One of these days, Laura Dierberg-Padousis vows she’s going to find the time to learn how to cook. For now, her only ‘specialty’ is macaroni and cheese. You see, even though she’s a member of one of the prestigious grocery family names in St. Louis, she’s been a little busy since she graduated from Villa Duchesne in ’93.
Dierberg-Padousis is a key part of the fourth generation of Dierbergs to work in the grocery business: Her dad, Bob, is the chairman of the company; her oldest brother, Greg, is the CEO; another brother, Brian, is moving into management; and she’s the VP and secretary. She and her husband, ophthalmologist Dr. Jeffrey Padousis, have two sons (ages 11 and 5), and an 8-year-old daughter.
There are soccer games and dance classes, basketball practice, piano lessons, and, of course, lots and lots of homework. It’s understandable that along with being a top executive, Dierberg-Padousis just doesn’t have a lot of time to cook. “I knew we were a bit different when my daughter had a friend over for the night, and in the morning, the friend asked, Are you going to make pancakes? And I said, You mean the frozen kind?" She laughs as she explains that her career reminds her husband of the tale of the cobbler’s son. “The cobbler’s son doesn’t have any shoes,” she explains. “My husband kids me that for being a grocer’s daughter, he’s always disappointed with the lack of food in our house!”
But that’s how it works in a lot of family-run businesses. The Dierberg kids started working in stores before they were even teenagers, ‘shagging’ carts for Dad in the parking lots, then working as clerks in the video centers and stocking vegetables on the produce shelves. Bob did the same thing when he worked for his father and uncle; and they did the same thing for their father, William, who bought a store on Olive Boulevard in Creve Coeur, where he started selling groceries. The roots of that original store date back to 1854.
Today, Dierbergs has 25 stores and more than 4,000 employees. In the past year, the company opened an ultra-modern grocery center in Des Peres, complete with a parking garage and a shopping-cart escalator. The family also opened another ‘mega-store’ in Osage Beach, their first venture outside the immediate St. Louis metro area. But the company also is known for supporting other local businesses and distributors.
Dierberg-Padousis insists the company still is as much of a local, family-run business as ever. “I think that my dad sets the tone for a very healthy working environment—we enjoy working with him and we enjoy what we do,” she says. “We are frank when we need to be, but we are good listeners, as well; and we make sure that we are attentive to each other so we don’t get into the family squabbles you can get in business.”
Her CEO brother, Greg, also has three children, and is becoming the on-camera face of the company in television commercials. Brother Brian recently moved back home from Portland, and is spending much of his time learning more about the operational side of the business.
Along with Straub’s and Schnucks, Dierbergs is one of the three longstanding, family-run grocery-store chains in St. Louis. Dierberg-Padousis believes that ‘the big three’ make the St. Louis area unique. “I don’t know of another city that has this kind of situation,” she notes. “I think St. Louis is fortunate to have three family-owned grocers. When our customers move out of town, we get letters telling us how much they miss their Dierbergs, and that makes us feel good.”
In recent years, the most intense competitive pressure hasn’t come from the other locally owned stores, according to Dierberg-Padousis. Rather, it has come from the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart. “It’s a tough market,” she admits. “Wal-Mart delivered quite a blow to the St. Louis area, but the family grocers have clawed their way back and regained the market share that was lost.”
At the heart of the grocer’s business success is still that Dierberg family tradition. Dierberg-Padousis says mom Sharon is a big part of the glue that holds it all together. On Nov. 30, Sharon and Bob Dierberg will mark their 45th wedding anniversary. And on Christmas Eve, the family will gather at the Padousis home. In case you’re wondering, the lady of the house assures us that meal will come from the cooks at a Dierbergs store kitchen. “Maybe one day, I’ll be a good cook—I just need more time.”
On Christmas Day, it will be Sharon’s turn to host the family get-together, in which she’ll personally prepare a traditional holiday feast with all the trimmings. Her daughter remains hopeful that she’ll be asked to contribute. “Maybe (Mom) will let me bring the mac and cheese.”
A native St. Louisan, Brown is a lifelong journalist, and previously served as a broadcaster for KMOX and KTRS radios and ABC 30. His Paul Brown Media specializes in public and media relations.