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Jeff Strack says getting back family's company was win for employees, Region

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HAMMOND — When Jeff Strack looks back at his pursuit to buy back the company his family co-launched decades ago, in the end he says he did it for the employees and to ensure a Region-born brand would continue serving the community.

"One thing I learned, I'm passionate about Strack & Van Til," Strack said Tuesday in his address during the December Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Dynasty Banquet Hall. "(Buying the company) was about the people and preserving jobs." 

The Indiana Grocery Group, led by Strack, whose family co-launched the regional grocer in 1959, was the winning bidder for the Strack & Van Til stores. The Strack-led group in late July submitted a bid for $91.3 million, which included 17 Strack & Van Til stores; two Town & Country Market stores, one in Portage and the other in Valparaiso; an Ultra Foods in Merrilville; the Strack & Van Til headquarters in Highland and a commissary in Valparaiso.

The Indiana Grocery Group's bid also included spending up to $30 million to buy inventory from now former Strack & Van Til parent, Joliet-based Central Grocers, which filed for bankruptcy in May. Central Grocers has since sold its 930,000-square-foot Joliet warehouse to Minnesota-based food distributor Supervalu.

Illinois-based Jewel-Osco was the other bidder for Stracks. Its $100 million bid was for 19 Strack & Van Til grocery stores, including inventory.

Strack said there was nothing easy about going through bankruptcy. In the months leading up the auction, stores closed and jobs were lost. 

"A lot of people's lives were affected the past 12 months," he said. "Bankruptcy is a slimy place to be. It was not fun and unfortunately some people got hurt along the way."

The bankruptcy process also meant the original company launched by Strack's family and the Van Tils also would disappear, Strack said.

"That company was heading down a different path, which is coming to an end," he said. On the upside, IGG has an opportunity to rebuild, Strack said.

"That's the exciting part," he said. "Indiana Grocery Group is a new company on a new path, but it will continue the same principals and values that have held true for over 60 years and will endure even longer."

About 3,000 people work for IGG today, which includes employees at the grocery stores as well as support and corporate operations. 

Strack said loyalty to the Strack and Van Til brand, by its employees and the community, also kept the company going until the sale concluded. He said prior to submitting the final bids, the stores which continued operating were turning profits. 

"Our employees kept it going and kept coming to work and providing great service to our customers," Strack said. "Northwest Indiana truly supports its own."

New partnerships and approaches will ensure Strack and Van Til will succeed. Strack said its new supplier, AWG out of Kansas City, Kansas, offers more private label brands, which will help his company's stores compete. Its connection with AWG also gives it access to more than 4,000 products, where its previous supplier and former majority owner Central Grocers of Joliet, Illinois, had between 700 and 800 private label items. 

Strack said while he was working to buy back his family's company, internet giant Amazon acquired Whole Foods. He wondered how that would impact future business but believes IGG will adapt.

He pointed to Strack's partnership with Instacart, which provides grocery delivery services as another example of how his company is staying competitive. 

"The pace of change will get even faster," Strack said. "We just have to keep challenging our team to think of ways we can make our customers' lives easier, whether that's through more conveniences or better technology."  

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Larry is the Business Editor of The Times of Northwest Indiana.

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