Bill Davila dies at 82; rose from sweeping floors to president of Vons

While Bill Davila, seen here in 1987, was president of Vons, the supermarket chain opened several Tianguis markets in neighborhoods with large Latino populations.
While Bill Davila, seen here in 1987, was president of Vons, the supermarket chain opened several Tianguis markets in neighborhoods with large Latino populations.
(Los Angeles Times)

Bill Davila, a first-generation Mexican American who worked his way up from sweeping floors at a Vons market to being president of the supermarket chain, knew that some executives in the industry were not sure how to pronounce his last name. Was it the Spanish DAH-vee-la or the Anglicized duh-VIL-a?

Davila, who was also the genial spokesman for Vons in TV and radio commercials, was used to walking in both worlds. “I’ll respond to either pronunciation,” he said in a 1987 Los Angeles Times interview. “It does not make any difference to me.

“I know who I am.”

Davila, 82, died Friday in a convalescent home in Duarte from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his daughter Lisa Franklin.


He was known as a hands-on, gregarious executive who would visit stores to check on operations. “He’s constantly talking to customers, talking to employees, continually picking up pieces of paper off the floor, darting behind counters and tasting things,” supermarket consultant Norman McMillan said in 1987.

Although Davila tangled with some Latino political figures over employment issues, he pushed initiatives during his tenure to boost the company’s standing among Latino consumers, including opening several specialty supermarkets. At a Mexican American Grocers Assn. convention in 1986, he grew frustrated with food companies that still seemed reluctant to expand into neighborhoods with large Latino populations.

“I’ve been listening to all the discussions about a ‘new-found’ market, but it’s been here a long time,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter. “It becomes clear that these folks are not visiting, they’re here to stay.”

William Davila was born April 25, 1931, in Los Angeles. His parents divorced when he was young and he was mostly raised by his mother, who was a secretary in a finance company. In 1948 a family friend helped him get an after-school job at a Vons, sweeping the floor in the produce section. The pay was $1.10 an hour. “My goal in those days was to one day become a produce manager,” he said in the 1987 interview. “I thought if I could become a produce manager, I would have really reached a very lofty level.”

Davila served in the Air Force from 1951 to 1954. He returned to Vons, reaching his goal of becoming a produce manager in 1955.

Although he didn’t have a college degree, Davila joined the company’s advertising department in 1959 and eventually headed it. Several more posts followed — he was named president of the company in 1984.

The advertisements he hosted, in English and Spanish, made him famous far beyond industry circles. He was often recognized, once even in Hawaii when at a stop light. “They are responding to his credibility,” said advertising executive Bonnie Baruch. “He is Vons.”

Which is why it came as a surprise in 1990 when he said he would take early retirement. Although there were rumblings he was forced out, Davila maintained he made the decision because he wanted to work toward boosting business prospects in the Latino community.

He remained on the Vons board and continued to do its commercials. He declined offers that he run for political office on Republican tickets and in 1994 drew rancor from some in that party for a full-page newspaper ad in which he attacked Proposition 187, a measure backed by California’s GOP Gov. Pete Wilson that denied many public services to immigrants who crossed the border illegally.

Davila established an educational foundation that gives scholarships to Latino students who intend to work in the grocery industry. He attributed his own success in the business, however, simply to hard work.

“There’s always something you can be doing better,” he said in 1987. “The day that we think we have arrived is the day that we have taken our first step backward.”

Davila is survived by his wife, Dorothy; daughters Lisa Franklin, Diane Jones and Deborah McGuire; sons David and Bill; and 12 grandchildren.