Stickin’ With the Pig:

A Tale of Loyalty and Loss

Here’s a story I did for The Post and Courier about the rise and fall of Piggly Wiggly Carolina

BY TONY BARTELME

You were more than an employee. You were an owner.

From bagger to president, that’s what you told each other at The Pig.

Work harder, and your company will grow.

Work longer, and you’ll have more for your retirement.

Work because you own shares of something big — larger even than the warehouse off Interstate 26, so spacious you could cram 10 football fields of groceries inside: Piggly Wiggly Carolina. Homegrown. One of the largest employee-owned companies in America. Local since forever.

Until forever ended.

Like so many relationships, it happened slowly. The foundation began to erode: furloughs, cuts in benefits, a separation from what worked — a comfortable company that took care of employees and knew its customers.

Then, the cracks for all to see: the sale of 28 stores in 2013 to Harris Teeter and Bi-Lo — even the flagship, Pig №1 on downtown Charleston’s Meeting Street. Then more sales of stores, more fractures, until nothing was left but dust and anger.

A Southern icon — gone forever.

A lost relationship spawns questions: Why did it fail? What did we miss? And the story of Piggly Wiggly Carolina triggers a flood because its history is so rich and the grocery industry’s currents are so treacherous. Its loss also hits bone because it affected so many people — thousands of employee-owners and the multitudes of shoppers with memories of their local stores with the lovable name.

And it comes amid the backdrop of failures like the collapse of employee-owned companies such as Enron and RadioShack, and on a wider scale, the weakened, underfunded and frozen pension plans of so many other businesses — changes that have left millions of people questioning how they’ll make it during retirement.

But, in The Pig’s case, answers can be found in foot-thick reams of pages of public and internal Piggly Wiggly Carolina audits, notices, lawsuits and other documents.

They reveal how heirs of the founder, Joseph T. Newton Jr., cashed in during the company’s heyday and reaped millions more during its death spiral. They show how senior executives, including descendants of the founder, put themselves ahead of employees even as they urged them to work harder — work harder because they were a family of owners.

And more answers are found in the memories of these former employee-owners, including many who experienced the company’s rise and fall. More than 50 were interviewed for this story: stockers, drivers, store operators and executives. These were people who, together, spent more than 1,000 years working for the company and talk about it like a family breakup.

“You gave everything for The Pig,” says one of them, Joe Pinto, who managed the refrigeration, heating and air-conditioning department, a grocery chain’s heart and lungs. A stocky and intense man in his early 60s, Pinto spent nearly 40 years with Piggly Wiggly Carolina.

“It’s heartbreaking because the people who got hurt the most are the people who made the least amount of money — the cashiers, baggers, cooks, the people who worked for 40 years over a hot stove, people making barely over minimum wage. And we put this carrot over their head: Do it because you’re an owner. You’ll have something for your retirement. And then we snatched it from them. You don’t do that to family. You don’t hurt family.

“So, it’s not about money,” he says, his throat tightening like a fist. “It’s about betrayal.”

For the rest of the story, please visit The Post and Courier here.