Israel Cohen, a visionary who once drove the only truck in his family's grocery business and later turned Giant Food Inc. into the region's dominant chain, died Wednesday night, leaving a legacy of supermarket innovations but uncertainty about who will control the 59-year-old company.
Mr. Cohen, known in the supermarket industry as Izzy, was 83 when he died about 11:30 p.m. at his home in Northwest Washington, surrounded by his family, after a long bout with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer.
"It's a very sad time for all of us in the company and for Mr. Cohen's family," said Dave Rutstein, Giant's senior vice president and general counsel. "Izzy was an extraordinary man. He truly was one of the deans of the supermarket industry, a very humble man, a man who wanted Giant to be pre-eminent and not himself."
Mr. Cohen inherited the family mantle in 1964 and built a company with about 90 groceries into the 12th-largest food chain in the United States today in sales volume, a powerhouse with 164 stores, stretching from Washington to New Jersey and including about 75 supermarkets in the Baltimore region.
Mr. Cohen's reach extended far beyond shoppers. He made Giant one of the region's leading corporate donors -- contributing tens of millions of dollars for education, community groups and children's health and welfare. But he gave quietly.
"He was very much of an introvert. He didn't like to make small talk," said former Gov. William Donald Schaefer."But he was a tower of strength in the business world."
Mr. Schaefer said Mr. Cohen was so reticent that it took 25 invitations before he agreed to have lunch at the Governor's Mansion. "He did not want to come but someone said, 'He is the governor,' " recalled Mr. Schaefer. "He had a good time, because I had a good time."
Although Mr. Cohen embodied the spirit and force of Landover-based Giant, a business co-founded in 1936 by his father, Nehemiah, he had not actively managed the company for about two years, analysts said.
The company, with more than 26,000 employees, has been led by Pete L. Manos, 58, whom Mr. Cohen named president in September 1992 after pressure from jittery Wall Street analysts who were concerned that Mr. Cohen was not making plans for a successor.
The selection of a new chairman and chief executive officer will be addressed at the company's next regular board meeting Thursday.
"From an operational standpoint, it probably won't have a lot of impact, because Giant has a broad and deep management team," said H. B. Tom Thomson, an analyst with Wheat First Butcher Singer in Richmond, Va. "This company probably will be run pretty much the same way. But from a more global standpoint, this might open up the acquisition of the whole company by Sainsbury."
London-based J. Sainsbury PLC, the No. 1 grocer in Britain, bought a 16 percent ownership stake in Giant for $325 million in October 1994. Although Giant stock trades publicly, Sainsbury controls three of the company's seven seats on the board of directors and Mr. Cohen selected the other four.
Sainsbury officials could not be reached for comment last night. At Giant's annual shareholder meeting in September, David J. Sainsbury, Sainsbury's chairman and chief executive, declined to speculate about his company's future position in Giant.
Mr. Cohen in 1984 tried to provide for a line of succession. Under the terms of his will, the company said, Mr. Cohen has created a team of four senior officers and his sister, Lillian Cohen Solomon, to assume control of his shares in the company, which entitles them to elect four directors.
"I have carefully conceived, designed and written my estate plan so that my sister, Lillian Cohen Solomon, and the management group, and not any other members of my family, will exercise all the voting rights of [his] stock," Mr. Cohen said in his will, according to the company. "I have chosen this estate plan because none of the members of my family have had any experience or interest in operating Giant Food Inc."
A holding company will own his 125,000 shares of voting stock, which will be controlled by his sister and the four officers. But the financial interest in his shares will go to a family foundation. The holding company was named the 1224 Corp. because the numbers resemble "Izzy."
Israel Cohen, born Nov. 21, 1912, left his native Palestine for the United States when he was 9 years old to join his father, Nehemiah Myer Cohen. The elder Mr. Cohen came to America in 1914, eventually settling in Lancaster, Pa., where he ran three small butcher shops.
When another kosher butcher shop opened in Lancaster, Mr. Cohen decided to join with Harrisburg, Pa., wholesaler Samuel Lehrman in a Washington venture. They figured federal government growth would provide a steady flow of customers.
On Feb. 6, 1936 -- in the middle of a snow storm -- they opened the first Giant Food store on Georgia Avenue and Park Road. Israel Cohen drove the store's only truck.
Back then it was a new kind of grocery store: well-stocked shelves from which customers could select everything from meat to produce. The Giant Food Store also offered low prices and, though it was self-service, it wasn't considered short on quality or customer satisfaction.
Giant continued to innovate, introducing computerized checkout scanners in 1975, years before they became commonplace.
Within a year of its founding, Giant drove Washington-area food prices down 35 percent -- to their lowest level since the Great Depression, company reports claim. By the end of the 1930s, there were three stores; 19 at the end of the 1940s; and 53 stores by 1959, when Giant went public.
N. M. Cohen served as president of the company from 1948 to 1964, when he was named chairman and Joseph Danzansky became president. At that time, Israel Cohen became the company's executive vice president. He was named president in 1977 and two years later also became chairman of the board and chief executive officer.
Mr. Cohen is survived by his sister, Lillian Cohen Solomon of Washington; a daughter, Dana Cohen Ellis of McLean, Va.; a son, Peter Cohen of Altamonte, Fla.; and two grandchildren.
A private funeral is to be held today for family members. A memorial tribute will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Martin's Crosswinds in Greenbelt.