August 6, 2013

N.H. billionaire grocer hauls fortune – in unmarked trucks

Richard B. Cohen, who also has a home in Maine, has transformed C&S Wholesale Grocers into the world's largest grocery wholesaler.

Bloomberg News

BOSTON — There's a reason why Richard B. Cohen escapes attention.

The chairman of C&S Wholesale Grocers Inc. works out of a nondescript office park once slated to house a county jail in Keene, N.H., a leafy mountain hamlet 90 miles northwest of Boston.

The truckers who deliver goods from the company's 54 distribution centers drive unmarked tractor-trailers. Cohen's last interview was published a decade ago. Even the Keene Chamber of Commerce overlooked C&S as one of the town's largest employers.

"We're the biggest company no one has ever heard of," Bryan T. Granger, a company spokesman, said by phone.

The 61-year-old â who goes by "Rick" â has transformed C&S into the world's largest grocery wholesaler since taking the helm of the business in 1989, making him one of the 100 richest people in the world and the wealthiest man in New England after Connecticut hedge-fund manager Raymond T. Dalio, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The company had sales of $21.7 billion in 2012, distributing more than 95,000 products to 4,000 supermarkets from Maine to Hawaii. Cohen is the business' sole owner, Granger said. He has a net worth of $11.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg index, and has never appeared on an international wealth ranking â a status one associate said suits him just fine.

"I tried to put our name on the trucks and he didn't want any part of it," said Edward Albertian, 58, a former C&S president and now chief executive officer of Citysports, a 22- store Boston-based retailer owned by Highland Capital Partners LP. "He wanted to continue to be stealth and operate in this little, dinky Keene, New Hampshire, marketplace."

The billionaire has managed to make money in an industry bedeviled by small profit margins and mismanagement by focusing on efficiency and paying his workers extra to avoid mistakes, according to Thomas DeLong, a professor at Harvard Business School who consults with Cohen and wrote a case study on the company published in 2003.

"I'm not sure I've met anyone as smart, analytic and quantitatively driven as Rick," DeLong said in a telephone interview. "Many CEOs have a need to prove they're the smartest guy in the room. Rick is not like that."

Cohen declined to comment for this story. C&S is valued at $11 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, based on the average enterprise value-to-sales and enterprise value-to- earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization multiples of two publicly traded peers: Sysco Corp. and United Natural Foods Inc. Enterprise value is defined as market capitalization plus total debt minus cash.

C&S has about $240 million in outstanding bonds, according to data compiled by Bloomberg based on a 2010 bond offering prospectus, which showed the company had a gross profit margin of 2.2 percent and net income of $66 million on $19.3 billion in sales in 2009. As the company's owner, Cohen opted to let C&S corporate income pass through to be taxed as personal income â to avoid double taxation, the document shows.

The billionaire also owns real estate in Ogunquit, Maine, and Jackson, Wyo., according to local property tax records, and has collected more than $50 million in cash payments and promissory notes, according to the prospectus. He also owns Symbotic, a Wilmington, Mass.-based warehouse robotics company he bought in 2009.

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