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  1. Business

Interim Winn-Dixie CEO hopes to lead grocery chain into the future

Anthony Hucker, the interin CEO of Southeastern Grocers, the parent company of Winn-Dixie, visited a remodeled store in Ruskin Thursday. [Photo courtesy of Winn-Dixie]

RUSKIN — The first time Anthony Hucker visited the Winn-Dixie grocery store in Ruskin, he was the company's chief operating officer. Nearly a year later, he returned to celebrate the store's recent renovation, this time as chief executive officer and president.

Hucker, 51, was named interim president and CEO of Southeastern Grocers, the parent company of Winn-Dixie, Harveys, Bi-Lo and Fresco y Más grocery stores, in June after the company's former CEO, Ian McLeod, resigned to take a job with an Asian grocery chain. Hucker seems hopeful that the promotion would soon be permanent, pending the final decision by the grocery chain's board of directors.

"When Ian hired me, he wanted a No. 2, a right hand man," Hucker said during an interview with the Tampa Bay Times Thursday. "This was also part of his succession plan."

Related Coverage: CEO of Winn-Dixie's parent company steps down

Hucker has more than 18 years of experience in the grocery business. Prior to joining Southeastern Grocers, he was the COO of Schnucks, a supermarket chain in the Midwest, worked in Walmart's strategy and business development division and spent 10 years as part of the start up team for Aldi in the United Kingdom. Similar to McLeod, a native of Scotland, Hucker isn't originally from America. He's from Wales in the United Kingdom.

"Our paths never crossed until Southeastern Grocers," Hucker said about McLeod. "But I was introduced to him by a mutual party."

Hucker has worked at Southeastern Grocers for the last 18 months under McLeod. He said he was interested in the job because the company was much larger than the one he came from.

"Plus I get to live in Florida," he added.

When he interviewed with McLeod for the job, he said it lasted six hours.

"It was the longest interview I've ever done," Hucker said.

As a member of Southeastern Grocers' senior leadership team, Hucker says he's confident he can continue to implement the changes and strategies that began under McLeod.

"Over the last year, we've done 30 store remodels," Hucker said. "We're looking at the demographics around our stores and deciding which format works best in those communities."

A remodeled, more upscale Winn-Dixie debuted in South Tampa's Hyde Park district in October. The Ruskin store is the second remodeled store to open in the region. The remodeled stores are a way for Winn-Dixie, which has 500-plus stores including several dozen in the Tampa Bay area to better compete with many new organic and value-based grocer chains entering the market here.

Just this week, Southeastern Grocers announced it would be converting several Winn-Dixie stores in Central Florida, including one in Tampa, into Harveys Supermarkets. This will be the first time a Harveys will open in the Tampa Bay region.

Related Coverage: First Harveys Supermarket coming to Tampa, thanks to conversion of Winn-Dixie site

"We want to make sure we're offering the right assortment to the demographics we serve," he said.

Since Hucker joined the team, Southeastern Grocers launched the Hispanic brand Fresco Y Mas, a pilot chain of 18 grocery stores in South Florida. He said there are plans to expand it throughout Florida. Aside from store remodels, Winn-Dixie also tried to stand out on price by beefing up its private label brands and freezing prices on many staples.

Hucker emphasized the private label brands and a strong focus on prepared meals during a tour of the renovated Ruskin store Thursday.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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