Food as a commodity is something most of us only think about as customers, when we go to our local supermarket or farmers market or restaurant or deli and pay dearly for the nourishment we cannot live without. If you’re like me, you don’t give a lot of thought to the food chain infrastructure that provides the meat, dairy, produce, canned, and packaged goods to the places we access it unless of course there’s a price spike or a shortage or else some FDA recall because of a food contamination scare. Allan Noddle of Omaha is a food maven right in the mix of the food chain. Today, he’s a highly paid adviser, but for decades he ran companies in the U.S. and abroad that sold food to consumers by the millions and billions of dollars worth annually. He has a local, regional, national, and global perspective on the processes and systems that get the food we all need from producers and distributors to consumers’ dining room tables. He comes from a family of entrepreneurs that had their humble start in Omaha, Neb. and that experience is never far from him as a reminder of how far he and his brothers came.
Allan Noddle’s Food Industry Adventures Show Him the World
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Three Omaha brothers. Three company presidents. What are the odds a trio of sons from a Jewish family of humble beginnings would realize the American Dream, and then some? But brothers Harlan, Allan and Jeff Noddle did just that, as one by one they rose to the pinnacle of their respective profession while giving back to their community. It’s an American success story times three, only the real foundation for this accomplishment is rooted in the example set by the brothers’ late parents, Robert and Edith Noddle, who stressed education and charity.
Eldest brother Harlan Noddle, who died last December, worked as an executive in the retail food industry until he founded his own real estate development company. Noddle Development is one of the Midwest’s largest developers of shopping centers and office buildings. His son Jay Noddle now runs things.
Baby brother Jeff Noddle is president and CEO of Minneapolis-based Supervalu, the nation’s third largest grocery retailer and the leading food distributor in the U.S.
Middle brother Allan Noddle, whose story is told here, has enjoyed the most far flung of careers. In the 1960s the University of Nebraska-Lincoln cum laude graduate went from being a U.S. Army officer to an IBM computer salesman to a Hinky Dinky supermarkets trainee. It was at Hinky Dinky, the now defunct Omaha-based chain, he discovered his niche. Within a decade he climbed the corporate ladder to become executive vice president and COO. Courted by other grocery retailers, Noddle left Hinky Dinky in 1980 for an upper management position with Giant Food of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Mega Danish food company Royal Ahold acquired Giant in 1981. Often referred to as the world’s most successful food provider, Ahold tapped Noddle to be president and CEO of its USA Support Services division in 1988. After building its U.S. market, an opportunity arose he never anticipated when, in 1998, Ahold named him executive VP and elected him to the corporate executive board. He became the first American board member in the company’s 114-year history. The promotion meant moving to Holland, whose culture Noddle embraced.
Based in Amsterdam, Noddle traveled the world to oversee Ahold’s operations in Latin-America and Asia. He retired and returned to Omaha in 2002 but he’s as busy as ever today between the teaching he does for Ahold and others around the globe, the many speaking engagements he makes at food industry forums and his duties as adviser and board member for various corporations.
He offices in the Noddle Companies suite at the One Pacific Place II building where his nephew Jay runs Noddle Development, but he’s as likely to be in some exotic locale as he is home. In May, he stayed put long enough to chart his journey from schlepper to titan.
Perhaps no one appreciated more what the Noddle boys achieved than their late mother. In 1991 the brothers, each having already reached the top, offered Edith anything she wanted for her 80th birthday. To their surprise, she told them she wished to visit the White House, the symbol for all the opportunities America afforded her and her Russian immigrant parents and her own family.
So, as Noddle tells it, he and his brothers set about to bring the family matriarch to the very seat of power. “It took a lot of doing, but we got a private meeting with then Vice President Dan Quayle,” he said. The boys were extra protective of mama as they escorted her through the White House. After all, Noddle said, “She’s this little old Jewish lady — 5’3, 90 pounds, dripping wet. She came from a poor, uneducated background. She was a checker at the old Central market downtown. We thought our mother would be intimidated.” They needn’t have worried, as she soon showed the moxie her boys got from her.
“When we were finally called into the west wing and then eventually into the Vice President’s office we were coming in just as he got up from his desk to come around and greet us,” Noddle said. “We were kind of shielding my mother to make sure she wasn’t intimidated and she pushes us aside, goes right up, puts her hand out and says, ‘Mr. Vice President, I want you should know I have three presidents – none of them are vice presidents.’ And he just laughed and we hit it off.
“He brought in the White House photographer and he took pictures of the whole family. This is one of them,” he said, indicating a framed photo on his office wall. “He gave my mother a special broach with a seal of the Vice President of the United States. He gave us tie tacks with the seal.”
That’s not the end of the story, according to Jeff Noddle, who spoke to the Press by phone from his Minneapolis office. “As we were leaving the White House and walking down from the north portico,” he said, “she turned to my oldest brother Harlan and said, ‘So what’s the matter, the President was too busy?’ Because the senior Bush was there that day and she just wanted to know why she didn’t get to see him. Yeah, she was quite a lady.”
Allan Noddle recalls the many lessons his parents provided. As a boy, his mother made the family home a haven for chabads, roaming members of the orthodox sect, who knew they would be welcomed there. “My mom would say, ‘We have to feed these people. We have to help them, and that’s what I’m here for.’ And so she always gave them a hot meal. It had to be kosher, of course.”
He “looked on in amazement” at these devout men dressed all in black and puzzled over how different ones always knew to come to their house for the good eats. It was only years later he came to understand that a red X stenciled on the curb in front of the house served as a marker for chabads coming through Omaha.
The brothers were expected to do for others as well. Their mother saw to that. She made sure the family home at 58th and Webster was never without a keren ami or charity box for donations to support the state of Israel. “We were expected at the end of the week if we had anything left over from our five or ten cents allowance to put something in the pooshkeh (piggy bank),” Allan said. “My mother would take it to the shul and, guess what, an empty one appeared the next day. So this was ingrained into us…the importance of charity and giving to others.”
Even as they carved separate paths for themselves, the Brothers Noddle shared some common education and work experiences in their rise to the top. All three graduated from Central High School. Their Lithuanian immigrant father, Robert Noddle, was an entrepreneur before the word had much currency. The family patriarch worked in the scrap metal business before opening his own small grocery store. Later, he had his own liquor store — Pete’s. Eventually he and a brother bought and managed rental properties. Robert’s two oldest sons helped out in the liquor store as young boys. Allan recalls using “a feather duster” to wipe all the bottles clean and pushing a broom to sweep the floor.
When Allan was older he went with his dad to collect rent from occupants of the apartments his father owned. The way his father dealt with people made an impression on him. “He treated everybody with respect,” he said. “He helped them if they needed money. If you couldn’t pay the rent he’d say, ‘Oh, I’ll get it next time.’ I learned some things that helped me later in my life and career.”
Allan feels it’s no coincidence the Noddle boys followed in their father’s footsteps. “I guess it’s the DNA we got from our dad,” he said. “Harlan went into the real estate business. My little brother and I went into the supermarket business.”
Life lessons outside the family circle also prepared Allan for the world and the anti-Semitism that’s a part of it. In grade school he would hear an occasional slur like “those dirty Jews,” but he really didn’t grasp the insidious nature of it all until later. For a high school project he set out to prove the Gentleman’s Agreement principle that denied Jews and other religious or ethnic minorities equal access.
“I wrote letters to ten very reclusive resorts in the United States requesting reservations for the same weekend, for the same dates, for two people I made up — one with a Jewish name and one with a Gentile name,” he said. “I got turned down by eight of the ten with the Jewish name and I got accepted by ten of ten with the Gentile name, despite the fact I sent these requests after I’d already gotten responses saying, ‘Sorry, no rooms.’ So, yeah, I got a glimpse of that experience.”
A more personal experience with discrimination came after he got of college. Despite graduating at the top of his class and with all kinds of extracurricular activities to his credit, when he applied for an entry level opening at Northern Natural Gas Company, they showed no interest in him. He couldn’t understand why. Then he spoke to a local Jewish community elder, Norman Hahn, chair of the Omaha Human Relations Commission, who looked at the application Noddle completed. That’s when Hahn saw the name of the Jewish fraternity Noddle belonged to, just the kind of red flag employers used to identify and exclude Jews.
Undaunted, Noddle applied with other employers and impressed IBM enough to land a job with what was then the gold standard among American businesses.
“My father was so proud that his son got hired by a company like IBM,” he said. “They were It. They were doing cutting-edge stuff that nobody else was doing. And they only hired, supposedly, the best and brightest.”
But the start of his IBM career would delayed until he completed a two-year military hitch. IBM was willing to hold the job for him. At UNL he’d completed reserve army officers training that made him “an obligated volunteer.” He earned a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army ordinance corps. Then he graduated with honors from “a tough boot camp for officers” that got him assigned to the 24th Infantry Division with NATO forces deployed in West Germany.
As this was a short time after the Cuban missile crisis, Cold War tensions ran high. The outfit he served with represented “the first line of defense” against a Soviet ground assault. The responsibility was enormous but he responded to it well. The Army gave him the leadership skills he would later use in business.
“It was a wonderful experience commanding troops,” he said. “I taught a lot in the army. I worked with people from all over the world.”
His superiors tried to get him to make the army his career. “I was told I was a five percenter. Of all the Army officers in the U.S. Army across the world I was in the top five percent,” he said. “But I had to come back and do something.” Besides, he said, “I had a job waiting for me.”
His preparation for leading others — in the army and in business — came at UNL, where he took “probably the single most important course in my life– business speech.” he said. “It taught you to go in front of people, collect and organize your thoughts, communicate a position, be understood and sum up what you said in a few minutes. It was a fabulous course. It changed my life.”
IBM kept its promise upon his return home, but after a short time on the job he realized knowing the ins and outs of computers “just wasn’t my cup of tea. It wasn’t people. It was board and wiring.” That’s when he “answered a blind ad in the newspaper” that turned out to be the start of his 40-year career in the retail food field. The ad was placed by Hinky Dinky, whom he broke in with as a trainee.
“They were looking to expand the company and they wanted to hire more college graduates. A great part of the industry, which had been built on the strong backs of guys who stocked shelves, was changing. Mom and pop grocers were being displaced by modern supermarkets with delis and bakeries and all that kind of thing and stores were becoming a helluva lot more complex to run,” he said.
He was learning the ropes out on the floor when suddenly promoted to be a buyer, which proved a gateway for his swift ascent to the top. “I came up through the merchandising-marketing side of the business as opposed to the store operations side of the business,” he said. Hinky Dinky, a staple of the area grocery scene under founder J.M. Newman and sons Nick, Murray and Bob, fit Noddle to a tee. “Yeah, I loved it,” he said, “and after 11 years I was the youngest vice president ever made in the company and four years later I was elected the executive vice president and chief operating officer.”
At its peak Hinky Dinky was “doing $300 million a year” in sales, he said. A new Hinky Dinky division Noddle helped launch operated grocery departments within major retail stores. JC Penny was the primary client and its management was so taken with the concept that Penny’s bought out the whole division. The resulting company, Supermarkets Interstate, which grew bigger than Hinky Dinky, went bust.
The stability of family-owned Hinky Dinky changed during that time when, in 1972, it was acquired by the Dallas-based Cullum Cos.
“That was not a good development because they were taking money that we made and sending it as fast as they could to Texas,” Noddle said, “where they had a real competitive battle on their hands. So, the money we needed to continue to grow our company and build new stores was going to help the Dallas company.”
Those actions, he said, spelled “the beginning of the end” for Hinky Dinky. “The suburbs were being formed and if you weren’t going to be a part of that growth you were going to die. I saw it right away.”
Disillusioned, he and president Chuck Monessy resigned the same weekend in 1980. It wasn’t long before Noddle said Cullum “killed” what had been “a fabulous business model” and an Omaha tradition.
Giant Food had wooed Noddle for years and now that he was out of a job he went to work for them. When Royal Ahold took over Giant he feared it was a repeat of what Cullum did to Hinky Dinky. “It turned out I was absolutely, one hundred percent, unequivocally wrong,” he said. “They admitted up front they didn’t understand the American market and they gave us what we needed to grow faster than we ever could have grown on our own.”
Grow Giant did, going from a 26-store, $260 million operation to a nearly 75-store, $1.7 billion operation. An assured public speaker, Noddle became Giant’s television spokesman in a series of commercials that made the corporate big-wig a familiar name and face back East.
From 1986 to 1988 Ahold assigned him to turn around the struggling operation of another of its U.S. holdings, Bi-Lo, a Greenville, S.C. discount store chain. He did.
His career took an international turn when he entered the executive ranks at Ahold. Then came the “stunning” news of his election to its senior board.
“That was something no American thought would ever happen,” he said. “When they asked me, I was bowled over.” There was one catch: the move to Amsterdam. “‘Well, that I’ve got to think about,’” he told them. “I slept on it for one night and I told myself, This is an opportunity you absolutely have to take. I talked to my brothers and they said, ‘Go for it. Go do it.’” He did and never looked back.
One factor that’s made his career moves less complicated is his single status. “I never have been married. I got married to the business,” he said. “The company was my family. I had a very wonderful family-family, but then I had another family where I worked 60-70 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, and that was the company. We shared our successes and we cried over our failures, but we were together.”
He called his time with Ahold “a wonderful experience. My satisfaction was being a mentor and watching the people that make the company go develop over time. It wasn’t much about fancy homes, big boats or any of that stuff. I didn’t care.” Working in Amsterdam he learned first-hand what makee the Dutch such master merchants. “They’re traders. That’s what they do. They have kind of a concensus management style that’s different than the Western style. They’re great people. I have friendships today that will last forever.”
Whether dealing with his Dutch colleagues or with his peers in any of the other 28 countries he’s traveled to, Noddle gained an appreciation for diversity.
Too often, he said, “Americans go to foreign countries but they want everything to be done in the American way as opposed to learning about the richness of other cultures and experiences. Our way is sometimes not necessarily the best way. There are different ways of doing things.” Doing business in a foreign marketplace, he said, “you need to be sensitive” to local cultures, “but you’ve got to be successful. So how do you create the best ways? Sometimes you take risks. And if they don’t work, what’s wrong with that? That’s not a mistake — it’s an experience. A mistake is when you know something doesn’t work and you continue to push, push, push thinking it will work anyway.”
He taught in Ahold’s advanced management school for up and coming talent. An instructor from Cornell University, the designer of the curriculum, caught one of his talks and was so taken he invited Noddle to be a guest lecturer at the prestigious institution, a role he still fills at Cornell today. “I give a talk once a year at a special course for graduate level students in the food management school,” he said. “It’s usually about globalization or marketing or the future of the industry.”
Today, the “retired” Noddle applies his vast expertise as an adviser to Ahold and other companies. Just don’t call him a consultant. “I’m not a consultant — I’m a teacher,” he said. “A consultant gets paid a lot of money to develop new projects and to show companies how to get from point A to point B. I do the bulk of my work without pay, helping to teach and train how to build a successful business model — the philosophies, strategies and tactics. I love it. I teach in the Netherlands, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Portugal.” Much of his time is spent with food industry managers in the field, evaluating store practices, making comparisons to competitors, trying to find the best practices and innovations and the best ways to implement them.
“It’s not theoretical. It’s on the book. I’m just thrilled with the opportunity to help people learn,” he said.
Having not one but two “high achievers” as older siblings “was a definite plus” for Jeff Noddle, who said his brothers “always put the bar very high for me. They were great role models.” He said Allan continues to be an inspiration. “Among many positive attributes, he has the highest integrity. His word is his bond.”
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