Private Label Hall of Fame welcomes 5 new members

(From left) This year's Hall of Famers include David Glass (pictured is Erik Winborn, who accepted on behalf of Glass), Prem Virmani, Lori Latta, Tom Stephens and Greg Baskin. (Photo courtesy of Arista Collective)

The Private Label Hall of Fame has five new distinguished members, joining 55 other luminaries who’ve been inducted into the Hall of Fame since its establishment in 2006.

On March 24, during a breakfast at the Private Label Manufacturers Association’s (PLMA) Annual Meeting and Leadership Conference in Bonita Springs, Fla., the following industry industry movers and shakers were welcomed into the Hall of Fame by PLMA President Brian Sharoff:

Tom Stephens
In nominating Stephens for the Hall of Fame, store brands consultant Jim Wisner noted that Stephens is the industry individual who would elicit the most “I can’t believe he already isn’t in the hall of fame” comments from those familiar with Stephens and his accomplishments in the store brands industry.

“He may have done more to singlehandedly move the needle forward for the store brands industry than anyone else,” Wisner, president of Wisner Marketing Group, said on the nomination form.

During his near 50-year career, Stephens has had several milestones, including developing and bringing Canadian retailer Loblaws’ lauded President’s Choice private brand to the United States in the early 1990s. Stephens, who spent seven years as executive vice president of President’s Choice International, introduced the Loblaws’ brand in 16 retail chains with more than 2,000 stores in 36 states, including Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter and D'Agostino Supermarkets.

“There were some really great chains that took the President’s Choice program and embraced it,” Stephens says.

Since founding Brand Strategy Consultants in 1994, Stephens has advised store brand retailers and manufacturers in the U.S., Italy, Britain, Holland, the Caribbean, Australia, South Africa and South Korea.

“Tom became the evangelist who marketed the concept of premium private label to supermarket chains throughout the U.S.,” Sharoff said when inducting Stephens. “With his own company, Brand Strategy Consultants, he has been a tireless advocate for store brands, advising retailers and suppliers on five continents.”

Prem Virmani
When Virmani heard he was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, he says he looked at the list of the other 2018 honorees and humbly asked himself, “Do I really belong in that group?”

If you ask people who have worked with Virmani, who has spent nearly 50 years as a soft-drink beverage quality control chemist/auditor, they will tell you that Virmani does indeed belong.

“Prem was very involved in developing formulas for many private brand beverages,” noted John Huffman, formerly of Fleming Cos. and a 2009 hall-of-fame inductee, who nominated Virmani for the honor. He is a master of flavors and blending.”

Virmani spent more than 25 years with Cott Beverages USA. He retired from the company in 2016 as senior vice president of science and research.

In his career with Cott, Virmani developed several private brand colas, including Sam’s Choice cola and Dr. Thunder for Walmart and President’s Choice cola for Loblaws in Canada. His colas are also sold as private brands at Publix Super Markets, Wegmans and Safeway.

“Colas are my specialty,” Virmani says, noting he is most proud of creating Dr. Thunder.

After retiring from Cott, Virmani began his own consulting firm, Soft Drink Solutions. His work continues to be his play.

“I am just another guy who loves to be in the lab and create beverages,” he says.

Sharoff said, “Prem served mostly out of the spotlight but ensured that the flavor profiles for Cott in its private brands products would compete up against the biggest and best known national brands.”

Greg Baskin
Best known for iconic national brands Spam and Hormel Chili, Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods has also become a powerhouse in the private brands realm, thanks largely to the energy and leadership of Baskin, who retired from Hormel in 2015 after 37 years of service, 26 of those devoted to the company’s store brand business.

When he became Hormel’s private label sales manager in 1989, Baskin consolidated what had been a fragmented private brands program into one division and soon started strengthening and expanding the business.

“I was the face for Hormel’s shelf-stable private label products,” Baskin remembers. “While our branded business was the primary driver of sales and profits at Hormel, we had a nice niche business and we did a very good job of growing it and working with our customers.”

Soon after Baskin started attending the Private Label Trade Show in the late 1980s, he became active in the PLMA, serving on various committees and eventually the board of directors and the executive committee. He was elected chairman of the PLMA Board in 2012, serving in that capacity for two years.

As chairman, Baskin fostered leadership diversity in the PLMA and helped launch Women Impacting Storebrand Excellence (WISE), on whose governing board he sits today. At around the same time he was also serving on a Hormel executive committee on diversity and inclusion, a role he found tremendously satisfying as well as eye-opening, he says.

“I had the pleasure of working beside Greg during the initial founding meetings of WISE,” notes Kristal Sevcik, vice president of business development for Evansville, Ind.-based AmeriQual Foods, who nominated Baskin for the Label Hall of Fame. “He provided valuable insight as WISE was forming into an official organization. His commitment to inclusivity throughout the private label industry is evident in everything that he does.”

Sharoff said: “Greg was the face of private label business with Hormel. [His] example has extended well beyond the interest of his company alone by mentoring countless other PLMA members and giving back to the private label industry as a whole.”

Lori Latta
Monrovia, Calif.-based Trader Joe’s is a chain acclaimed for the creativity, taste and global inspiration of its private brand food products. A key reason for the retailer’s huge fan base is Latta, vice president of product innovation for Trader Joe’s, says Marco Principato, who proposed her for induction into the Hall of Fame.

Latta is “the most knowledgeable person in the private label world with an amazing track record of innovative, healthy, affordable products,” says Principato, sales manager for Roncadin Inc. in the U.S.

After graduating from college, Latta worked as a pastry chef and ended up joining Trader Joe’s on a special project to streamline sandwich-making at the chain. She has worked for the retailer for 31 years in positions of increasing responsibility, leaving once to pursue a career opportunity elsewhere but returning to Trader Joe’s because “it was just the right time,” as she puts it.

“I have always known that Trader Joe’s is a great company to work for, where I could pursue — without compromise — my passion for creating food as well as create the kinds of products of which I could always be proud,” Latta explains.

Said Sharoff, “Trader Joe’s unique approach to sourcing and product development remains a hallmark of the chain’s astonishing store brands success.”

David Glass
Glass rose up the ranks during his 25-year career at Walmart and had a tremendous impact on the Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant’s private brands along the way. It’s why Glass, the former CEO of Walmart who currently owns Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Royals, is being inducted into the Private Label Hall of Fame. Glass has been nominated for the hall of fame several times in the past several years.

“David was a big fan of private label,” says Bob Anderson, Walmart’s former vice president and general merchandise manager of private brands, who worked under Glass for several years. “He understood that if private label was done right from a quality aspect and exceeded customers’ expectations, then those customers would come back for more.”

Under Glass, Walmart introduced and established its premium Sam’s Choice brand and national brand equivalent Great Value brand. Glass was also instrumental in the creation of Sam's Club and pioneered the development of Walmart’s first supercenter. Under Glass’ leadership, Walmart became the nation's largest retailer.

Glass joined Walmart in 1976 as executive vice president of finance and held other executive roles before being appointed president and CEO in 1988, succeeding Walmart founder Sam Walton in those roles. He retired as CEO in January 2000.

Edmund O’Keeffe, president of Royal Crown Cola (a division of Cott Beverages), which supplied Walmart with Sam’s Choice cola, says Glass never wanted to do private brands on the cheap.

“It wasn’t just about taking something and making a ridiculous amount of margin on it,” O’Keeffe says. “It was about the quality and value given to the customer.”

Said Sharoff: “Taking the reigns as CEO in 1984 after the company’s founder Sam Walton, David Glass was involved in [Walmart’s] expansion into private label. Famous for its discounts and national brands, nonetheless [Walmart] would become one of the most important retailers involved in private label.”