Bob completed a 10,000-square-foot expansion to the store, which features self-service fuel pumps, a rewards program for shoppers and is open 24 hours. Compare his 35,000-square-foot operation to a Walmart Supercenter, which averages 182,000 square feet, or a Kroger, which averages 165,000 square feet, and the contrast is strong.

“It was my belief all along that customers wanted the convenience of a smaller store, but they wanted the variety of a larger store and we could do that on Poplar Street. The larger stores aren’t right for everybody,” said Bob. “I always said that the older person doesn’t have the energy for the big stores and the younger person doesn’t have the time.”

Being different provides one of the keys for success, according to Bob. “There’s still room for the independent grocer that can differentiate himself with products. We carry premium meats, Boar’s Head and Certified Angus Beef®. No one else has that. It’s the best of the best. Same with produce. We distinguish ourselves with better quality and different products.”

"We try to determine things not based on what we want, but what customers want.” -- Bob Baesler ISU Photo/Rachel Keyes

“We try to determine things not based on what we want, but what customers want.” — Bob Baesler
ISU Photo/Rachel Keyes

Casey Baesler, now the assistant manager of the Terre Haute Baesler’s Market, recalls his father often working 70- to 80-hour weeks while he and his brother Nick were growing up, but he always was there for them.

Casey, a 2012 ISU business management graduate, has long observed his father’s passion for the business. “Dad just made the comment the other day, while sampling a new product: ‘It’s a great business, isn’t it!’ It’s fun and challenging. He loves it.”

With a positive spirit, Bob faced challenges and setbacks. The 1970s-era Baesler’s Super Valu at 1101 S. 25th Street featured very narrow aisles, sloping ceiling, superior-quality meat, and was a rite of passage for both daytime and late-night shopping. “There toward the end,” said Bob, “I said there were chicken coops that were in better shape than that store … the roof was falling in, we had plastic trying to keep the water redirected, it was bad.”

Bob wanted to build a larger store at that location. But banks thought the independent grocer was a thing of the past, without using those exact words, and weren’t enthusiastic about providing financing. He also didn’t own the land at 25th and College where he wanted to build the store and the landlord had no interest in remodeling the building. Meanwhile, in 1973, the Baesler family had purchased a store in Sullivan and expanded in 1980 and 1981. But in 1984, employees went on strike and the loss of business that accompanied those troubled times resulted in closure of the store. To this day, Bob describes the employees involved as good people and loyal workers.

In the early ‘80s, before the Sullivan store closed, Bob met and married Julie Clifford, who received her ISU degree in family consumer sciences in 1976. Before knowing Bob, Clifford was Miss Indiana USA 1972 and First Runner-up Miss World USA in 1975.

The newlywed couple then living in Garden Quarter faced scary moments related to the business, she said. “We always knew there was the possibility of losing everything.” Independent grocers on average operate in the range of about 1 percent net profit before taxes.

Large sums of money were at stake when the Sullivan store closed about 29 years ago, but Bob contacted each creditor and pledged to meet his obligations, which he did, Julie said. In fact, as of a year ago, in May 2012, Baesler’s Market again opened in Sullivan. Bob purchased two former Angell’s Food Center stores in Sullivan and Greene counties.

Entrepreneurship Baesler-style in the 1980s included the operation of B-Quick 24-hour convenience stores and gas stations. The family sold those stores in 1998 and 1999 as part of preparation to open the Poplar Street store in 2000.

“I always said that the older person doesn’t have the energy for the big stores and the younger person doesn’t have the time.” — Bob Baesler ISU Photo/Rachel Keyes

Julie worked in one of the B-Quick stores when it first opened — some pretty long hours as an unpaid employee. “Everything we earned went back into the business then and still does,” she said. She was leaning on the B-Quick counter one day talking with another employee when her husband came into the store. “He said: ‘Oh my goodness, you don’t do that; you don’t lean on the counter. If you have free time, you find something to do.’ People know that those are his expectations. But if he’s going to ask someone else to do something, he will do it too.”

He will very calmly and very nicely talk to you about his standards and expects you to adhere, she said. Very even-tempered and very fair is how Julie described her husband of more than 30 years.

More than 40 years ago, while still in college, Baesler decided to be a stockbroker as he wanted no part of the grocery business. He’d worked in it since he was 13, starting during his junior high school years at Woodrow Wilson. Baesler’s father Charles also discouraged his son from continuing the family tradition. “He said: ‘It’s too hard a business. Make a living doing other things’.”

But one of Baesler’s professors told him to read “Acres of Diamonds,” a 1915 transcript of a lecture by Russell Conwell, who founded Temple University in Philadelphia. The lecture begins with Conwell describing a trip along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is present-day Iraq and the tour guide’s story about four different wealthy men who were successful in their metaphorical backyards but sold what was familiar to pursue something greater. Later, they regretted their actions, not realizing that the riches they sought elsewhere had been in their backyards.

“It was something that I read and I just agreed with it,” said Baesler.

“I have been blessed,” he said. Just a few years ago, he said he became familiar with the Bible verse known as the Prayer of Jabez (I Chronicles 4:10). “Basically the prayer was if you ask for God’s favor, you will receive God’s favor. I read that and I was embarrassed because I’ve been saying how lucky I’ve been. I’ve just been blessed.”

An invitation to speak about spirituality in the workplace at ISU’s Campus Ministry crystallized his own beliefs about leadership. “When I got there, I said: ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re open on Sundays, we sell lottery tickets and we sell alcohol. Perhaps you invited me because you wanted a heathen as an example of what not to be.”

He learned that there was a name and concept — servant leadership — for what he’d been attempting to apply all of his working life. Ever the student, Baesler researched Bible passages and talked to a minister and sought to understand more about this concept.

According to the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, Greenleaf coined the phrase “servant leadership” in an essay that he first published in 1970. The Terre Haute-native stated that the servant-leader is servant first with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead, he stated.

That concept of service first, Bob said, was what he had been striving to do but didn’t know that it had been articulated so precisely.

“The thing that has led to our success, besides being blessed, is our employees,” he said. “Our only policy really is to treat other people the way you’d like to be treated.”

Patricia Krapesh is a freelance writer living in Terre Haute, Ind.


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  1. B. Curtis Wilkinson says:

    Great article about a great ISU Grad.

  2. Corinne Smiley Pickens says:

    I love this article! I knew Julie while I was at ISU as my sister was a Chi Omega, also.
    I come back to Terre Haute to visit my cousin every so often–I will make a point to stop by the “new store”!

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