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VOL. 44 | NO. 48 | Friday, November 27, 2020

Carrying grandma’s legacy to new height

Word walks familiar path with purchase of 4 markets

By Tom Wood

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North Nashville has always held a special place in Jason Word’s heart, and now his journey truly has come full circle. Word, 49, the new owner of Nashville’s four Save A Lot discount grocery stores, recalls many good times in the Brooklyn Heights area – between Trinity Lane and the Cumberland River – where his late grandmother, Ethel Watkins, ran the family grocery store, Watkins and Sons, following the death of her husband.

“My grandmother owned a grocery store in Brooklyn Heights, so I’m honored and excited to carry on a little bit of her legacy,” Word says. “It was kind of the fun part of me growing up. It seemed like I spent half my life in Brooklyn Heights and then the other half of my life at (home on) 14th Avenue North off Buchanan in North Nashville.

“The main thing I remember is being with her and seeing her negotiate with vendors (in the 1970s and’80s. This was a woman who by herself raised her children (while) running this grocery store by herself after her husband passed. So we would get up in the morning and go to this grocery store at six in the morning and then come home at six that night.

“So 12 hours a day I’d be over in that area and then I’d be at home in North Nashville. So it was a blessing.”

A new challenge

And now, after a booming decade as a Nashville real estate investor, Word is back in the grocery game, hoping to reinvigorate the community.

His company, J.Word Enterprises LLC, assumed control of Nashville’s four Save A Lot grocery stores in mid-October after nearly a year of negotiations with the chain’s management. Word says he started down this road by simply talking to local markets to learn how he could help spur revitalization.

“I did not have this in my mind. It wasn’t in my plans, what I was doing, but it’s one of those things where you have to be ready and prepared to accept it,” Word explains.

“And it’s something that came up. After looking at it and discussing it with advisers and people I think are smarter than me, I saw this as a tremendous opportunity – not just for me and my company – but for the other things that we will be able to do in the community as well.”

Jason Word shows off some of the selections from his newly acquired store on Clarksville Pike. He grew up working in his grandmother’s grocery in the Brooklyn Heights area north of downtown.

-- Photos By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Once those discussions reached Save A Lot officials, Word had a vision of how he could make a profound impact – not just ownership of one store, but all four in the Nashville market with the possibility of future expansion of the brand. And his dream was perfect timing for Save A Lot, which is transitioning from corporate-owned stores to local operations.

“We are very pleased to have J. Word Enterprises join our Save A Lot network as our retail partner in Nashville,” says Kenneth McGrath, chief executive officer of Save A Lot.

“As a local owner and operator, Jason and his team have great insight into the community’s needs and will be well positioned to respond and serve customers as only a neighborhood grocer can. We’re looking forward to working together and continuing to serve the Nashville community.”

The flagship store of Word’s operations is located at 2400 Clarksville Pike. The others are located on Charlotte Avenue, Murfreesboro Pike and Gallatin Pike. The Clarksville Pike location includes ownership of the building and land.

Word says that while he always had an interest in that location, the idea didn’t really take root until Save A Lot offered ownership of all four stores in the Nashville market.

“I thought it would be a good fit to happen for us, so I had some talks with people about the store there. They said, ‘Hey, what about bringing up the property for ownership?’ And then, I was like ‘mmm, maybe.’

“But they said, ‘OK now let’s look at ownership of the whole Nashville area,’ and with that it was like, ‘OK, now I see an opportunity to really make an impact.’ … Being able to do it on that scale and being able to do it in my hometown made it like,’ OK now we’ve got to take this seriously.’

“I thought we would have a great opportunity to really help address the needs of our communities in a fantastic way.”

Big bucks involved

After making an initial cash investment, Word says he worked with CapStar Bank to finalize the transaction.

Jason Word, right, greets childhood friend Torrey Howard at the Clarksville Pike location.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“This deal we worked with CapStar Bank, so I did it with cash – some cash, you know – but then I’m working with CapStar Bank on this one. So I provided a significant capital injection, but then CapStar was agile in providing the rest of the funding. There were a lot of banks that wanted to do the deal, but CapStar is the one we selected for this particular one.”

Word says the total investment in acquisition of the Save A Lot stores is “in the millions” and adds that “we won’t shy away” from future investment.

“There are opportunities we are discussing, and if those opportunities are good and we can work well, we will invest further with Save A Lot.” Word points out. “We see the opportunity and we think we can move the needle in a tremendous fashion here and anywhere else we may plant that flag.

“But there are a lot of things that we plan to do here in Nashville, with possibly more stores and we’re going to change. You’re going to start to see all of our stores start to change. We’re going to modernize all of them.

“We’re not just changing our approach and the way we do business, we’re going to change the way our businesses look. People are already starting to see some of the things we’re doing, but we’re going to keep going. We’re going to have some major changes in our business.”

Competitive spirit

The Nashville grocery store competition is crowded with major chains Kroger and Publix, plus Aldi, Whole Foods, Food Lion, Walmart, Target and others.

Save A Lot also is a national chain with more than 1,000 stores in 33 states.

But going up against tough competition is nothing new for Word.

A stellar high school basketball career at Hunters Lane High School under legendary Coach Carlton Collier led him to Aquinas College and Coach Charles Anderson, where Word helped the Cavaliers win the 1991 National Junior College Athletic Association championship.

“What they always taught was hard work, and that’s been the key to anything I’ve ever done. It was always about working,” Word says of his coaches. “I mean, you may find somebody better than me, they may jump higher, they may do different things better than me. But if they won, it wasn’t going to be because of my work.

“I was going to put the work in before the games so by the time I got to the games, most games were easy because I was going to work way harder than before the game happened.”

Customers wait in line to check out at the Clarksville Pike Save A Lot grocery store. Jason Word’s other Nashville-area locations are on Charlotte Avenue, Murfreesboro Pike and Gallatin Pike.

-- Photos By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Word uses that same approach, whether in real estate or groceries

“And it’s the same in business. By the time we get to, ‘hey, we own Save A Lot, we’re opening, we’ve got it down.’ … the hardest work is already done,” he explains. “So by the time we get to that,’ OK, this should be easier just because of all the hard work and preparation that we put in preparing for this moment,’ you know, it has to be easier.

“I’ve got a great team that ascribes to that, as well. So I expect to do well and Rachel (Jones, director of grocery operations) and Brian (Aten, area manager of Nashville operations) have done a tremendous job and they approach it the same way.”

Hard work pays off

Aquinas defeated Arizona Western 74-68 in the 1991 NJCAA finale, and it earned Word a scholarship to Baylor, where he played a year before transferring to Northern Arizona. Also on that Aquinas team were Corey Allen (Tennessee) and Amos Gregory (Nebraska).

Cavalier coach Anderson recalls Word as a talented player who was an even harder worker. He is not surprised that Word has achieved success in the business world.

“The first day I signed him, he came over and worked out. I said, ‘Jason I’ll tell you one thing. You are good athlete – and he was – but one thing you’ve got (to overcome) … you don’t shoot worth a crap,” Anderson recalls with a laugh.

“And I said, ‘For you to play the level you want to play at, you’ve got to learn to shoot. He could always shoot around the basket, and he was just so mature and a strong kid that he could do a lot of things around the basket.

“But I worked with him a few minutes and said, ‘Now, Jason, you’ve got all summer, and here’s what you want to do if you want to play at the level I think you can play at.’ And so, he looked at me and I said, ‘Well, what are you gonna do this summer?’

Save A Lot cashier Sherrell Stewart helps customer Arnold Wright check out his purchases at the Clarksville Pike store.

-- Photos By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“He said, ‘I’m not going to put the ball down. I promise you I’m going to work every minute.’ And then he added, ‘I’ve sure got a lot of work to do all summer long.’ And then he came back and he could do all those things he said he would do.

“Jason turned out to be a top-notch ballplayer. He was a first-class citizen and a first-class player and did what any coach wanted him to do,” Anderson adds. “I just worked with him a little bit, but he did all the work. He was a worker.”

Chuck Anderson was an Aquinas assistant coach under his father Charles. He recalls Word as the backbone of the team and credits much of that to Word’s upbringing. His mother, Maygise, was a Nashville school teacher, and his father, Ben, was a Nashville policeman for 20-plus years. Brother Benny Word also was a talented basketball player, starring at Columbia State.

“They were brought up awful well. And Jason was just a quiet leader,” Chuck Anderson says. “That’s what he was. He was probably the steadiest player we had. Corey was going to get his (points) and Jason was going to get his, but Jason was going to guard somebody every time.”

Real estate opened doors

Besides now being a grocery store owner, Word has made a name for himself in the Nashville real estate market. Most of his work has been in revitalizing properties, new builds and other development projects on Fern Avenue, Brick Church Pike, Weakley Avenue and Morningside Drive. Additional J.Word Properties projects are in the works.

“Most of what I’ve done has been based in real estate. Even with the Save A Lot deal, there was real estate involved,” Word notes. “We were able to acquire the land and building of our store on Clarksville Pike, so that kind of thing is what made the deal work for me. Because without that, I’m not sure I would have been as interested.

“But to be able to have that, it allows us to do a couple of things. Now we have that location, about 2½ acres with our store, so we want to improve on that, even, by adding retail space – adding more opportunities to do more things for the community in that location.

“So I think we have the land to do it and an opportunity there to expand what we do in the community.”

Word says he got into the Nashville real estate market right before the crash in the mid-2000s. He wasn’t afraid to invest when others were holding back or getting out entirely.

“The bedrock of everything I do is real estate. And we just want to make sure that we continue to make good decisions. We want to do our research but we don’t want to be afraid,” Word explains.

“We want to be aggressive in our moves but not risky. We want to do our research and make sure we’ve got a sound foundation for a deal, whatever that deal may be. If it’s a retail opportunity like a Save A Lot or whatever that may be, we can put it together.”

He cites those early investments as the model for what he sees as the future, and sees concerns about gentrification as more of a revitalization.

“There’s truth to (gentrification). Again, but from my standpoint, I’ve developed and sold high-end houses,” he says. “Just like on Fern Avenue I bought up there. People didn’t want any part of it, people didn’t want to be up there. But I bought up there just because I looked at it and said ‘man, it’s just a great view up here.’ … I was like, ‘OK, these will always rent, so I’m not going to be out, but it’s just a fantastic view.’

“So something in my mind said something will happen. And now, Fern Avenue – good luck in finding something.

“It is true that there is gentrification, but from my standpoint, I want to approach this thing like I’ve always done. We don’t want to exclude anybody, and the wealthy person needs a nice place to live but so does the middle class.

“And for me, those are the people that we really want to hit like the teacher or the single mom, the people who are working hard and doing those things – the ever-squeezed middle class.

“We have to help and we’re going to help, and we’ve got some things in the works. Even with our stores. We’re going to intertwine all of the things that we do and we’re going to make communities. And it’s going to be fantastic.”

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