H-E-B’s Group Vice President Hugh Topper Announces His Retirement After 40 Years in the Industry
SAN ANTONIO, TX - You often hear that the produce industry is not for the faint of heart. From Mother Nature’s desire to keep us on our toes to the rapidly evolving consumer buying behaviors that shift demands–there is an energy and gravity specific only to fresh produce. And that is why Hugh Topper, H-E-B’s Group Vice President, loves it so much.
“Back in my early days as a produce buyer, I had a friend on the grocery desk who was upset when he took on a cookie line with only six months of shelf-life,” Hugh tells me, tapping into that excitement that makes our industry unique. “He didn’t know how I could sleep at night. The thought of six months of shelf-life bored me. I still love walking into work not knowing everything I will face that day.”
As Hugh winds down his successful 40-year career in fresh produce this coming January, the industry veteran shares the deep connection he has to agriculture, what has kept his passion alive, and the path that brought him to where he thrives today.
“Having grown up in agriculture, I wanted to spend my career in some form of the industry. During my school years, I would never have thought it would be in produce and the retail grocery industry,” Hugh tells me. “Once I got started, I was hooked. There are things about this industry that have always excited me, from the first days when I started to the industry today.”
First and foremost for Hugh, his excitement for the industry has always been about the people—the relationships that have created a foundation not only for his company’s growth, but his own personal evolution as well.
“I get to deal with everyone from owners of large farming and processing operations to local growers whose livelihood is dependent on their 30 acres,” he says, adding that although the situations are quite different, there are also a lot of similarities. “Everyone is dependent on Mother Nature and other factors out of their control. In the end, everyone is a farmer. The relationship component in fresh produce also encapsulates the amazing people at retail, from buyers to retail produce managers. Some of H-E-B’s longest tenured department managers are the produce managers. It seems once you are in produce, you never want to leave.”
Hugh also loves the pace of change in this industry. You never sit still for long. For Hugh, whether it is innovation, product quality, supplies, transportation, or technology, there are no other areas of the retail grocery business that change as fast.
“Lastly, I think I still love the product,” he smiles. “There is nothing better than walking a field, packing shed, DC, or retail store’s produce department. Knowing that produce is a living and breathing thing, and that it only has a limited life is exciting. I recently spent some time in our DC with a group of younger folks starting their career, and I shared with them that this is still so fun for me, simply opening boxes and looking at product. I guess when you know what it took to get product planted, grown, harvest, packed and shipped, it has a special meaning to you.”
Hugh has had an amazing career in retail and one that has traversed many areas of fresh produce. And it all started in Oklahoma at a local IGA store before school and on the weekends. Hugh grew up on a cattle ranch but continued to work retail through high school and college, graduating from Oklahoma State University with a degree in Agricultural Economics.
“Growing up in Ag, I wanted a career in this field but was not thinking about produce at the time. I did the college recruiting sessions, and was recruited by Fleming Foods with the support of the IGA owner I had worked for during school. I hit it off with the VP of Produce and that’s how I started my professional career in produce,” Hugh reflects.
He spent 10 years with Fleming Foods, working in Topeka, Kansas; Kansas City, Missouri; Salinas, California; and San Antonio, Texas. While with Fleming, Hugh worked in several areas, but was always drawn back to produce. While working in the San Antonio Division of Fleming, he spent five years serving retailers who competed against H-E-B, so when H-E-B approached Hugh about joining its buying office, he jumped at the opportunity.
“At that time, I only knew them by reputation, but I loved San Antonio and knew H-E-B was a great retailer,” Hugh says. “For me, the fit was perfect.”
Hugh started with H-E-B on the buying desk and worked his way through all the commodities. From the buying desk, he moved to Director of Procurement leading all procurement, pricing, and promotional functions. From Director, Hugh was promoted to VP of Procurement and eventually VP of Produce. While leading produce, he had the opportunity to work with H-E-B’s Central Market Division for a couple of years as their Chief Merchant.
“I continued to lead produce as VP during this time and commuted weekly from San Antonio to Dallas to work both roles,” Hugh tells me. “It was a great opportunity to learn the entire store. When I left the Central Market role and resumed my full-time responsibilities with H-E-B, I moved to Group VP of Fresh and added some incremental departments to my responsibilities.”
As Hugh prepares to retire from H-E-B, he reflects on his almost 26 years with the company, and 40 years in produce.
“I could not think of a better place to have spent 26 years. H-E-B has a great culture and really empowers its partners. H-E-B has always called its employees ‘partners,’ and with the Butt family offering everyone stock in the company, they really are partners. If partners are doing the right thing for the customers, they are doing the right thing for the company. H-E-B really understands its customers and is constantly working to overdeliver on their expectations. We have always said we have a restless dissatisfaction. For some people that statement is hard to understand, or even work within, but for everyone here, we love it. Every day we challenge each other, as well as ourselves, to make H-E-B the greatest retailing company.”
Congratulations, Hugh, on a successful and incredible career in the industry. We wish you the best on the road ahead!