Bill Davila, the Vons supermarket executive catapulted to near-celebrity status by his television and radio pitches, now faces one of his trickiest public relations jobs yet: He wants to assure people that he isn't being pushed out of his job.
The supermarket industry has been rife with speculation over last week's announcement that Davila, 58, will take early retirement in April, 1992. Davila's associates say he has long made no secret about wanting to retire around age 60, but some supermarket industry executives were surprised about the speed with which many of his key duties are being given to the company's new chief operating officer, Dennis K. Eck.
Davila, who retains the title of Vons Cos. president, acknowledges some concern that people will think he was forced to take a demotion. He and others close to the company insist that isn't the case. Still, Davila said that sort of false impression could undermine his plans to play a bigger role in Los Angeles' Latino community upon his retirement and could create the appearance of "a void" in that community's business leadership.
"There's been no forcing out or anything else. I'm sure Roger (Vons Chairman Roger E. Stangeland) would love me to stay longer," Davila said.
His eventual retirement, Davila added, will be "good for our people . . . I'll have more time. I'll be able to do more for the Hispanic community."
For Vons, Davila's image is important, too. Company officials are taking great pains to make sure that they don't damage the credibility of a man who has become a hugely popular spokesman for their stores and who has agreed to continue in that role after retiring. Even since appearing in his well-received first commercial about five years ago ("I'm not an actor, I'm a grocer."), Davila has personally symbolized Vons in the minds of many shoppers.
But 42 years after starting at Vons as a floor sweeper, East Los Angeles-bred William S. Davila says he has come to a point in his life where he wants to have more time to devote to social causes.
He said his main goal is to act as a role model to inspire minority youths, and he plans to speak at schools and community centers to champion the virtues of "education, assuming responsibility and improving one's position in life."
"I want to see these values built up in the next generation of people coming forward," said Davila, who himself has no college education.
Davila, never before active politically, also said he might want to run for public office or, more likely, use his influence to help the candidacies of "business-minded" political hopefuls.
While Davila maintains his high public profile, Vons officials plan to support his image by emphasizing that he will remain on Vons' board and serve as its commercial spokesman indefinitely.
"We are focused on having the public and employees understand why Bill is seeking early retirement and that he is continuing (with the company) and that it's not a demotion for him," said Mary M. McAboy, Vons' director of investor relations and corporate communications.
Some public relations specialists doubt that many customers will even be aware that Davila is heading toward retirement. Perhaps more important, they say, will be assuring employees that Davila isn't being shoved out the door.
He is well-liked among Vons workers, and is known as an executive who enjoys walking the aisles of his stores. Jack Ackroyd, advertising director for Hughes Markets, marveled over seeing Davila recently with his sleeves rolled up at a Vons store, actually judging a bagging contest rather than "just acting as a celebrity."
"That's the kind of guy Bill is," Ackroyd said.
To industry executives, the most puzzling part of Vons' management change was why Davila's retirement plans were announced two years in advance. Some say the retirement announcement, together with Eck assuming responsibility for such crucial areas as merchandising and buying, is turning Davila into a lame duck.
Why was it handled that way? "To hire the quality executive we were looking for, we needed to be candid about what the opportunity was," Stangeland explained.
Stangeland said he wanted to ensure an orderly transition and to pave the way for Eck, 47, to eventually become Vons' president and, ultimately, its chairman. Davila was not regarded as a likely successor to Stangeland, who at age 60 is less than two years older than Davila and who has given no sign of stepping down soon.
Other industry insiders suggested that Davila has been diverted from his administrative duties by his time-consuming role in Vons' advertising campaigns and his frequent public speaking engagements. Meanwhile, Vons posted losses of $28.1 million over the 40-week period ended Oct. 8, a consequence of the heavy debts and complicated logistics of a 1988 deal in which the company acquired 162 Safeway stores in Southern California and Nevada.
Taken together, those developments may have convinced Stangeland that Vons needed another top-level executive to run daily operations and hold down costs, industry sources say.
Vons executives say they expect Eck, who joined the El Monte-based company as vice chairman and chief operating officer, to provide needed expertise in what they call the drugstore side of their business. Eck, who quit as vice chairman of American Stores to take the Vons job, was executive vice president of American's Sav-On Drugs chain in Southern California in 1983-84.
Eck also will eventually oversee a stepped-up expansion campaign by Vons. Still the No. 1 supermarket chain in Southern California with a market share of roughly 25%, Vons opened a relatively scant six new locations last year and is expected to open only four more this year while it concentrates on absorbing the former Safeway stores.
By 1992, Stangeland said, Vons should be back to opening more than 10 stores a year.
Among the few operational responsibilities that Eck won't assume soon are marketing and advertising. They will remain Davila's turf--for good reason, industry observers say.
Davila "has a quality that makes him at one with the customers," said Scott A. Tagliarino, senior vice president for the Fleishman Hillard public relations firm in Los Angeles.
"If he was no longer the spokesman," Tagliarino added, "they'd have a hard time bringing in someone else who has as much credibility."