Steve Bernier is doing something rare for a business owner.
Despite having an established business — two supermarkets and a health food store — that could garner him and his family millions if he were to sell them on the open market, he has chosen to turn over the keys to the business to longtime, dedicated employee Andrea Donnelly. He’ll stay on as an employee and consultant as Donnelly makes the transition.
Here’s how Bernier put it in a conversation with reporter Rich Saltzberg: “How I’ve tried to phrase it to her is, up to the 31st of December, I have the last vote. As of January 1st, she has the last vote.”
It’s quite a story and accomplishment for Donnelly, who started out at Cronig’s as a cashier at the age of 15.
The succession plan is similar to the way Bernier was handed the keys to the business by Robbie Cronig 36 years ago. It was a handshake deal with no purchase and sales agreement. “And 10 years later, he still had the key to the front door and the combination of the safe,” Bernier told us. “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.”
Bernier’s thoughtfulness and community spirit have never been questioned. He told our reporter that the charitable contributions that Cronig’s gives in the community fills 341 lines of an Excel spreadsheet. Employees of Cronig’s tend to stay with the company, which is a nod to a man who always answers a knock at his office door or the ring of his telephone. His sweeping of the parking lot of Cronig’s is so legendary that when he got sick with COVID, a group of community members jumped in and did it for him.
Bernier gets some grief for the prices at Cronig’s, which has more to do with the supply chain and buying power than any perceived greed. He doesn’t get enough credit for the discount program he instituted for Islanders. The discounts are restricted so that people who own more than one home and who have trust funds can’t get them. The idea is to help the people who really need it while making sure the business remains profitable. The discount program shows Bernier’s understanding of the Island economy, and how difficult it is for some people to make a go on the Vineyard because of the cost of living.
Contrast this changing of the guard at Cronig’s with the proposal before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for the EduComp property. Xerxes Aghassipour, a real estate developer who goes by Xerxes Agassi, has secured a purchase and sale agreement to buy the building at 4 State Road in Vineyard Haven from the estate of Pat and Dorothy Gregory.
He proposes tripling the size of the building for a mixed-use development that would consist of retail shops, office space, and residential units, including two affordable apartments.
The developer is looking to squeeze every last penny out of the property with a building that is out of character for the Island, in an area that’s already one of the worst for traffic.
Typically, we discount the comments of abutters as NIMBYism, but in this case Erik Hammarlund hit the nail on the head when he commented at the MVC’s public hearing on the project.
“It’s both inappropriate for the site generally, sets a poor precedent for the town of Vineyard Haven and future development,” Hammarlund said. “It looks like something that would reasonably belong next to a large mill near a factory, but not so much quite next to Veterans Memorial Park.”
The town kicked the tires on the EduComp building for possible temporary school space, but we wonder why they didn’t take a more active interest in it as a possible town hall or even as a public-private partnership that could provide housing but without tripling the size of the building.
Instead, the select board has signed off on the request for increased sewer flow with the condition that the mixed-use development requires MVC approval. In other words, they passed the buck.
We don’t expect everyone to do business the way Bernier is doing it, but what we do expect is that developers are mindful of the place they’re proposing to develop. We should applaud Bernier, and send Agassi back to the drawing board.