For decades, Wegmans has been its own economic force, but several years ago Danny Wegman, the company’s chairman, took on an even more expansive role in the Rochester community.
He became the co-chair on the government-inspired group behind the Finger Lakes Forward initiative, which competes each year for state money that is then leveraged to bring in more jobs.
Finger Lakes Forward is credited with breathing new life into the Eastman Business Park and providing seed money for hundreds of local ventures.
In a wide-ranging interview with Danny Wegman, Adam Chodak asked him about his 6 years co-chairing the local effort.
“It’s been fascinating to watch the process. In the first year we thought the competition was a bad thing and I wrote the governor and said, ‘Everything is good, but let’s not do the competition’ and he wrote back and said, ‘No, I love competition’ and I became a real believer in that because it’s causing people to do things that they normally wouldn’t do because they want to win the competition,” he said.
Wegman says Finger Lakes Forward divides the area into “ecosystem” that link related businesses and groups.
“It started out with optics, photonics and imaging being one of those areas, agriculture and food production being another one and advanced manufacturing being a third,” Wegman said. “It’s a matter of putting the pieces together and what piece is missing, what could it do for the whole group, so that’s kind of how we’re looking at this.”
This type of economic development has its critics who say the government should not be betting on certain companies over others.
To prove their point, some point to Müller Quaker Dairy plant in Batavia which received millions of dollars in state funding to open in 2013, but closed 2 years later.
In response, Wegman said, “Well, let’s say you didn’t pick American Packaging (a company that expanded in Western New York) and they went somewhere else, how would you feel about that? Maybe it costs us a couple million dollars at Muller’s, but we’ve got a $200 million dollar project coming in, so if you want to sit on the sideline and do nothing and just plain lose, OK. I don’t want to do that. I want to win. I want our region to win and that’s why we’re working hard to make this happen.”
We also asked Wegman about the possibility of Whole Foods setting up shop on Monroe Avenue in Brighton.
The developer of that property, Danny Daniele, has accused Wegmans of working behind the scenes to scuttle the project.
“Not at all,” Wegman retorted. “Obviously, we want another competitor coming in here like rain on a wedding, but we don’t care if they’re here, we don’t think Monroe Avenue can handle any more traffic, we think that’s a bad spot for a retailer to be and we’ve been public about that, we don’t think it’s a good spot.”
In March, Wegman stepped out of his role at CEO of Wegmans and named his daughter, Colleen, as his successor.
“She’s good. She’s better than me so why shouldn’t I do it? I’m lucky. I mean, that was a lot of work that went into that succession planning and fortunately it came out great. She started going around to stores with me when she was 5 years old and I’m just glad she loved the business and I’m glad she’s good at it. I’m just in a happy place. I planned it for many years, it was just a matter of time. I turned out to be 70, that was my time. And I’ll still be here, but she’s CEO,” Wegman said.