CEO of the Week: H-E-B’s Charles C. Butt

Charles C. Butt, 82, is the longstanding chairman and CEO of the 115-year-old family-owned grocery store chain H-E-B, renamed after his father, Howard E. Butt.

Now based in San Antonio, the grocer was founded in Kerrville, Texas in 1905 by Charles’ grandmother, Florence Butt, in the name of her ailing husband, C.C. Butts Grocery Store. In the 1920s, her youngest son Howard took over and began to expand with stores in several additional Texas locations.

Charles began working in the stores in the 1940s at age 8, bagging groceries. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from University of Pennsylvania Wharton School and then an MBA from Harvard Business School, he joined the company full-time. In 1971, Charles assumed the top posts, and H-E-B’s expansion really took off.

Today, there are more than 400 stores in Texas and Mexico, with 120,000-plus employees, making the company the largest private employer in the Lone Star State. With 2019 sales of $28 billion, H-E-B was ranked No. 11 on Forbes’ 2019 list of “America’s Largest Private Companies.”

The company has five retail brands: general H-E-B grocery stores; Central Market, an upscale urban market that includes an organic and international food selection; H-E-B Plus!, stores with an expanded focus on non-food categories, such as entertainment and other general merchandise; Mi Tienda, which sells Mexican baked goods, and also houses a tortilleria, a carniceria and the Cocina Mexican restaurant; and Joe V’s Smart Shop, a brand featuring discount items modeled after discount grocer Aldi.

H-E-B also operates several manufacturing facilities in Texas, including one of the largest milk- and bread-processing plants in the Southwest. In addition, the company in 2018 acquired Favor Delivery, the Austin-based on-demand delivery service.

In 1997, Charles told Wharton Alumni Magazine that “the most important place a retailer can be is in the store. That’s where you can speak with customers personally and learn about their changing needs.”

In 2005, the year of the company’s 100th anniversary, Charles discussed with Supermarket News the struggles his father had unsuccessfully trying to launch a second store four times until one finally took hold.

“I understood his frustration in those early years, and his exhilaration and pride when he got things moving — that’s been valuable learning for me,” Charles said. “The lesson is that you have to hang in there. Eventually, things go in a good direction.”

Charles is also a lifelong philanthropist.

“My mother always had great concern for social issues in our community,” he said. “She was a great advocate of improvements in health care, education, recreation, et cetera. So, thanks to my father and mother, I developed an appreciation for both business and community.”

In 2001, the Mexican government awarded Charles the Aguila Azteca medal for his philanthropic involvement and business dealings in Mexico. In 2017, Charles established The Holdsworth Center, investing $100 million of his personal wealth to create a nonprofit leadership institute for Texas public school administrators. Also that year, he pledged $50 million to the Raising Texas Teachers scholarship fund to support the training of Texas public school teachers.

“Research consistently shows that the strength of the teacher makes the biggest difference in influencing a student’s success,” Butt said at the time. “To improve academic achievement, it is critical that Texas elevate the status of the teaching profession, strengthen the existing pool of aspiring teachers, and inspire our most talented high school graduates to consider a career in teaching.”

 

Headquarters: San Antonio

Age: 82

Education: bachelor’s degree, University of Pennsylvania Wharton School; MBA, Harvard Business School

First joined company: 1946 at age 8; 1959 full-time after college

Prior to joining Butt Grocery: N/A

Named CEO: 1971

 

He’s No. 122 on Chief Executive and RHR International’s CEO1000 Tracker, a ranking of the top 1,000 public/private companies