UNFI works to satisfy associates, reduce turnover after pandemic

National food distributor reports 'outstanding financial results;' retiring CEO Steve Spinner says Board of Directors won't name his replacement before or at Investor's Day

Victoria A.F. Camron, Digital content specialist

June 9, 2021

5 Min Read
United Natural Foods Inc.

While stories abound regarding a labor shortage as the country comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn, UNFI has been raising wages and improving working conditions to satisfy its associates, company officials said Wednesday morning.

"One of our most important core belief has always been to do the right thing, which includes continuously and proactively looking for ways to keep UNFI as an employer of choice," CEO Steve Spinner said at the beginning of the Q3 earnings call. "This includes looking at ways to create better work-life balance; our commitment to diversity and inclusion; and our relentless focus on safety."

COO Eric Dorne said the company also increased hiring to manage overtime and reduce turnover.

Over the past 12 months, United Natural Foods Inc. adjusted wages in many markets, which led to improved productivity, decreased overtime and less turnover—all of which offset the cost of the pay increases, Spinner said.

"In addition, we've continuously been investing in automation to improve throughput and order accuracy while easing the local challenges around available workforce," he said.

When an analyst asked if the labor shortage that UNFI has seen is a result of high unemployment benefits, CFO John Howard opined that it is not.

Related:UNFI's 2020 sales surpass even recent expectations

"Our drivers are sophisticated, they are knowledgeable, and they are working. I think we're in a temporary period where the demand for freight is outpacing the ability of the industry to move the freight," Howard said. "But I do feel like it's temporary. Once we get back to stability, economically people are back at work, and the pandemic is predominantly behind us, I think this is all going to stabilize."

As example of UNFI's willingness to accommodate employees' needs, Spinner offered some details about the company's not-yet-open Allentown, Pennsylvania, distribution center. The facility, which Spinner called a lifestyle center, will have sophisticated technology regarding flexible work hours and even sharing shifts.

Helping customers be successful

Since it purchased Supervalu—a national distributor of conventional foods and the owner of 3,000 retailer stores—in 2018, UNFI has offered its customers services such as payroll, credit-card processing and analytics.

"Our services lower their expense structure and makes running their business easier," Spinner said. "And our innovation is continually looking forward and asking the critical questions of continually looking forward and asking the critical questions of 'What's next,' followed by, 'What will UNFI do to bring it to our customers in the easiest possible way?'"

Related:UNFI: Cross-selling, e-commerce drive record Q2 net sales

Chris Testa, president of UNFI, said the company offers more than 150 services that helps customers save time and money, as well as drive revenue. In the past six month, it has installed 148 payment systems. One multi-store customer is saving more than $500,000 a year with that service, he said.

UNFI also provides e-commerce services for its customers. An additional 215 stores have joined the platform in the past year, and 120 more are in the process of joining, Testa said. The service allows customers to offer consumers online ordering, click-and-connect, and delivery.

UNFI continues to expand its line of private label products as well, he said, including more than 100 new products in 15 categories this year in the Field Day brand.

"Top-selling SKUs include functional beverages, personal care items and pantry supplies. At the same time, our Essential Every Day brand has record sales in the quarter with international customers as our Brand Plus team is aggressively expanding distribution in Central and South America," Testa said.

In operations, the distributor is optimizing its supply chain and expanding its network of distribution centers.

"For the first time this year, our outbound fill rate improved year-over-year as we continue to work with suppliers on the journey back to pre-COVID service levels," he said.

"Our associates have done an amazing job through this pandemic getting product to our customers on time and in a safe, professional manner. We're operating a high level and we have every reason to believe our momentum will continue into next fiscal year and beyond," Testa noted.

Q3 meets the company's expectations

"We're very pleased with our strong performance this quarter, which maintains the momentum building across our business," Spinner said. Because 2020's sales were so extremely unusual, UNFI knew it would not surpass those figures. With this report, the company included a two-year stack, comparisons to fiscal 2019.

"We calculated this by adding the year-over-year growth rate to the prior year-over-year growth rate, and we believe it to be an appropriate way to view sales this quarter, given the unprecedented activity in last year's third quarter," Testa said.

UNFI's fiscal year runs from Aug. 1 to July 31, so this was the first quarter to lap the increased grocery shopping triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The company's Q3 ended May 1.

For Q3, UNFI reported:

  • Net sales of $6.62 billion, a decrease of 5.9% (+6.7% on a two-year stack basis).

  • Net income of $49 million, a decrease of approximately $40 million.

  • Adjusted EBITDA of $179 million, a decrease of 19.2%.

  • Earnings per diluted share (EPS) of $0.80, a decrease of 50.0%.

  • Adjusted EPS of $0.94, a decrease of 29.3%.

  • Net debt reduction of $62 million bringing fiscal year-to-date total to $175 million.

By channel, chains saw sales decrease 5.6% from Q3 2020, and increase 5.4% over two years; independent retailers saw a decrease of 11.4% and an increase of 3.8% over two years; and supernaturals saw an increase of 0.6% from last year and a 16.6% increase over two years. UNFI's remaining retail stores, Cub and Shopper's, saw a 9.3% decrease from Q3 2020 and a 14.9% increase over two years.

For the first three quarters of fiscal 2021, UNFI reports net sales of $20.2 billion and net income of $106.5 million.

The quarterly results were in line with the company's internal expectations, Spinner said. He expects it will meet its full-year fiscal 2021 guidance as well:

  • Net sales of $27 billion to $27 billion.

  • Net income of $130 million to $160 million.

  • Adjusted EBITDA of $690 million to $730 million.

No names yet

National food distributor United Natural Foods Inc. won't name Spinner's replacement "before or at Investor Day," the soon-to-retire CEO said during Wednesday's conference call.

Spinner announced at the end of September that he would step down from his position on July 31, the end of the company's fiscal year. However, the Board of Directors asked him to stay longer, as COVID complicated the search process, he said in March.

He will continue to serve as UNFI's executive chairman.

About the Author(s)

Victoria A.F. Camron

Digital content specialist, New Hope Network

Victoria A.F. Camron was a freelance writer and editor contracted with New Hope Network from 2015 until April 2022, when she was hired as New Hope Network's digital content specialist—otherwise known as the web editor.

As she continues the work she has done for years—covering the natural products industry for NewHope.com and Natural Foods Merchandiser; writing up earnings calls and other corporate news; and curating roundups of trends and information for the website—she is thrilled to be an official part of the New Hope team. (She doesn't mind having paid holidays and vacations again, though!) Victoria also compiled and edited newsletters, and served as interim content director for Delicious Living in 2016.

Before working as a freelancer, she spent 17 years in community newspapers in Longmont, Colorado, and St. Charles and Wheaton, Illinois. Victoria is a Colorado native and a graduate of Metropolitan State College of Denver.

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