Ex-Produce Clerk Leads Vons Toward the Latino Market : Bill Davila, With Roots in 2 Cultures, Pushes Grocery Giant Into New Age of Specialty Stores

Times Staff Writer

In a group outside a conference room where Vons Cos. President William S. Davila was about to speak, a food industry executive asked his companions: "So, how does he say his name?

"Is it Bill Duh-VIL-a (the Anglicized pronunciation) or Bill DAH-vee-la (the Spanish version)?"

It all depends, Davila explained a few weeks later. A first-generation Mexican-American, Davila says he pronounces his name in Spanish among fellow Latinos and reserves the Anglicized version for others. "I'll respond to either pronunciation," he said. "It does not make any difference to me--I know who I am."

In his nearly four-decade-long climb to the No. 2 spot at Vons, Davila learned that being able to switch gears smoothly between Latino and Anglo cultures has its payoffs. The 56-year-old Los Angeles native has won recognition from the Latino business community and his competitors in the grocery industry. Now, he is trying to lead Vons down the same bicultural path.

During Davila's three-year tenure as president, Vons has opened the first of several Tianguis stores, supermarkets catering directly to Southern California's burgeoning Latino population. At the same time, the 101-year-old grocery company--running neck and neck with Ralphs as the area's largest supermarket chain--has unveiled its Pavilions stores, "upscale warehouse" supermarkets that appeal to shoppers with takeout food counters and a myriad of general merchandise departments.

Tongue-in-Cheek Ad

"We're pushing as hard for the Tianguis as we are for the Pavilions," Davila said. "So, we are taking care of everybody."

And in the latest series of Vons commercials that feature Davila as the company's spokesman, he appears in a tongue-in-cheek Spanish-language ad broadcast on channels aimed at English-speaking viewers. Davila gave the commercial the green light despite fears among some Vons executives who thought that it be would resented by Anglo viewers and customers.

The current batch of Vons commercials--and previous ones featuring Davila--have made his broad face, slicked-back hair and easygoing delivery familiar to Southern California television viewers. The commercials have made it difficult for him to visit a store without customers recognizing his face. In fact, he has been recognized while sitting in his car waiting for traffic lights to change and on the beach in Hawaii.

"They are responding to his credibility," said Bonnie Baruch, a vice president at J. Walter Thompson, Vons' advertising agency. "Bill has been with Vons for 39 years. He is Vons."

Although he admits that he likes the recognition the commercials have brought him, Davila said: "The last thing I want to do is to think of myself as a celebrity. I'm really a grocer."

The commercials do not capture the nervous energy Davila exudes in person. His hands mangle paper clips into metal spaghetti during speeches, and he strides quickly between offices at Vons' El Monte headquarters.

12-Hour Days

Norman McMillan, a supermarket consultant who has worked with Davila, recalls that during visits to stores "he's constantly talking to customers, talking to employees, continually picking up pieces of paper off the floor, darting behind counters and tasting things." Davila, says McMillan, "really lives the food business."

His energy is combined with a passion for competition and winning--nurtured at a young age when he attended a military academy--that at times, Davila

concedes, has been excessive. He recalls feeling like a loser after meetings in which "I didn't get my way," but says he now obtains satisfaction from compromise.

A self-confessed workaholic who often puts in 12-hour days that begin at 7 a.m., Davila said: "I like to work under pressure. I want things done and I want them done fast. I oftentimes wonder how I am

going to react at a point in time where I decide to (retire and) go fishing. . . . It could be a traumatic shock."

Davila is just as competitive in some of his personal pursuits, such as golf. "He kills the ball, absolutely smashes it," said Jack H. Brown, chairman of Stater Bros. supermarkets. "Bill Davila works hard and he plays hard."

Davila's long career at Vons started in 1948 when, with the help of a family friend, he landed an after-school job at a now-closed Vons store at the intersection of Crenshaw Boulevard and Santa Barbara Avenue (now Martin Luther King Boulevard). He swept floors in the produce section for $1.10 an hour.

"My goal in those days was to one day become a produce manager," he said. "I thought if I could become a produce manager, I would have really reached a very lofty level." He became a produce manager in 1955.

Davila not only found his career in the supermarket aisles, he also met his wife of 35 years, Dorothy, there, too. "I wrote down her telephone number one day on an orange wrapper," he recalled. "That's how our romance started." The Davilas have raised five children and make their home in Arcadia.

In 1959, Davila, who never completed college and longed for more business experience, checked out of Vons' supermarkets and into its advertising department, which he eventually headed. After serving in numerous posts in various departments, Davila was appointed president in 1984.

Since then, Vons has been purchased from its corporate parent, Household International, for $750 million by a group of investors that included current Vons Chairman Roger E. Stangeland. Vons became a publicly owned company earlier this year.

While Stangeland has attended to financial matters, Davila, who made about $340,000 in salary and bonuses last year, has tended to day-to-day operations. "I think his mark on Vons has been his professional ability that was very necessary while the bankers and investment people were working on the company," Brown, the Stater Bros. chief, said.

Pleased with most of the decisions he has made in life, Davila nevertheless wishes that he had developed a larger circle of friends outside the food industry. "I would have liked to have been able to find something, somebody, somewhere . . . and have different conversations and talk about different things," he said.

Still, he shows no sign that he has tired of the supermarket business or that he intends to slow his hectic pace. "There's always something you can be doing better," he said. "The day that we think we have arrived is the day that we have taken our first step backward."

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