alumni profiles

Merchant at Heart

Robert Mariano, '87 (XP-56), moves to expand his young grocery chain in the competitive Chicago market


As CEO of the Chicago-area supermarket chain Dominick's Finer Foods during the 1990s, Robert Mariano, '87 (XP-56), knew the configuration of every store, the traffic patterns, and the food preferences of the neighborhoods' shoppers.

Late last year, Mariano made the most of that intelligence. He acquired 11 locations from Dominick's, which pulled out of the Chicago area, effectively doubling his namesake grocery chain, Mariano's Fresh Market. It was a bold move in a grocery market where he faces stiff competition from incumbent Jewel Food Stores, discounters such Wal-Mart, Target, and Meijer, and specialty chains such as Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's.

But if anyone can make a go of it, Mariano can, said Jon Hauptman, '89, a partner at Chicago-based Willard Bishop, a consulting firm that has worked with Mariano's. Hauptman met Mariano when Hauptman was an intern and Mariano was CEO of Dominick's. Hauptman marveled at Mariano's ability to divine consumer trends. "Bob has his finger on the pulse of the shopper," Hauptman said. "He knows where the puck is going, and he is good at getting his team moving in that direction."

Mariano began his career behind the deli counter at his local Dominick's in the Des Plaines suburb of Chicago and rose through the ranks. He took the family-owned company through an IPO in 1996 but left when the chain was acquired by California-based Safeway Inc. in 1998.

He found a home as CEO of Wisconsin-based Roundy's, which operates 164 supermarkets in Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin under the banners Copps, Metro Market, Pick 'n Save, and Rainbow, as well as the young Mariano's chain. He launched the first Mariano's in 2010 with a format that combines prepared foods, perishables, extensive private-label items, and substantial customer service. The Chicago chain grew to 13 locations in three years.

In an interview at a North Side Chicago Mariano's store, Mariano said his Booth training, along with a "healthy disrespect for the past," have guided his strategic decisions. "The past is only as good as how it informs you today," Mariano explained.

Being surrounded by the best in the business at Booth, Mariano said, taught him to temper instincts forged by years in the retail business with disciplined inquiry and testing. He shared this message in September when he returned to campus for Booth 20/20, an event at which alumni share their experience and insights with first-year students.

Mariano put his signature blend of analysis and intuition to use when he selected which former Dominick's stores to take over. If a location looked like it might fill a gap, Mariano and his team turned to the data. "'Was the store the right size? Was the neighborhood growing?'" Mariano asked. Of the importance of relying on empirical evidence, Mariano said, "If the numbers don't work, you have to rethink your strategy."

Mariano recently turned to Booth's Executive Education to develop a customized marketing analytics course for Roundy's category managers. Taught in February by Jean-Pierre Dubé, Sigmund E. Edelstone Professor of Marketing, the course used the store's data to examine elasticity, demand, and other pricing issues. The course illustrates another tenet central to Mariano's leadership style: if you don't know how to do it, learn from someone who does, and empower your team to do the same. "It not about me; it's about an organization of people trying to do the best we can."

As he embarks on a new chapter in his old town, Mariano is clear about how he sees himself. "I'm a merchant at heart. You're putting food on someone's table, and that's pretty important stuff."–Alexandra Batty

 Photo courtesy of Robert Mariano

Green Inroads at Nascar

Michael Lynch, '98, has instituted an array of environmentally sustainable practices at historic Daytona Beach, Florida-based NASCAR in the past five years. He'll have a chance to make an even greater impact with his promotion this past December to vice president of green innovation.


For NASCAR, sustainability initiatives are about more than just environmental stewardship, Lynch explained in a recent interview. "NASCAR as a green platform has as much to do with influencing the aspirations of our massive fan base as it has to do with the actual initiatives and the environmental impact reduction that we've accomplished."

With Lynch's hiring as managing director in 2008, NASCAR began the rollout of NASCAR Green, the famed auto-racing authority's platform for eco-friendly initiatives. Among those green upgrades was the switch at the 2011 Daytona 500 to Sunoco Green E15, a biofuel with 15 percent American ethanol.

This year's Daytona 500 heralded the use of clean-hydrogen fuel-cell generators to power the broadcast cameras on the track, an initiative that is part of a partnership with the US Department of Energy.

After leaving a tenured position in Purdue University's Department of Audiology and Speech Sciences, Lynch enrolled in the Full-Time Program at Chicago Booth in the late 1990s. At Booth, Lynch was a facilitator in the school's LEAD program, where he met Eric Nyquist, '98, now NASCAR's vice president of strategic development and a key supporter of NASCAR Green.

Lynch took a job after graduation with the Boston Consulting Group, then moved to a biotech start-up in south Florida, and later to electronic-security firm The ADT Corp., where he was recruited by NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France to lead green initiatives.

It's been a rich and varied career, Lynch said. Now, the NASCAR post enables him to "drive big changes and provide a social good."–Alexandra Batty

 Photo courtesy of NASCAR


Driving In-Car Connectivity

baldiniLivio is a small company with a big goal. The Ferndale, Michigan-based start-up cofounded by Massimo Baldini, '03, was acquired by Ford Motor Co. in September and charged with building a global standard for the technology that connects a vehicle's stereo with the driver's smart phone and its applications.

Now, with Ford's industry might behind it, Livio hopes to draw other automakers to the idea of creating an industry standard that removes the compatibility hurdle faced by app developers, who must redesign an app for every carmaker's system. Livio is integrating its own software products and unique intellectual property within Ford's connectivity framework, Smart Device Link (SDL), which the Dearborn, Michigan, car giant debuted as open-source technology in 2013.

Baldini, who is Livio's president, noted in a recent phone interview that Livio operates with a lean start-up mentality, though it now has the force of the historic car brand behind it.

With a staff of just 13, "there's no space to say, 'I'm just a software engineer or communications person,'" Baldini explained. "You have to be ready to wear all the hats."

A native of Genoa, Italy, Baldini started his career in chemical engineering but grew frustrated at the lag time between doing research and taking a product to market. He came to Booth hoping a broad foundation in business would help him make a career shift.

After graduation, Baldini took a position in consumer electronics at Troy, Michigan, parts-manufacturer Delphi Automotive PLC, where he met Livio cofounder and CEO Jake Sigal, who worked as a product manager on Baldini's team. Sigal left Delphi in 2008, and Baldini joined him, bringing his business acumen and operations experience to the genesis of Livio.

Now as Baldini guides Livio into the big leagues, he looks to create an industry-leading product. "Imagination is really the only limit."–Alexandra Batty

Photo courtesy of Massimo Baldini

Last Updated 4/23/14