Tribute to a great man and natural retailer: Jim Hinkefent

By the very nature of their business, retailers are mostly known locally or regionally to those in their supply network. Rare is the retailer, especially in the natural products industry, who is known nationally. Therefore, the notice of the passing away of Jim Hinkefent, former owner of natural food grocer AKiN's Natural Foods, got very little attention regionally and virtually none nationally.

Jim, however, was the kind of man who led his life and ran his business in such a way that he deserved accolades while he was with us as well as recognition and respect at the time of his passing. (Jim's obituary notice can be found here.)

I worked at AKiN's for about 10 years when Jim owned the company. I learned a lot from this man—a lot about the natural products industry, about retailing and about life.

You always knew when Jim was in the room. He had a booming voice, a deep, enthusiastic laugh and a twinkle in his eye. He didn't dominate by his size or his volume, but by his person. He was very comfortable with who he was and didn't need to try to impress those around him. His wisdom and character spoke for themselves.

Over the past few days, I have reflected on some of what I learned from Jim and tried to summarize the greatest lessons here:

  1. You can have it all—career, family and hobbies.
    Jim showed that you could balance the demands of running a retail store, being a family man and enjoying other things in life. When I joined his company, it was a three-store chain. A few months later, we were at four. Stores five and six eventually followed. During this time of growth and prosperity, Jim lived life. He and his lovely and gracious wife, Marilyn, took trips and enjoyed their family. Jim had three of his children working with him in the business. Later, some sons-in-law became a part of the staff, as well.

    Jim was also a very avid and skilled tennis player. He won a number of tournaments and championships, even in his senior years. I don't mean to imply that having the balance that I saw in Jim's life came without effort or work. I know that he, and his entire family, worked harder than anyone else at AKiN's to create the success that we enjoyed. What I want to point out is that a balance, giving you success, peace and joy in every facet of your life is possible, even given the demands of running a retail store.
  2. Embrace new things if they are better.
    Jim ran stores in the days before affordable POS systems. He told me on more than one occasion that good store managers kept their inventory "in their heads." They knew what was on hand, what was selling, what was on order, etc.

    When we computerized the inventory and ordering systems at AKiN's, however, Jim gave his full support. While he never learned to use the system, he asked for—and used—reports from it. His system had worked, but times had changed and different tools were available. He willingly moved to the new tools.
  3. Bigger is not better.
    One of the things that I recall him telling me was that he had an advantage running a private business as opposed to one that was publicly owned. His logic was that if he had to have a bad month or a bad quarter in order to make changes or invest for future growth, he could do that. He had no analysts to answer to. He could adjust, turn on a dime and make changes that had to be made to keep his customers happy and his sales and profits strong.
  4. Always pay your bills on time.
    Jim took great pride in the fact that AKiN's always paid its bills on time. In fact, we pointed that out to vendors and it helped us negotiate discounts and programs usually available only to retailers much larger than we were.
  5. You stay ahead by thinking ahead.
    Jim stopped by my office on a regular basis to ask questions—not about what we were doing, but about what our vendors were doing. He asked, in particular and with regularity, about what they were thinking. He shared insights about moves that vendors had made in the past—good ones that had helped them grow and poor ones that, in some cases, destroyed brands. He wanted to know which way brands were "leaning" so that if they did something smart, we could be ready and so that if they did something dumb, we wouldn't be hurt by it.

    That type of strategic thinking, combined with a knowledge of and an appreciation for industry history, is a very valuable thing for a company to have. You can be so busy with the day-to-day, that you can miss the early signs of a trend.

Jim Hinkefent ran a great company that touched the lives of thousands in the Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Lincoln, Springfield and Topeka communities. He loved his wife, was intensely proud of his children and enjoyed his grandchildren. He had a great variety of friends, interests and passions.

The natural products industry and my life are better from our association with Jim Hinkefent. His family is in my heart as they adjust to life without this great man.

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