Publix breaks ground in Charlotte, downplaying idea of buying Harris Teeter

elyportillo@charlotteobserver.comMarch 28, 2013 

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(L-R) Publix Super Markets Chuck Roskovich, division vice president for Charlotte, Todd Jones, president, Mark Pittman, regional director for Charlotte and John Hrabusa, senior vice president were on hand for the groundbreaking of the company's first North Carolina store in Charlotte on Thursday, March 28, 2013. The store will be located in Ballantyne Town Center. Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

JEFF SINER — jsiner@charlotteobserver.com Buy Photo

— Florida-based Publix broke ground Thursday on its first North Carolina store, as rival Harris Teeter remained silent on whether it will sell itself to another company.

Harris Teeter said six weeks ago that it has hired J.P. Morgan to look into selling the grocer. Matthews-based Harris Teeter said it had been approached by two private equity firms interested in buying the company.

But rumors have swirled that a rival grocer such as Publix or Giant’s parent company Royal Ahold could be interested in purchasing Harris Teeter.

On Thursday, Publix executives played down the possibility of buying Harris Teeter’s 211 stores. It would be the largest purchase ever for the privately held grocer, which has grown to 1,070 stores, mostly without acquisitions.

And though Publix is substantially larger than Harris Teeter, with $27.5 billion worth of sales in 2012 compared with $4.3 billion, such an acquisition would be a departure for the company.

Publix President Todd Jones, on hand for the ceremonial dirt-turning, emphasized the company’s promote-from-within culture. He said many top executives at Publix have been there since they were teenagers.

“When you acquire, you can’t do that,” said Jones. He said the company hasn’t made a large purchase of a competitor since it bought a meatpacking company the 1930s. Publix stock is all held by employees.

Jones said Publix will compete for Harris Teeter’s customers. “Harris Teeter is a great store. They do a great job taking care of customers,” he said. “We think we can do the same,” said Jones.

Harris Teeter declined to comment. A company spokeswoman referred questions to the company’s earlier statement in February.

Publix’s Charlotte store is expected to open in early 2014. The company has also announced plans to build a second store in Charlotte, and is aggressively looking for additional sites in the state.

“We’re always looking for good sites,” said Jones. Publix executives said North Carolina was the state where they’ve received the most consumer requests for expansion. They’ve been considering pushing into the state for years, but have focused on growth in contiguous markets.

Publix reported this month that its fourth-quarter sales topped $7 billion, down from $7.2 billion last year. The company attributed the drop to an extra week in the calendar in the 2011 fiscal year. Sales at stores open a year or more, considered a key indicator of a retailer’s health, were up 1.2 percent, and the company had $393 million worth of profits.

Harris Teeter reported earnings for its most recent quarter at the end of January. The company’s sales rose 3.7 percent, to nearly $1.2 billion, and sales at stores open a year or more were up 2.5 percent. Harris Teeter had $22.8 million worth of profits.

The company’s stock is up more than 8 percent since the possible sale was disclosed in February. Shares of Harris Teeter closed down less than 1 percent on Thursday, at $42.71.

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo

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