In the bag -Ukrop’s CFO worked his way up from bagging groceries

Large Business | John C. Zeheb, CFO
Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods LLC, Richmond

When John C. Zeheb landed his first job bagging groceries at a Ukrop’s supermarket at age 16, he certainly didn’t think it would lead to a career.

“At the time, I would never have imagined that,” says Zeheb, vice president and chief financial officer for Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods LLC. He worked part time for Ukrop’s Super Markets Inc. throughout college and ended up taking a full-time position in the company’s finance department after he earned an accounting degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in the early 1980s.

Zeheb thought he’d be there for a few years, get some experience and then move on. Instead, he became a key manager who helped navigate the 2010 sale of the Ukrop’s grocery chain to a Dutch grocery conglomerate and the subsequent transition of the Ukrop’s brand into an expanding food manufacturing and distribution business.

Zeheb has done everything from negotiating real estate deals to overseeing the company’s IT department. “At one point, I even had the pharmacy department reporting to me,” he says.

When Ukrop’s Super Markets began exploring opportunities to sell the business, Zeheb was a key player in those talks. That period was a “whirlwind,” he recalls, filled with countless hours of closed-door negotiations.

Ukrop’s stores were sold in 2010 to Netherlands-based Ahold, which operated the stores under the Martin’s brand until several Martin’s stores in Virginia were sold to Florida-based Publix and other locations were closed.

“I was honored that the [Ukrop] family asked me to stay on with the new business,” Zeheb says.

That new business, however, was not as entrenched as the grocery chain, which at one point had 30 locations in Central Virginia. “I think we were all a little skeptical at first,” Zeheb says. Ukrop’s had been producing signature foods for years, but “manufacturing was more of a cost center for us,” he says.

When an exclusive contract with Martin’s ended in 2017, Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods sought to expand its sales to grocery stores that previously had been competitors. Today, its food items can be found in Food Lion, Kroger, Publix, Fresh Market, Wegmans and Harris Teeter stores.

Last year, the company launched a food hall restaurant in Henrico County. It sells bakery and prepared food items as well as hot foods, including Ukrop’s fried chicken, which hadn’t been available since Ukrop’s grocery stores switched to the Martin’s brand in 2010.

Zeheb talked to customers waiting in line at Ukrop’s Market Hall when it first opened. “My favorite line from one of the customers was, ‘I’ve been waiting 10 years for this, so what’s another couple of hours?’”

Robert S. “Bobby” Ukrop, president and CEO of Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods, says Zeheb often shows up during his off time to check on people and processes.

“It’s not unusual to see John over at distribution on Saturday nights,” Ukrop says. “He’s there supporting them. … He looks out for his people.”

As the Ukrop’s business model has evolved, so has Zeheb, Ukrop says. “Sometimes, people don’t grow along with the business. However, in John’s case, he continued to grow as our business became more complicated.”

Zeheb also is involved in his community in ways that give him a well-rounded perspective. For instance, he chaired the Lebanese Food Festival sponsored by Saint Anthony Maronite Church. “We benefited from his leadership role at the church,” Ukrop says.

Zeheb also teaches a fall accounting class for VCU’s Executive MBA program. That’s fitting because he teaches his colleagues in the finance department every day. One co-worker jokingly said, “I got my degree from the University of John Zeheb,” Ukrop recalls, adding that Zeheb “is a helper. He doesn’t like the limelight.”

True to form, Zeheb emphasizes that “working for a great organization has allowed me to be a great CFO.”

Ukrop, however, praises Zeheb’s work ethic, attention to detail, ability to explain complicated concepts and versatile skills. “We have total trust in him,” he says.

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