Zak Sclar, far left, CEO of the Food City and Save-A-Lot grocery store chain, stands in the entrance of Food City in Lisbon Falls on Wednesday afternoon with some of the employees who are now owners of the company. (Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham)

LEWISTON — Save-A-Lot store manager Carol Landry said Wednesday it was the talk of the store:

Employees now own the place.

Instead of traditionally selling their grocery chain, CEO Zak Sclar and his father, Stanley, opted to sell seven Food Cities and two Save-A-Lots to employees through an employee stock ownership plan.

Through hoped-for annual profits, workers will pay the Sclars back and each year earn shares of the company that are allotted based on payroll.

The plan, eight months in the making, was official in late February, Zak Sclar said. He’s spent the two weeks since then traveling to each location to tell employees.

“When he first said it, I thought he was joking with me,” said Rick Hoyt, an assistant store manager and grocery manager who has been at the Livermore Falls Food City for nine years. “It’s nice that if you invest some time in the company, the company invests back into you.”

Zak Sclar said he started pursuing the idea a year ago. They had opportunity but quickly ruled out a traditional sale.

“My father and I felt like it was time to give back, to give the employees a better future,” he said. “We’ve been blessed (with employee) dedication over the years, but we’ve never been able to offer a retirement plan and this is the best road I could think of to accomplish that.”

Stanley Sclar founded the company in 1985 with a business partner, and the Sclars have owned and run it for the past 22 years. It’s had as many as 11 locations through the years and as few as seven.

There are Food Cities in Lisbon Falls, Bridgton, Turner, Livermore Falls and Wilton, plus one each in Massachusetts and Vermont. Lewiston, Farmington and Waterville have Save-A-Lots.

The chain, headquartered in Lewiston, has more than 300 employees, about 200 in Maine.

Zak Sclar will stay on as CEO of Food City Holdings and Stanley will be a consultant.

It will take employees six years with the company to be fully vested in the plan, he said. They can cash out over time starting at age 65.

There are no guarantees about the size of what they’ll have banked by retirement, Sclar said. That depends on everyone working together to boost the bottom line.

“After five years, hopefully, a significant amount of the debt will be paid off,” he said. “I’m hoping it makes us a stronger company for the employees and for us. We’re all really in it together. The employees are going to want to pay us off quickly so they can get 100 percent of the profits after we get paid out.”

It’s part of a slowly growing trend: The National Center for Employee Ownership estimated last year that there were 6,500 employee stock ownership plans in the U.S.

Landry, at the Lewiston store, said she’s been with Save-A-Lot for 25 years.

“It was pretty exciting to think we own part of this company,” she said. “The employees are excited about it. They’re all gung-ho about wanting to do better, so I guess it is working as Zak explained to me.”

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