Former bag boy who found his 'family' at Publix five decades ago retiring as top executive

The Publix executive will retire after 48 years with "family."
Tom McLaughlin is a divisional vice president at Publix.
Tom McLaughlin is a divisional vice president at Publix.
Published April 28 2016
Updated April 28 2016

Tom McLaughlin was 17 years old when he started a bag boy job at a Winter Haven Publix. He had no family. He was in trouble a lot.

"I wasn't a very good kid," McLaughlin recalls.

Something happened at that Publix. Co-workers took an interest in him. The cashiers pestered him about how he did on tests at school. They asked what he was doing on weekends to ensure he stayed out of trouble.

McLaughlin, who had been on his own since he was 13, finally felt like he had a family. He hasn't worked anywhere since.

McLaughlin's career at Publix has spanned 48 years. He climbed the company ladder to become a divisional vice president. There are only five of those in the entire company.

Next week, McLaughlin, now 65, will retire, ending a remarkable career that began — like many high-ranking executives at Publix — in the humblest of ways.

"It wasn't long after I first started at Publix that I realized this was my family," he said.

McLaughlin has left an impression on Publix that just about every shopper sees. His role was to design what the stores look and feel like, so people who find shopping at Publix pleasurable generally have him to thank. He also oversaw day-to-day operations at nearly 300 stores in Central Florida, including Tampa Bay.

As part of that role, he was involved with Special Olympics Florida and played a key role in Publix's commitment to hiring workers with disabilities.

On Tuesday, Special Olympics athletes gathered at the St. Petersburg store at Fourth Street and 38th Avenue N to learn how to do Publix jobs, including frosting cakes, rolling meatballs and picking up lobsters out of the seafood tank. McLaughlin, a member of the board of directors for Special Olympics Florida, attended to show his support. He was beaming the entire time.

That Publix in St. Petersburg created quite a stir when it opened because it offers a lot more natural and organic products than the traditional Publix, and has a different store layout that includes a speciality cheese section, larger wine selection, hot bar and olive station.

McLaughlin, by the way, designed it.

He'll leave behind this legacy: Publix is implementing his design in all new grocery stores opening outside of Florida, where the company is expanding.

"This is what you'll see in North Carolina now," he said with a proud smile. "We changed the flow in these stores. The future of Publix stores is definitely focused on the experience."

And by experience, he means the sights, the smells and the general feel that Publix's loyal customers have come to appreciate.

The last store McLaughlin designed is currently under construction at 700 Central Ave. in downtown St. Petersburg. He expects it to open later this year. The highly anticipated store is expected to add even more sizzle to the city's dynamic downtown.

McLaughlin has seen Publix transform and grow at an incredible rate over the years. Since he found his home at Publix nearly five decades ago, the company has expanded into new states and now operates more than 1,000 stores in the Southeast.

He is thankful to have been a part of it.

"Growth is important to our stockholders, and I think Publix is in a good position to keep doing that," he said. "But Florida will always be our home. There will be more growth in Florida than any other state year after year."

Contract Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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