Eby-Brown's Ron Coppel Retiring After 27 Years
NAPERVILLE, Ill. — Ron Coppel would describe his 40-plus years in food distribution sales — with a front row seat to the convenience store industry’s emergence and evolution — as “something that someone at this stage in my career can sit back and reflect on and just say, ‘Wow.’”
Coppel, who has been with Eby-Brown Co. LLC, the largest independent distributor to the c-store industry, since 1990, reflected on his industry career in an interview with Convenience Store News less than two weeks before his Feb. 2 retirement from the company. He shared his humble beginnings in food distribution sales, his thoughts on why the convenience channel is the best channel, and how he views the next chapter of his life as just as meaningful as the first chapter.
Fresh out of college, Coppel joined his family’s business, a small gourmet food distributor in Cincinnati, training as a salesman.
“I remember carrying around a little candy bag and had to explain to the customer that these are from Germany and they’re served in the shape of bears. They’re fruit-flavored, and the German word for rubber is gummy, so they were called gummy bears,” Coppel recalled.
Thereafter, he worked for a candy and tobacco distributor in the Cincinnati area that was “just breaking into this new channel called ‘convenience stores.’” He then moved his family to New York City in the late 1980s to join the then-largest convenience store distributor in the greater New York City market as vice president of sales.
It wasn’t long after that Coppel made his way back to the Midwest to join Naperville-based Eby-Brown in 1990 as vice president of regional sales, where his role focused on growing the Ohio market. Four short years later, in 1994, he took on the newly created position of vice president of business development, essentially in charge of all the customers the company didn’t have. He was then promoted to senior vice president.
As a 40-plus-year convenience store industry veteran, Coppel has seen the channel go from selling just groceries, candy and tobacco to becoming a one-stop shopping destination for consumers. More than that, he’s witnessed the sophistication of the convenience industry strengthen and expand.
“If you can imagine, it was a big deal just to learn groceries. It was a big deal after that to carry another line called HBC [health and beauty care]. Then, with groceries came basic frozen and refrigerated. And then, all the sudden, the introduction of more modern foodservice. It’s been quite a ride,” Coppel expressed.
“I will tell you, in my opinion, I have seen more changes in the last five years than maybe in the 20 years before that. I like to call it the ‘Walmart Effect.’ By that, I mean that every single day, we have to figure out how to do more with less," he explained.
Coppel will admit that he didn’t necessarily have the foresight to see where “all this was going,” but he can say that categorically, he’s embraced the changes over the past four decades. And that includes technology and the role it continues to play in keeping the convenience store industry moving forward.
“In the last few years, technology has moved beyond my skillset … but I was never afraid of it. I knew at the onset that I either had to jump on the bandwagon or get the heck out of the way, and I wasn’t about to get out of the way,” the senior exec said. “I’m proud that even as tech exploded, even as an old guy, I’ve had the good fortune to lead the team effort along with sales to create the first Eby-Brown website and the consequent sites after that.”
Another accomplishment Coppel is proud of during his time at Eby-Brown is becoming the face of the convenience distributor, conducting interviews with trade press, and subsequently pushing the company forward. He has humbly represented Eby-Brown through thought leadership as a member of the NACS Supplier Board, which he served on from 1999 to 2009. He also served on the NACS Board of Directors for two consecutive terms from 2004 through 2006. Addtionally, in 2006, he was named Supplier Board chairman for a one-year term.
TURNING THE PAGE
If you ask Coppel what he’ll miss the most about being a part of the convenience channel, he’ll tell you it’s the people. In fact, he’ll even go on record to say there are no better people than those in the convenience channel.
“We go to conferences, conventions, meetings, and competitors are willing to share and willing to talk and be friendly with each other, whether it’s retailer to retailer, or on the manufacturer side. We work together to better this industry, and there’s other channels that are cutthroat and very ‘what have you done for me lately.’ In the c-store channel, we’re in this to make life better for the industry. It’s the best channel in retail as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Despite his love for the business, Coppel knows it's time to retire.
“The old adage is: ‘How do you know when it’s time to retire? Oh, you’ll know.’ So, it’s become that time,” he explained. “I’m turning 70, and it’s not just an age thing. I’m just ready to take on a new chapter.”
As the son of World War II Holocaust survivors, Coppel’s next chapter will include training to be a docent at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center (IHMEC), located in Skokie, Ill. The museum is the third-largest of its kind, after museums in Jerusalem and Washington, D.C.
Born in Berlin, Coppel’s parents were the first Jewish couple to wed in the city after the war ended. The family eventually moved to Cincinnati. One day, Coppel’s father read a Letter to the Editor in a local paper that denied the Holocaust. This infuriated Coppel’s father and made him realize that he had to speak out as a survivor. For 30 years, Coppel’s father spoke throughout the state of Ohio to students, institutions and civic organizations, educating them on the Holocaust and about fighting prejudice.
Looking to follow in his father’s footsteps, Coppel is working toward becoming a part of IHMEC’s second generation Speaker’s Bureau, as well as a docent for the museum.
“I want to do this, and I can’t do this and still have my work obligations. I’m retiring because I’m ready to retire, but it’s very much because I want to open up that chapter,” he said. “It’s time to move on and let younger people take the reins here at Eby-Brown, and it’s time to pursue this want and desire.”
It isn’t without a heavy heart that Coppel leaves Eby-Brown after 27 years. He said his longevity at the company is partially due to the level of innovation that has been created over the years but, more importantly, it’s because of the people.
“Eby’s been a great company to work for. As big as we are, it’s still a family organization. I work for Dick and Tom Wake [owners and presidents of Eby-Brown], and they treat every one of us like family. That’s what’s kept me here,” he said. “Even as I’m retiring, I’ve been made to feel very warm, and the company’s demonstrated to me how appreciative it is for what I’ve contributed over the years. That makes me feel very good as I’m leaving. ... I have no regrets whatsoever.”