Bernier orchestrates in-house sale of Cronig’s

Andrea Donnelly will continue community grocery store tradition.

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Steve Bernier will handover Cronig’s to longtime employee Andrea Donnelly at the start of the new year. —Rich Saltzberg

Cronig’s Market owner Steve Bernier is selling his entire business. Up-Island Cronig’s in West Tisbury, and down-Island Cronig’s and Healthy Additions in Vineyard Haven will change hands at the start of 2022. 

Bernier told The Times succession had been on his mind for a while. Both the pandemic and his serious bout with COVID-19 put into sharper focus the need for him to find somebody to maintain Cronig’s as a community grocery store with the same spirit and conviction that he had exercised after he acquired it from Robbie Cronig in 1985. Established over a century ago, Cronig’s will be owned and captained by Andrea Donnelly, the company’s bookkeeper, who began at the market as a 15-year-old cashier. The deal is designed to preserve the company and stave off supermarket chains and absentee investors, whom Bernier described as “the wrong element.” Bernier will stay on as an employee of Donnelly’s, and as an advisor. Donnelly made it clear the toughest aspect of the deal was convincing her to do it in the first place. 

”So when he came to me, I said, ‘What are you, crazy — me?’” Donnelly said. She then said with a bit of humor she asked him to leave her office because he was keeping her from her work.

Bernier joked that she must have thought he’d lost his marbles. Nevertheless, Bernier continued to pitch the idea. “I’ve been trying to tell her how I see her, and she doesn’t believe me,” Bernier said. “I see her as being kind of special and kind of hand-delivered to me from God to do this job.” 

Donnelly was finally sold on the deal not when Bernier kept pitching it, but when he stopped pitching it. “I think when he was entertaining somebody else is when I said yes,” Donnelly said. “I was just like, No, I’m not letting anybody else — we’ve got this together. And I probably wouldn’t have said yes if I knew he wasn’t going to be by my side to train and help me figure it out.”

“And to help do it,” Bernier said

“And to help do it,” Donnelly echoed. 

Constance Messmer, Bernier’s wife, described Donnelly as “humble, quiet, smart as a whip, and there all along.”

Messmer said she was “in total support” of the deal with Donnelly. “She’s perfect … I am like, Well done, Steven … and especially, I have to say, to a woman — yes! She’s so smart and she’s so on it, and she’s so intuitive and thinks outside the box — lot of aspects similar to Steve. And it just makes so much sense.”

Cronig’s staffers were onboard too. Bernier said he told staff many months ago he was putting Andrea “on the examination table” for possible succession, and asked how they felt about it.

“How many people were in that room?” he asked Donnelly.

“Maybe 15, 15 or 20,” Donnelly said.

“Every one of them, thumbs up,” Bernier said. 

“Andrea’s got both feet on the ground,” he added. “She’s down to earth. She’s practicable, she’s sensible, she’s worked here for 26 years. She knows exactly what this place is all about.”

Back when he hashed things out with Robbie Cronig to acquire the business, he said neither of them had been talking to people about such a transaction. Bernier said that the deal was done on a handshake, without a purchase and sale agreement. It was forged on trust and mutual respect.

“And 10 years later, he still had the key to the front door and the combination of the safe,” Bernier said. “The old-fashioned way. I learned from that, and I’m trying to do that same thing with Andrea. And 30 years from now, she’s going to have this job to do all over again. That’s how we keep this a community grocery store, as it should be. As it started out to be.”

As astute as Donnelly is, Bernier said, there are aspects of the business he can’t simply hand her a playbook for, and that’s why he finds it important to allow for a mentoring period.

“Until you get in this seat,” Bernier said, “you can’t learn it. You can talk about it, but it goes nowhere. It doesn’t really sink in. So I think the value of me doing this, not on my deathbed, but being participatory, being caring and at her side, takes care of Constance, takes care of our family, takes care of our community family, takes care of our employee family. And Andrea’s going to help me do all this and keep it in place where it belongs. So I told her half the job’s done by just saying yes.”

Part of the job entails maintaining Cronig’s charitable contributions.

“My donation file here with my Excel spreadsheet is 341 lines long,” Bernier said. 

Bernier thinks Robbie Cronig would approve of the deal. “So we’re going to do something unconventional and kind of sweet, kind of community-ish, hugely … I’m going to take back paper for 30 years,” Bernier said. “There’s no down payment. We’re going to do it the old-fashioned way. And I think Robbie is watching over us right now, and is going, ‘Attaboy.’”

Asked if her family knows, Donnelly said they did.

“They were surprised, yes,” she said. “But not too much. I have been here for so long. I’ve always treated it like it was my own business. I’ve lost sleep, you know?”

Donnelly, who lives in Edgartown, said she first started at Cronig’s as a teenage cashier. “I did it a lot for the employees and the community,” she said of the deal, and added there was real fear about the business getting sold off to the highest bidder. 

“Or some person with more money than brains out of L.A. or New York or whatever,” Bernier said. “And there’s some lovely people from there, OK, but I can’t play the risk game. Robbie put this store in my hands. I have a responsibility here. And I need to think about how to do that. And if all that I’m thinking about is myself and my family, I end up with the wrong elements. I get investment letters from investment bankers all the time, two or three a month, loving to buy this place. My customers would hang me by my thumbs if they ever heard me entertaining something like that. Me entertaining Andrea and what we’re talking about doing is the apple pie, the American flag, the home run all in one — beautiful as it’s supposed to be.”

Donnelly isn’t enthused to be in the spotlight, and despite all the financial work she does for the company, she discounted the suggestion she is effectively CFO.

”We’re not big on titles here, but sure … I mean, sometimes I don’t give myself enough credit,” she said.

Bernier and Donnelly both declined to discuss the purchase price for the business. Bernier said the deal basically had less to do with money than it did with trust, understanding, and patience: “With no down payment and taking back paper for 30 years, this ain’t a short game. This is a long game.”

Bernier said Cronig’s customers should not notice any difference in the business. The change will only be the power structure in the office.

“How I’ve tried to phrase it to her is up to the 31st of December I have the last vote,” he said. “As of Jan. 1st, she has the last vote.”

36 COMMENTS

  1. Steve, you’ve done so much for this island that nobody will ever understand it totally. I wish you Constance and your family nothing but the best. Angels have always looked after you as you have after them. Godspeed my friend with whatever you decide to do. Enjoy your family, and enjoy yourself. You’ve earned it.

  2. Steve Bernier is old school.
    When my father sold our house, he calculated what a working man could afford and went with that figure. His realtor friend told him he could get twice the price.
    My father replied, “How could a man raise a family with that burden?”
    I always admired my father for that, and now I have Steve to add to that short list.
    Steve could have made millions more selling to a chain.
    That’s a great man.
    Thanks for continuing to set the ‘Robbie Cronig’ bar for decency in island business.

  3. They always talk about being for the community, helping the community, having a responsibility to them, etc. I would ask what part of that responsibility to the community inclines them to charge $10 for orange juice? This place extorts the very people it claims to be for.

  4. Good going Steve! I have to say that my grandfather, Samuel Cronig, and his brothers, the original Cronig Brothers, would definitely approve of passing along the business to a long term employee. Congratulations to all!

  5. This is such wonderful news! Bravo, Steve, and Congratulations, Andrea! How blessed is our island to have this community store plan to continue its great service. As an employee of both Robbie and David Cronig in my youth, I think they are both smiling!

  6. That is the best news of the day! This is the Vineyard I love. My respect for Steve Bernier has reached new heights. Much success to Andrea!

  7. What a beautiful Norman Rockwell-ish kind of story! Congratulations Andrea.
    Steve…you are one of a kind! God bless you for all you do for the community. My grandparents Edward and Rebecca Duart were friends of Mr. Cronig many many years ago! God bless!

  8. I wish the new owner well. Hopefully she’ll cater more to islanders and not the summer folk that Steve served with his high prices. Looking forward to a new supermarket that everyday islanders can enjoy.

  9. Our Island is so fortunate to have purpose-driven people like Steve. We thank Steve and wish Andrea all the best. Andrea, this community will support you!

  10. So happy for you, Steve. Shopping at Cronigs makes my day.
    I hope,
    Andrea, the new owner wii keep the weathervanes on the rooftops. Go girl…I will be there for you as long as my discount lives! Love you always, Steve…Ellie and Philip Fleischman.

  11. To the unanswered question of “What was the purchase price of Cronigs?”, there are indicators out there which can give us a clue.
    In the bitterly fought 2012 divorce battle between Stephen A. Bernier vs. Judith E. Bernier, they each had very different beliefs as to what the business was valued at, in order to divide their marital assets.
    From the case,…
    “Leicester [wife’s expert] opined that the fair market value of the supermarkets was $16,391,000; Horvitz [husbands expert] fixed the fair market value at $7,850,000.”
    There continued to be much squabbling over the applicable tax rates to be applied to the Cronigs assets, with no real agreement between the parties as to what the underlying valuation would be based on.
    So, what would be monthly payments on a $16,391,000 plus $$$ for 30 years?
    At 4.25% interest [subject to markets] for 30 years, monthly payments would be $80,678.14. With $12,644,131.17 paid out in interest over the full term.
    Dont expect store prices to decrease anytime soon.
    http://masscases.com/cases/app/82/82massappct81.html

    • Kozak: What difference does it make to you or anybody else for that matter, as to what the selling price was? It aint your business, no way, no how. Just try to be glad it sold the way it did and that a big box retailer or Stop & Shop didn’t come in and obliterate Cronigs from State Street x 2

      • Actually a Stop and Shop would have benefited the consumer a lot more than Cronigs continuing. For those of you harping about the cost of living on MV and how many people can ill afford to do so, a big box store alleviates that big time. It makes a big difference MacLeod because most of these posting are heralding Bernier without having any idea of what the store sold for.

  12. All Bernier has done is sell the company on what is known as an ”earn out”. He gets the sale price over time from the companies earnings. She doesnt have the money to buy it outright and as an employee and advisor he will still be calling the shots to make sure the company continues to succeed. An ”earn out” is usually unwise because the new buyer doesnt run the company properly and the seller doesnt get paid the value of the sell price. Better to get your money upfront. Not questioning his motivation but there is huge risk unless he has other covenants in the agreement to protect him.

    • Did you read the part in the article about transitional mentorship?

      The thrust of the story is that Steve is choosing community character over the highest bidder , of course there is some risk involved, but he feels confident he is handing the ship off in good hands

  13. Congrats Andrea! Thank you Steve. A job very well done. So happy for you both. I have a lot of gratitude for all the work you have done for our island community.

  14. Absolutely a beautiful development and story. Finally a Vineyard story I can feel good about!! Thank you one and all. All the more reason to continue shopping there. So happy for everyone involved. Mr. Bernier you are a good and decent man with respect and love of the island. May you have health, peace and happiness.

  15. Mister Bernier- This tale of Cronigs is so terrific and inspiring that I cannot bring myself to call you just Steve, it definitely deserves a Mister Bernier. I applaud your decision and all the great work you have put in over the years. The coup de gras is that you are making sure that people always remember how to spell “INTEGRITY” ! Nothing but best wishes as you go forth from here.
    Gregory B.

  16. Big Smile here — and I hope you’ll still occasionally come and sweep the parking lot for old times’ sake, Steve, so I can waylay you for a chat! Andrea, we’re lucky to have you there… and don’t forget to bring back the bulk bins!

  17. To the few letters saying that the money is more important “up front” and that prices won’t go down: You obviously aren’t from here and you just don’t get it!!! This is an act of caring and faith for the community, which “money people” just don’t get!!! I feel sad for you and your families. Thank you, Steve, and best of luck, Andrea. I do not know you but hope that I will someday.

    • Ms Kugler, you have no knowledge of the price the supermarket was sold for. You simply know it was sold to an employee and since Bernier is staying on it is a safe assumption it was sold as an earn out. You have no way of knowing if he discounted the price or he got fair market value. All I have said is that earn outs are risky because the buyer may default later on. I assume Bernier protected himself from default by a collateral agreement that the store reverts to him in case of a default. What exactly is this ”act of caring” for the community. Please defiine.

  18. We live in a day and age that story like this is hard to find! Congratulations to you all!!! May God bless you all!!! I love this island we all call HOME!!!

  19. Wow! What a delightful story…there is trust in humankind! Cronig’s has been a staple for my entire life, a known enterprise, and it is good to know it will remain so.

  20. This is a wonderful transaction, and such a great opportunity for Andrea. Steve Bernier didn’t have to do this, he could have gone for fast cash, and surely would have gotten it. Congratulations to both of you.

  21. Steve and Constance set the bar . Thank you for your heart and souls . You have never ever said no to me when asking for a worthy donation . Steve , I hope you and the family enjoyed some well deserved vacation in a place that has a local grocery store as good as Cronigs .

  22. Another great example of what makes this place so very special. It’s easy to talk about community, but giving up millions to ensure the community is best served, wow. Well done Steve!

  23. Say you ain’t leavin’ Steven!
    A total class act and another example of
    what makes this island community so special.
    Your name is on so many benefactor lists of island non-profits
    And boy did you give us a shot in the arm during those
    bleak winter months of the pandemic
    Thanks for all you’ve done for this community

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