Vernon O. Underwood did just about everything there was to do at Young’s Market Co. when he began working there back in 1955. His father, Vern Sr., wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“My father firmly believed that there was no substitute for hands-on experience,” Underwood says. “So during my first several years, I worked in virtually every job that Young’s had. It was a valuable experience that has served me well over the years.”
Underwood was particularly impressed with the warehousemen at Young’s and the dedication they brought to their work each day.
“My first thought was, ‘How do you get a promotion around here?’” Underwood says. “Seriously, I came to understand and respect the hard work that Young’s warehousemen do and the dedication with which they do it. There obviously was no automation in those days and the warehouse equipment was far inferior to the equipment that you find today in the warehouse. But I learned that a warehouseman is a dedicated and loyal employee who fills an indispensable role in our company.”
Underwood would later become the fourth generation of his family to lead the business when his father passed away and he was elected chairman of the board and CEO in 1990. But back in 1955, he wasn’t thinking about such lofty goals.
When he was promoted to truck driver, Underwood learned that “delivering cases of wine and spirits was as physically taxing as working in the warehouse.”
“On some days, I thought it might be my last step at Young’s, but luckily for me, it was not,” Underwood says.
Respect and integrity
Young’s Market is one of the oldest continuously operating, family-owned companies in the U.S. and has become a leader in the wholesale and distribution of wine, spirits and selected beverages.
It was founded in 1888 when John G. Young, eldest of the five Young brothers, opened his first retail store at 171 W. Jefferson St. in downtown Los Angeles. The company was incorporated in 1906 by the Young brothers: John, Peter, William, George and Charles.
In 1925, the famed Young’s Market Co. headquarters at Seventh and Union Street opened and soon became a city landmark for the elegant shopper.
Integrity and respect are two bedrock principles that have provided a strong foundation for the company’s growth over the years.
“The company has tried very hard over the years to treat employees fairly and with respect,” Underwood says. “As a consequence, we are blessed to have loyal, hard-working employees. That is probably the single most important key. Every business is about people and our business is no different. We ingrain in every employee the importance of integrity. No business will succeed if it or its employees lack integrity.”
Young’s Market has gone through its share of changes over the years, shifting its primary focus and rebuilding itself on five different occasions. When Underwood took over in 1990, he chose to discontinue the meat, seafood and gourmet divisions to concentrate on wine and spirits.
Four years later, the company moved its corporate headquarters to Orange County. The revolutionary warehouse facility can load 74 trucks at once rather than six, which was the industry standard at the time.
“The company has invested heavily in technology over the past 20 years,” Underwood says. “We have state-of-the-art warehouses and ordering equipment. Our ordering system is entirely electronic. We also invest heavily in training. As a consequence, all of our sales people are totally conversant with the state-of-the-art tools we provide to them and are knowledgeable about the ever-changing array of products that we sell.”
The commitment to regularly re-invest in the business is another reason for the enduring success of Young’s Market.
“Young’s has re-invested its profits over the years in the business and has resisted the temptation to distribute all or most of its available cash to its shareholders,” Underwood says. “A company cannot grow and evolve if it is merely a conduit for wealth generation by its owners.”
Underwood has had a number of satisfying moments through his family’s business.
“My youngest son, Chris, is taking over the reins of the company and building it in his image,” Underwood says of Chris, who was named CEO in 2011. “I had that good fortune 25 years ago and it is exciting to see Chris doing it. It is also extremely gratifying to see my oldest son, Jeff, remain active in the company. Jeff sits on the company’s board of directors and he is active in its governance. Both Chris and Jeff have developed immensely since coming into the business and the company is blessed to have them going forward. It is their time.”
His sister, Janet, who was a co-owner of the company, has also been a close confidant for Underwood. But he says the one person who has had the biggest influence on the leader he is today is his father.
“Young’s culture today is the result of dad’s vision for the company and his influence on me,” Underwood says.
“I do not mean to suggest that our business relationship was always harmonious. We had our differences, but they were few and far between. The company’s moral compass today is the same as it was when my father was in charge and there is no greater legacy.” ●
How to reach: Young’s Market Co., (800) 317-6150 or www.youngsmarket.com
EY Lifetime Achievement Award
Vernon O. Underwood will receive the EY Lifetime Achievement Award on June 11 at The St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach in Dana Point. This award is an exclusive designation by the judging panel. Underwood becomes only the second person to receive the honor since the inception of the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® Orange County Awards in 1988.