“I believe it’s an absolutely perfect fit for everyone,” Mr. Lees said — “for me, for the future of the market, for the customers, employees and, I think, for Clements.’”
“Two independent stores, two family stores — they are a great match,” Ms. Anthony agreed.
And it’s a merger between businesses whose ties go way back.
Don Clements, who with his wife Barbara founded Clements’ Marketplace “was our general manager” for nearly five years,” Mr. Lees said. And when Mr. Clements took the step of opening a grocery in Portsmouth, Al Lees Jr. helped him get started.
“Without (Mr. Lees’) help, we wouldn’t have wound up with a store in Portsmouth,” Ms. Anthony said.
Mr. Lees, who is nearing 60, said that as he has long hoped that the store that has been in his family for three generations could remain a “family business, a small local place that is part of the community.”
To that end, the deal that will be competed in February calls for Ms. Anthony to buy the grocery business and for Mr. Lees to retain ownership of the building, land, and the attached Lees wine and spirit business. No purchase price was revealed.
“It all came up over coffee one morning at Lees’, Ms. Anthony said. “It seemed like such a natural idea.”
“It is my hope and expectation that the day after this all happens, a customer will walk in and not notice any change … that it be seamless,” Mr. Lees said.
He said he began the process of informing his 150 full- and part-time employees last Friday. He said their jobs are “safe and secure. This locks in their future.”
Those employees, he said, are a big reason for the success of Lees over the generations. They bring a stability to the store — “knowledgeable people, many of them who have been there for a long time and know the customers, who know the area. That has always been our strength — they are the face and heart and soul of our business.”
He may not own the grocery business going forward “but I have no intention of walking away, I’m not going to become a snowbird.” Mr. Lees said. “Our two families will work together to build upon the success we have enjoyed.”
He said the transition could actually enable him to spend more time “out on the floor. I’ve put my life into that building — 40 years. I’m not going anywhere.” He said he started sweeping floors there at age 9 and, except for seven years in the 1980s, has worked there ever since.
And if he sees something amiss, he won’t hesitate to speak up. “I’m not shy.”
While there are differences, both said that Lees and Clements’ are very much alike where it counts … “their commitment to community.”
In Westport, Lees has long been the first stop for local groups seeking a boost with events and fundraisers.
“Our support won’t change — we’ll still be there. That’s a big part of who we are,” Mr. Lees said, adding that Clements’ has always been the same sort of place.
Mr. Lees said one of the things that makes him happy about the transition is that the market will remain a family operation, not become part of a chain.
“A chain doesn’t reflect my personal philosophy. My concern was to keep the feel of a community-based market.”
Mr. Lees said the “merger” should also enable him to devote more time to one of his favorite activities — Westport history. His extensive work chronicling the town’s past can be found in part on the Lees Market website under the ‘Sense of Place’ tab.
Ms. Anthony said she will remain general manager of the Portsmouth store and that Westport will have its own manager — although exactly how all that will work out hasn’t been firmed up.
Long store history
Long before the supermarket, the Lees family operated a fish market down at Lees Wharf in Westport Point.
Al Lees Jr. and Al Lees Sr. branched out in 1949 when they opened Albert E Lees, Inc., a general store in an old barn on the east side of Main Road, according to the ‘Our Story’ history on the Lees Market website. They sold hardware, seeds and fertilizer.
Two years later, an International Harvester outlet in Central Village went bankrupt and Al Lee junior and senior went to the auction to see if there was anything they could pick up to sell at their store.
“When it came time to sell the building the auctioneer had trouble coaxing a bid from the crowd. The Lees put their heads together and made an offer” — and wound up owning the building.
They spent the coming months stocking up and, in November, 1951, held the grand opening of what would become Lees Market.
At first they stuck with general merchandise — food didn’t start appearing on the shelves until 1960 as they realized that competing with the big discounters for general merchandise was a tough sell. “Gradually hammers and shoes yielded to breakfast cereals and steak,” and by 1965 that transition was complete.
They had found their niche and the store kept growing, addition after addition — “12 times to be exact.” The liquor store opened in 1981.
Al Lees III bought the market from his father, who had run the place for 43 years, in 1995 and has been running it since then.
After long grocery experience including his stint as general manager at Lees, Don Clements and his wife Barbara opened the Portsmouth IGA in the 2537 East Main Road building that had formerly held the First National Market.
The store sign was knocked down by accident in 1993 and when the new one went up it held the name Clements’ Marketplace.
In 2000, a new building went up not far from the old, the parking lot grew and new store sections were added. Ms. Anthony took took over as general manager a few years later and, in 2006, took over day-to-day operations.