Olson's Dream Deal -- How Does A Small Grocery Chain Grow Bigger Fast?

Was it because the offer was too good to refuse?

Or was it inevitable - given the highly competitive nature of the local supermarket industry, where smaller chains are forced to keep up at the breakneck pace of much larger competitors?

The answer to why Morrie Olson decided to sell his Olson's Food Stores to Quality Food Centers Inc. this week, probably lies somewhere in between, industry observers said.

By last year, Olson Food Stores Inc. was the fourth-largest private employer in Snohomish County, operating 12 full-service supermarkets and three warehouse grocery stores - known as Max Foods - in Snohomish and King Counties.

According to the Progressive Grocer's 1995 Marketing Guidebook, total sales for the chain hit $188 million last year, up about 7.4 percent from the previous year.

Four stores are also in the works - in Everett, Issaquah, Federal Way and Northgate.

"The name of the game is critical mass," said Robert Toomey, a securities analyst with Piper Jaffray in Seattle. "You've got to be bigger to be more efficient and to maintain market share. And that's true for even the smaller stores."

Morrie Olson agrees. "This industry requires growth to realize economies of scale," he said yesterday. "And we've always had a growth strategy."

But did growth come too fast for what was still a modest, family-run business?

Tim Raetzloff - president of Abarim Business Computers in Edmonds, which does some work for the Olson's chain - said he could not see "how it was possible for (Olson's) to have grown the four extra stores without money from some place."

Olson this week acknowledged that the company required "substantial financing" to go ahead with long-term expansion plans. But he said he realized that in 1990, when the company developed its long-term plans and raised the possibility of going public.

More than a year ago, Olson began discussions with Piper Jaffray to lay the groundwork for an initial public offering. But the talks remained informal, Piper Jaffray officials said.

Some said the IPO might have been put on the back burner because of possible problems with the chain's Max Foods stores, which weren't purchased by QFC.

Others thought the opposite - that Max Foods was performing so well that Olson decided to sell Olson Foods, positioning himself to grow the discount end of the business so that he could eventually go public with that.

Olson said the IPO idea was never put off. In fact, he said, talks continued up until 10 weeks ago, when QFC negotiations began to heat up.

"Going with QFC was kind of our way of going public," he said. "We accomplished everything we wanted out of a public offering - and got even more."

Whatever the reasons, analysts said that the longer Olson waited, the worse the environment grew for such an IPO. And that, some said, made merging or selling more and more inevitable.

"There's no question that the market was more receptive to IPOs and grocery stocks a year ago than it is today," said John Rogers, an analyst with Jensen Securities Co. in Portland.

But regardless of his reasons, Olson's decision to sell all 12 Olson's Food Stores and four new sites in development to QFC for $59 million capped a dream that took decades to realize.

The dream began in an old 2,500 square foot store that his father bought on Christmas Eve 1948 for $7,000.

Morrie Olson was only about 5 years old when his father opened the tiny mom-and-pop shop in downtown Everett, but Morrie quickly learned the ins and outs of running a small grocery store.

"You know we lived in that store," Olson said. Olson, now 50, became partners with his father in 1967 and would eventually buy his father out.

"Morrie was a visionary," said Don Bartholamaus, a former advertising executive who worked on some of Olson's accounts. Retail analysts credit Olson for turning the tiny store into a chain that some describe as the Nordstrom's of the local grocery scene.

He was ahead of the pack when it came to installing salad bars, delis and gourmet offerings to complement standard supermarket fare, they said. He was among the first in the region to bring automated banking services to his stores, to accept credit and debit cards and to lease space to Starbuck's to satisfy the changing tastes of his suburban clientele.

"Morrie responded very well to a couple of things," said John Thoreson, president of the Economic Development Council of Snohomish County. "He realized that Snohomish County was becoming more white collar and that the demographics and purchasing power of the county were changing. And, he recognized that the population was growing - and that he would have to expand to meet the demand."