Jim Hiller, chief executive officer of Hiller’s Markets, believes in helping his customers through hard economic times without compromising on quality and is widely respected for his charitable giving. He is a mover and a shaker who has strong convictions of responsibility. His “Buy Michigan” campaign has endeared him to the communities he serves. The company’s philosophy encompasses tailoring its business around customer’s needs. Hiller’s is the place for those whose “must haves” range from the conventional to the most obscure. They have rows of items for any lifestyle, including gluten-free, diabetic, vegan, Kosher, and even British and Asian foods, along with speciality fare. Apart from his immersion in business and charitable causes, Hiller has two avid past times. He has been a passionate sailor since 1973 and an amateur astronomer all his life. “I have a house full of telescopes,” he said. “I love the stars and have been an amateur astronomer since I was a little boy.” Hiller owns and harbors a classic Contessa 32 British sailboat. “It was hand-built — it’s lovely and still seaworthy,” he said.
How long have you owned Hiller’s Markets?
JH: My family has owned Hiller’s Markets since before they were Hiller’s Markets, when they were Shopping Center Markets. We began the company in 1941. I took the company over in 1990 and I’m proud to say I now have a son in the business, so we’re in our third generation of Hillers.
Tell us how Hiller’s came to fruition. Where was the first store?
JH: The first store was on Michigan Avenue and Central in Detroit, the old Polish area of Detroit, and our very first store opened in 1941. My father was a meat salesman and he met a gentleman named Weldon Moody who owned a little store and the two of them hit it off and decided to open a store as partners. They did that in 1941 and they continued as partners until Weldon passed away in 1971.
Where are your locations?
JH: We currently have a store in Berkley; at Maple Road and Orchard Lake (West Bloomfield); one at Union Lake in Commerce; at Haggerty Road and 14 Mile (West Bloomfield); at Haggerty Road and 5 Mile; one at Center Street in Northville; one in Ann Arbor, and very soon one in South Lyon.
How have you survived the competition?
JH: By running a better super market.
How do you keep your prices down?
JH: Of course that’s very challenging and the answer to that is you need to have sufficient volume so that when you buy you can buy in enough quantity and negotiate good prices. But with Hiller’s, while price is important, the primary focus is the very finest quality. Quality doesn’t come necessarily at the cheapest price, but what we offer is impeccable quality in every part of our store and in those items that we compare with other super markets, I think we compare very nicely, but you come to Hiller’s because Hiller’s has everything.
What makes Hiller’s a unique place to shop?
JH: I’ll give you an example — most super markets, even really good ones, will have about 12,000 items in the store. In our store at Haggerty Road and 14 Mile, we have 75,000 items.
Tell us how you contribute to the local farmers in Michigan?
JH: We have determined, and I think it’s an interesting finding, that when we buy products from around the country, the cost of freight very often offsets the less expensive initial cost of the product. When we encourage local source products — and we sell products from all around the state — we are able to reduce the freight costs to the point that even if the farmer is making a little more money on the product, we are able to sell it for less. So by locally sourcing and supporting local business we are able to eliminate freight, which in this time because of the cost of fuel, is a very sizable part of the price of items. That’s why when you come into Hiller’s you will see as many as 1,000 to 2,000 Michigan items at any given time.
Tell us about “clean eating” and how Hiller’s delivers on this back-to-nature concept?
JH: Well that’s a wonderful question. So the so-called slow food or clean food movement involves a return to the most basic and unprocessed elements of food. That ties very nicely into of our use of locally sourced items because they tend to be done in smaller amounts. For example, we buy yak meat from yaks raised in Northville from a lady named Casey Kelley. She also grows heritage breed turkeys, from turkeys never seen on this earth for a couple hundred years. These are things that hearken back to a time if much simpler foods and unprocessed foods. For a multiple of reasons, Hiller’s has begun to specialize in these kinds of products.
You held the Healthy Living Fare in October. Tell us about it and the goal in rolling out such an event?
JH: I think that a significant role that a very community-oriented store like Hiller’s plays is informational. We do many of these types of events where we introduce our customers to different styles of eating and to different products. We hold many gluten-free events, Made in Michigan events, and this is just one of those envelopes that we encourage customers to participate in.
Likewise, in August, you launched the new Hometown Showcase program. What does this entail?
JH: This is an age of entrepreneurship. So many people have lost their jobs and have decided to become entrepreneurial. What we are doing is offering a place for new ideas, for a product they have invented, a book they’ve written, a service they’re providing. In our Hometown Showcase we’re giving them an opportunity, at no cost, to bring that product into Hiller’s and have contact with our customers. I’m proud to say that we’ve launched quite a number of books. We recently had an electric scooter, and we’ve got new types of bicycles — just a veritable palette of products and services, and this is the name of this initiative.
Another way you give back to Michigan includes the Hunger Free Summer Campaign benefiting Gleaners Community Food Bank and Forgotten Harvest. Was that a success, and how so?
JH: It was a success, but not as much as I had hoped. My plan is that we’re going to be partnering with Gleaners again for a full court press. I am very involved personally with Gleaners and very committed to Gleaners. When I learned that three-quarters of a million children in Michigan go to bed hungry I decided to do everything possible and to involve Hiller’s in every way in helping to reduce that dreadful and frightening statistic.
Apart from local food pantries, you also help out non-profits and personal causes. Please share some of them and why being charitable is so important to you.
JH: It’s an interesting thing how in life a small thing can turn into a very profound part of your life. Many years ago, and I wasn’t always in this business, I was a lawyer and was with a prominent, old law firm in Detroit and I traveled to New York on a case. I was sitting in a courtroom of a federal judge and there on his desk was a sign that said, “We started out to do good and we’re doing very well.” That stuck with me. As time went on and as my business began to do a bit better, I came to see that part of the responsibility of being in the community and being a successful part of the community is to invest yourself every way you can. We began some years ago establishing a research fund at the University of Michigan to study Lou Gehrig’s disease. We created the ALS Center at Wayne State University. We’re involved constantly with different organizations and different groups because I think that is the responsibility we have to the people who support us.
Obviously your charitable reputation has been noticed. You received Wayne State University’s Ambassador Award in 2009 for your world-class vision, leadership and outstanding service, and your dedication to the community. What other awards have you received?
JH: I’m a little uncomfortable talking about the awards I’ve received. What I’d rather talk about is how dedicated I am to the state of Michigan. Rick Snyder is someone I know and support. Before I agreed to support him, I made him promise that every morning when he gets up and he looks in the mirror to shave he will say, “What can I do to keep Jimmy’s three sons in the state of Michigan for their entire lives?” I really think that all of us need to look at our obligation to our community because the future is within our hands. Michigan is the greatest place in the world to live and it is only by putting ourselves back and giving back to the state that we are going to accomplish the destiny that we all have, which is to make Michigan a great place to live again.
With the holidays fast approaching, are there any specialty products you carry?
JH: We are trying to feature lots of local products this year. In terms of the holidays, we have some magnificent heritage breed turkeys being raised for Hiller’s now. We have lots of specialized cakes and lots of interesting ethnic products for the holidays because not everyone celebrates the holidays alike. Yes, we have a multitude of interesting and unusual items, so many that it would be difficult to list them. I would only encourage people to walk through a Hiller’s to see why we are different.
Is this your busiest season? If yes, then how so?
JH: It is. In this quarter of the year people tend to be cooking and entertaining the most, so yes we sure are busy right now and it’s wonderful to see the activity this year as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday. I’m juts leaving the store now and seeing how many people are looking forward to their families and friends and community enterprises. It’s an exciting time of year.
Your gutsy move to pull cigarettes from your stores was rewarded in 2009 when you were named a Hometown Health Hero. What was the impetus for doing that and did you receive some backlash from the community?
JH: Yes, I did receive some backlash, but in a span of 8 months I lost a number of friends to lung cancer, and all of them were smokers. One of them on his deathbed said, “Jimmy, if cigarettes weren’t available people wouldn’t die from it.” I decided that day that whatever the financial impact, Hiller’s would stop buying cigarettes. We don’t sell any tobacco products. I understand people have the right to them, but I have the right to not sell them. It’s the same thing that has driven me to require every person who buys an alcoholic beverage to provide a picture ID. The person can be 90-years-old, but I demand to see ID so I know who I’m selling to and so they are accountable to make sure people don’t buy for young people who shouldn’t have alcohol.
Did you lose money because of it?
This year Hiller’s started stocking the shelves with books about the environment for kids. What prompted that move?
JH: Again, it’s part of our responsibility to our community. We don’t just sell things, we provide information. I think that part of our responsibility is to make it available so people learn about the environment they live in. We encourage low-sodium products, we have a lot of gluten-free products, a lot of low-fat products, a lot of products that fit into diabetic diets. I think that education is just part of that and who better to educate than children.
Tell us how diving into social media has helped your business grow?
JH: I’m not sure that I can demonstrate a palpable change in business growth, but I think it’s an interesting way to communicate and one I’m personally involved in and enjoy. I have made a lot of contacts through Facebook for our company — a lot of communications and information. So while I think that it may not be possible demonstratively to say it has economic value, it certainly has a value in the sense that it communicates with people and communication may be a reward in itself.