Frank Curci’s road to becoming Buffalo’s top grocer had its share of ups and downs.
The veteran grocer has spent more than a third of his supermarket industry career at Tops Markets, rising to the top of the supermarket chain’s executive ranks, before resigning amid an accounting probe. He returned to the top post four years later after recruiting Wall Street investors to buy the company.
And after Thursday’s announcement that Curci and five other high-ranking Tops executives are buying out its Wall Street backers, he is poised to become the lead player in the supermarket’s new ownership group.
It’s something Curci has had his eyes on since long ago, even as long as 2010, when asked how long its majority investors at Morgan Stanley Global Private Equity would hang on to their stake in Tops before cashing out, by either selling the company, refinancing its debt, or taking it public.
“I didn’t just come back here for a two-or-three-year stint,” Curci told The Buffalo News in a 2010 interview. “This was a perfect situation for me.” He declined to comment on Thursday.
Curci, an accountant with an MBA from Rutgers University, first came to Tops in 1995, when the supermarket chain was run by Dutch grocery giant Royal Ahold. He rose through the ranks to become the chain’s president and chief executive officer, but resigned in 2003 amid a probe of accounting irregularities at its U.S. Foodservice business and Tops that also claimed the jobs of several other top Ahold executives.
So Curci packed up and headed to Michigan, where he spent less than a year as a senior vice president at the Farmer Jack chain. He then headed south for a little more than a year as chief operating officer at Alabama-based Southern Family Markets.
But by 2007, Ahold had decided to sell off some of the businesses it considered to be underperforming, and Tops was on the list. Curci approached Morgan Stanley about backing a deal to buy the chain, and by December 2007, the acquisition was completed and Curci was back in his old job as president and CEO.
From there, Curci set out to reverse what grocery analysts and local observers considered to be significant strategic mistakes under Ahold’s watch. While Ahold had tried to run Tops in a centralized fashion, much like they operated their other national chains, Curci reversed course and brought a more local focus to the Buffalo Niagara region supermarkets.
It also more than doubled its store count through the acquisition of Penn Traffic Co. in 2009 and the purchase of 21 Grand Union supermarkets in October 2012. Those deals expanded Tops’ presence in northeastern New York, northern Pennsylvania and western Vermont, while increasing its store count from 71 at the time of the Morgan Stanley deal to 159 stores today.
“It’s business as usual for Tops,” said spokeswoman Katie McKenna. “We very much believe that this Western New York-based management structure is a very positive development for Tops and the communities we serve.”