John Persons has served since 2016 as president of Tops Friendly Markets, and his career with the Williamsville, N.Y.-based supermarket chain spans nearly four decades. In a conversation with Winsight Grocery Business, Persons discussed Tops' on-the-ground response to the racially motivated mass shooting that killed 10 people and wounded three additional individuals at a Tops Market in Buffalo, N.Y., on May 14.
In addition to providing free shuttle service for customers daily to a nearby Tops location and working with city and community partners to provide free food and supplies to residents of Buffalo's Masten Park neighborhood, Tops on May 17 announced the creation of the Buffalo 5/14 Survivors Fund in partnership with the National Compassion Fund. All contributions to the fund will go directly to families of the shooting victims as well as those who experienced the trauma of the rampage—Persons estimates that 115 to 125 people were on-site at the time of the shooting.
Tops Markets seeded the fund with $500,000, and as of early Wednesday evening, contributions totaled more than $850,000. (The GoFundMe page can be found here.)
Christine LaFave Grace: You came out on Monday and said that a fund to support survivors was in the works. As Tops was coordinating its immediate, on-the-ground response for associates and within the community, why was it important to get out the message quickly that you were working on a fund for victims' families and for others immediately affected by Saturday's shooting?
John Persons: I think there has been a need for the community at large, for our associates, for the people in the community, for our business partners, there’s been an overwhelming need for—they wanted to help and support us. We had many, many questions about a support fund and a victims fund, a survivors fund. We worked quickly, and we were able to set this up, and I think it’s pretty meaningful—we’ve already seen significant engagement from our partners. We have many partners within the trade, and many of our local business partners have reached out said that support is in the works; we will be supporting [the fund].
It’s certainly been a very difficult few days, but the outpouring of support and honestly the kind words are pretty important. You don’t realize it until there’s such a horrible tragedy like this to understand that people legitimately care and want to be supportive and to help—that’s pretty meaningful.
Can you tell me a little about how this came together on the ground—who was part of initial conversations? How did you connect with National Compassion Fund?
I think I would start by saying that we dedicated the first 24 to 36 hours really toward understanding, “What’s going on with our associates?” We needed to understand how they were physically, how they were emotionally, and once we were able to establish where all the associates were, what was going on with each and every one of them, and had put together a support mechanism and grief counseling and wellness outreach—after we felt we had a good process for our associates, we then turned our attention toward the community.
There are a number of different things we’re doing in the community, but certainly one was establishing a survivors fund. This is horrible to think, but it’s true: Other companies like ours have been in this situation. We had been contact with some of those companies rather quickly to understand what they dealt with and how they worked through it. And one of the things they recommended was reaching out to the National Compassion Fund and working with them quickly to establish a specific fund just for the survivors of that horrible event in Buffalo, and that’s exactly what we did.
The good news is, that organization is really designed just to help companies like us when a tragic event like this happens. It is run by family members of victims of other events. So it’s a cause-driven organization, and they know exactly how to navigate—they’re already an established 501(c)(3) organization, so it was relatively easy for us to establish our fund within theirs. And they’re helping us to navigate it. I would say, importantly, that funds raised in our Buffalo 5/14 Survivors Fund, will go 100% to the survivors, 100% local, and it will be managed by a steering committee that will be completely local, made up of community leaders and business leaders to make sure that the funds are distributed properly to the survivors. We wanted to make sure that everything was local.
When we’re talking about the logistics of this, who has been your point person or who are your point people for handling some of this communication and coordination?
At Tops, Diane Colgan, who is our SVP of marketing, is really the lead for this, and Mike Biehler, who is our chief legal officer—they are really the ones who coordinated setting up the fund and the partnership, and they are the ones who have been working through the details.
As a company leader, when you’re mobilizing a response so quickly, what guides you? What is in the back of your mind?
That’s a good question. The great thing about the team at Tops is we want to do the right thing. We’re really driven by serving our associates, serving each other and serving the community. I know people often say that, and that can seem kind of a trite expression, but honestly, that is true. I’ve seen it play out over these past three days, and all of our executive team, all of our support staff, has just spent hours and hours and hours doing nothing but supporting our fellow associates and making sure the community is served. We have truckloads of food going out to distribution sites in the Jefferson Avenue community; we have counseling for not just our associates but also for the community. These are all things that our staff just did; they just did it organically. No one’s being told to do this; they just wanted to help.
Where were you on Saturday when you learned of the shooting?
Everyone was just living their lives on Saturday, and I happened to be at my son’s college graduation in Alfred, N.Y. My story’s like everyone else’s—they were someplace with their family, with their friends, just living life when they got that tragic call, and immediately we knew what our obligation was and our responsibility was. So we all engaged and came to the aid and the support of our people, the victims and the community.
What comments in the past week have stuck with you?
There has been such an overwhelming outpouring to our call center, to social media, to my phone, texts, emails about how important Tops is to the community, and how important that store, in particular, was to the neighborhood in Buffalo on Jefferson Avenue. What stuck with me was we really are an integral part of the community. We do more than just sell groceries; we’re a center, in many cases, of the neighborhood, and that’s what’s sticking with me right now.