Giant Eagle chief Laura Karet gets in front of the camera

Breaking with family tradition, the new CEO is serving as the public face of the chain, spotlighting its role in communities


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Laura Shapira Karet was uncomfortable with the idea of appearing in commercials for the business that five families, including hers, founded in Pittsburgh decades ago.

“I have a little bit of my dad’s desire for privacy,” said Ms. Karet, who almost three years ago followed her father, David Shapira, as chief executive of the O’Hara grocery company founded during the Great Depression. “I’m a shy person.”

Finally — convinced that Giant Eagle needed to start talking about its role in the communities where the company operates and to lay claim to its status as a regional business hiring local people and keeping money in the community — she agreed last year to get in front of the camera.

Giant Eagle: Holiday Traditions

This is one of several commercials featuring Laura Shapira Karet, who heads up her family's company, Giant Eagle. (YouTube video; 4/27/2014)

Giant Eagle commercial: Fall Food Share

This is one of several commercials featuring Laura Shapira Karet, who heads up her family's company, Giant Eagle. (YouTube video; 4/27/2014)

What followed was a series of ads in heavy rotation that showed Ms. Karet in her home with her kids, in stores talking produce, fresh meat, great employees and “credible promotions,” as well as in spots specifically meant to promote contributions to food banks in the Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, communities that serve as the company’s largest markets.

Now Ms. Karet gets stopped in stores by customers eager to talk about their favorite store chef; and hailed at Penguins games and in yoga class by people who know which store should be remodeled next. Twitter conversations found her helping one customer figure out why the company stopped carrying his deodorant, while another posting tweeted a picture of an almost empty display of bananas and the comment: “@laurakaret says fresh produce is delivered daily. Not My @GiantEagle advantage.”

It’s been an odd experience, she said last week in an interview in her light-filled office at Giant Eagle headquarters in the RIDC Industrial Park off Route 28.

“We have a very private family. There is nothing that prepared me in my growing up life for having people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you’re the Giant Eagle lady,’ ” Ms. Karet said, shaking her head.

Laura Karet does not intend to be the next Dave Thomas, the Wendy’s founder synonymous with his hamburger chain. In fact, she made her staff promise that pitching the latest sale would not be the focus of her marketing work.

Not that she’s not determined to grow the business. The previous generation grew Giant Eagle from about $200 million in annual revenues to about $10 billion, where revenues have settled the last couple of years. The goal is to double that in the next decade or so.

To that end, her first few years at CEO have involved working to get the infrastructure in place to support growth, to prepare the proper growth vehicles and to choose which regional markets offer the most opportunity.

The company currently has 419 stores — including 229 supermarkets — in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland. In addition to supermarkets, it has convenience and fuel stores; a discount format known as Good Cents Grocery + More; and foodie-targeted Market District stores. Giant Eagle employs 36,000 people, a mix of full time and part time.

“We’re taking our time to make sure the infrastructure is right,” said Ms. Karet.

Earlier this year, Giant Eagle announced it would pull out of the Toledo, Ohio, area where it had only two supermarkets and two GetGo stations. Instead, the company is looking to move into the Indianapolis market, where it thinks its stores will be a good fit.

“The idea is that we’re going to get much bigger,” Ms. Karet said.

Doing that will involve more of the hand-to-hand combat that challengers have brought to Pittsburgh, a market that Giant Eagle dominated for years as larger chains such as Kroger steered clear. Now, Ms. Karet’s television ads here are just as likely to be followed by one showing a shopper saving money at Walmart compared to Giant Eagle, or spots from Aldi or Bottom Dollar Food boasting of their great low prices. Recent years have also brought Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Fresh Market into the market.

The competitive onslaught, along with the growing interest from consumers in feeling good about supporting local retailers and businesses that give back to local communities, helped convince her that the company's low-key approach to helping charities and schools and other causes meant some people thought Giant Eagle didn’t actually do much to help its neighbors. She said the company gives away 5 percent of its pre-tax profits annually, for example.

“As the world has changed around us and there are more and more people trying to sell what we sell,” she said, it has become more important for team members and customers to know that the families who own the business live here, work here and give back. “It’s important for people to know that we’re here, too.”

She decided the first commercial should be shot at her home in Fox Chapel. “I thought it would be better to have it at my house, which I thought would make me more comfortable.”

Not such a great idea, it turned out. Being home meant being with a crowd of production people settled in for four days of shooting. She also felt that wasn’t a good decision because the point was to talk about the environment that Giant Eagle’s employees had created in each of their stores.

“This isn’t about me and my family,” she said. “I’m representing 36,000 people and what they do.”

Ms. Karet proved to be a directing challenge, and not just in the home shoot. The team wrote scripts for her, but she didn’t use them. “I’m not being a spokesman for the company. That’s not my role. I say how I feel,” she explained.

Spontaneous hugs for workers and advice from her grandmother made it into spots because the cameras were rolling when those things happened, not because the ad team planned them. But if requested, she was willing to go back to talk a little bit more about, say, everyday delivery. These were commercials, after all.

Even if the ads aren’t meant to be about her family, real relatives do show up. She has three kids — Will, almost 12; Charlie, almost 10; and Alexa, almost 8 — and they all participated (“No, you can’t wear sweatpants,” she had to tell them), along with other family members who responded to an emergency email about a cookout being shot the next day. Even the baby-sitter got recruited.

The kids enjoyed the first hour of shooting. “Then it got to be, ‘Can you do that again, Charlie?’ ”

Later, when her children’s speaking parts were edited out, she heard complaints: “You cut out my lines.”

Commercials done in stores were filmed during the day, not the usual practice. Ms. Karet set a priority on not disrupting the family schedule, and that meant daytime production. “My first job is to be a mom. I try really hard to protect that and be home as much as I can,” she said.

Getting other people to be part of the commercials also diverted some of the spotlight. Lisa A. Scales, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, took the lead role in advocating for donations to help feed the hungry in one spot, crediting Giant Eagle with helping serve 1.5 million meals annually. Similar commercials were done in the two Ohio markets.

Ms. Karet said she finds Ms. Scales and the other food bank workers inspiring because they’re so passionate about their work. And though her father’s belief — one that she says she shares — is in doing good work anonymously, “I got comfortable with the idea of at least being willing to say, ‘We do this.’ ”

Sometimes, she said, that can be a way to inspire others to participate, too. “That’s why I got over myself,” she said, wryly.


Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018. First Published April 26, 2014 8:28 PM

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