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Fox Bros. Piggly Wiggly Inc., a chain of seven grocery stores in Milwaukee's suburbs, said Tuesday it is adopting an employee stock ownership plan as a means to chart the future ownership of the business and help the company compete in the region's super-competitive grocery market.  Owners Pat and Lori Fox said there were a number of reasons they decided to transfer ownership of the business to the folks who work there.  The obvious one is we're not getting any younger and so we had to figure out exit strategy," Lori Fox said.  They could have sold the company outright.  "We really didn't like that option because we really value our employees and that would create a lot of uncertainty for them," Lori Fox said. "We really wanted to protect them but recognize that we needed some kind of exit strategy."  They decided the ESOP was the way to go.

Adopting the plan doesn't mean the Foxes are leaving the business.  "It's a long-term exit strategy," Pat Fox said. "We're not going anywhere. We'll still be working and running the company."  Fox Bros. employs 735 people, at least half of whom would be eligible to participate in the plan.

An employee stock ownership plan is not unprecedented in the grocery industry. Janesville-based Woodman's is employee owned and Publix, a large grocery chain in the southern and southeastern United States, is an ESOP company.  Pat Fox said he also sees the ESOP plan as a way to help differentiate the company in the Milwaukee metro area, one of the most hotly competitive grocery markets in the country.  "We view it as a growth vehicle for our company," he said. "It opens the door for capital formation and the potential for acquiring more stores and growing our business."  The Foxes are also counting on the plan being a way to bolster its workforce.  "In some ways one of the biggest threats to our business is finding, attracting and keeping people that are going to execute a great service experience for our guests," Pat Fox said. "We view it as a attraction and retention tool."  The plan also backs up the message the chain has always tried to send its employees.  "We've always told our employees how much we value them and we've always shared the message that we can't do this work without them," Lori Fox said. "It was another consistent message to them about how much they are valued."

Fox Bros. operates grocery stores in Hartland, Oconomowoc, Richfield, Jackson, Slinger, Hartford and Saukville.



As seen in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.