Former H-E-B CEO was born 125 years ago today

Megan Armstrong San Antonio News

Updated 4:54 pm CDT, Thursday, April 9, 2020

In the middle of H-E-B’s heralded response to the coronavirus pandemic, it is also celebrating the birthday of the man who turned H-E-B into what it is today.

Howard E. Butt was born on April 9, 1895. Though the Butt family is one of the most well-known Texas names, Butt was born in Memphis, Tenn. The family moved to the Texas Hill Country, finding a home in Kerrville, where Howard E. Butt and his siblings grew up. His parents, Charles Clarence Butt and Florence Thornton Butt, decided on relocating in hopes that the dryer climate would be therapeutic for the father’s tuberculosis, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

When Howard H. Butt was 10, the first grocery store in the family history was started by Florence in Kerrville. The mother started C.C. Butt Grocery Store in November 1905 with a $60 investment, H-E-B’s online timeline says. The store, which sold bulk food, started young Howard E. Butt on a path which would lead to generations of customer loyalty. At 16, Howard E. Butt became manager of his mother’s store. After graduating as valedictorian of his Tivy High School class in 1914, he spent some time in California, then enlisted in the U.S. Navy to serve in World War I.

By 1919, Howard E. Butt had returned to Kerrville to help his mom with the store. In 1921, he transitioned the store, which was based on deliveries, into a cash-and-carry, which was a move that was considered risky at the time.

After a few failed attempts to expand the store in Texas, he opened a store in Del Rio in 1926 and then in the Rio Grande Valley. San Antonio welcomed the first H. E. Butt Grocery Company in 1942, before the stores were officially named “H-E-B” in 1946. In 1971, as the founder celebrated his 76th birthday, he gave the role of president to his son, Charles C. Butt. A few years later, H-E-B’s headquarters moved to San Antonio. Howard E. Butt’s successor also implemented changes like staying open on Sundays and starting the sale of beer and wine, according to San Antonio Express-News archives.

Howard E. Butt died on March 12, 1991. He was 95.

Charles C. Butt remains at the helm of the grocery giant as CEO. The chain, which remains privately owned, now has hundreds of stores in Texas and Mexico.

In January, H-E-B took the top spot in a consumer survey of more than 60 grocery stores nationwide. Now, H-E-B is earning national acclaim for its crisis response during the pandemic, including protective measures and increased pay for employees and community relief like a new program which allows local restaurants to sell their meals in the grocery stores. The partnership program gives restaurants in-store display space, as COVID-19 emergency orders restrict food establishments to take-out and delivery only. Participating restaurants are able to keep all of the proceeds from sales of the heat-and-serve meals, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Longtime H-E-B employee Eddie Garcia, who helped launch the company’s annual Feast of Sharing dinner, said helping communities they’re part of is ingrained in the Butt family values in a 2015 San Antonio Express-News interview.

“The Butt family has always tried to address hunger in the community,” Garcia said.

He said Florence donated all surplus from the original Kerrville store to the poor.

“All of this builds customer loyalty,” he added. “For H-E-B, it’s not just about raking in money. It’s about doing the right thing.”

Madalyn Mendoza covers news and puro pop culture for | [email protected] | @maddyskye