This June, if you’re driving along Highway 26 somewhere between Barrie and Owen Sound you may drive past Alex Hopkins. He’ll be the really tall, very physically fit fellow with dark hair and a huge smile on his face. And he’ll be celebrating his birthday.

Alex, alias Sandy, Hopkins celebrates his birthday every year by riding his bike from Barrie to Owen Sound. Once there, he meets his wife Barb, who drives up for the day, and they join friends to celebrate his birthday.

And this year Alex will be celebrating his first birthday as a retiree. Because this Thursday is his last day as manager of Zehrs Market on Bryne Dr. On Thursday, he hangs up his signature shirt, tucks away the tools of his trade, and gets ready to use up his last vacation days as he heads out the door.

The fact that Alex’ vacation days add up to six weeks says alot about Alex.

Alex started in the grocery store business back in May, 1972. Those were the days when grocery stores were doing their first set of stretches towards becoming supermarkets and Alex (Sandy, then) was hired to work at one of Weston’s Loblaws stores, the one in Owen Sound. He stayed on when Loblaws closed and the store opened under the No Frills banner.

Now Westons owns lots of chains of grocery stores and if you progress in a No Frills store, it’s towards ownership.

Alex wasn’t interested in going that route and in 1987 he moved from No Frills to Weston’s corporate ship when the first Zehrs Market opened in Owen Sound. He became assistant manager. The years went on and Alex was selected as the first manager of the Wasaga Beach Zehrs store which opened in 1990. It was at that point that he began his professional relationship with Todd Young, his then assistant manager, and the A.M. who’s with Alex today.

From the Wasaga Beach store, Zehrs selected Alex to open its second Barrie presence, and in 1992 Alex took responsibility for thousands of square feet of space and carried out the successful Zehrs formula to get the store stocked, the people hired and trained, and the place buzzing with activity.

Five years later, Alex did it again and oversaw the opening of Zehrs third Barrie store, on Bryne Dr. This is Zehrs mammoth retail presence in Barrie, with 72,000 square feet of space, 265 employees 25,000 grocery and dry goods items, and operating hours that run 14 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Zehrs is no longer a grocery store... it’s a deli, it’s a garden furniture store, it’s a housewares store, it’s a dishes store, it’s a pharmacy. And within the Zehrs space are privately operated dry cleaners, wine shoppe, postal service, travel agency, and bank. And Alex Hopkins coordinates and relates to them all.

All of us have experienced lots of change since our working days began. Alex Hopkins might say that the biggest change he’s coped with is change itself.

Change... from a traditional grocery store to selling almost everything
Change... from manual cash registers to today’s scanning technology
Change... from running a tab and taking cheques to banking technology
Change... from individually ticketing each item to the convenience of bar codes
Change... from the simplicity of word of mouth to the complexity of instantaneous downloading of information

Grocery stores have changed from places where people relax with each other, touch base with each others’ families to a megastore of thousands of square feet of space with shoppers who are time-bound, and who no longer know everybody they’re shopping with.

Alex Hopkins has also been in charge of an operation that takes 95 hours a week to run. One can wonder how he has managed all this, and still fit in the raising of three sons, continuous physical fitness regime, an interest in camping, kayakking, paddling and tripping.

On top of it all, any employee you ask will say the same thing... “Alex (Sandy) Hopkins is a people person. He’s passionate about people. He looks after them. He makes every single staff person feel special, important. In one of Alex’ stores, you’re not a number. And Alex has that character trait of all great leaders... he’ll never ask a staff person to do something he wouldn’t (and can’t) do himself.

The loyalty of his assistant managers, Todd Young and Jim Cepecauer is equalled by the loyalty of his full time, part time and occasional staff... they’ll do anything for Alex.

And so? What’s retirement for a very, very busy guy look like?

Well, it’ll involve a kayak trip. Lots of roller blading. Canoe trips to Algonquin Park. Skating the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. Seeing the festival of lights in Niagara Falls. Wish list stuff. Alex Hopkins isn’t the type to sit still...

... which is probably why you’ll see him peddling along to Owen Sound in a few weeks. He’ll make a day of it. He’ll stop in Wasaga Beach and visit the Zehrs folks who run the operation there. He’ll grab the Blue Mountain trail in Meaford and enjoy cycling along that piece of heaven. He’ll finish the day by connecting with the woman he’s shared his life with, and friends from his youth.

And he’ll be able to blow all the candles out on his birthday cake!

And back at the Zehrs Market on Bryne Dr., the outdoor garden centre will bustle with activity, and the checkout lines will remain pleasant places from which to view the world. But the staff will be missing their leader; the fellow who never treats you like a number.

Thanks, Alex. Thanks, Sandy.

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