Enduring commitment to Buffalo

Western New York and food retail are in the DNA of John Persons, EMBA '00

To John Persons, EMBA ’00, Buffalo is home. 

As an eighth-generation Western New Yorker and proud UB alumnus, Persons’ commitment to his Buffalo roots will have lasting impact for years to come.

Upon graduating from UB in 1989 with a bachelor’s in political science, Persons — who worked at Tops Markets as a cart clerk and progressed to part-time assistant manager during his college years — was offered a tempting alternative to continuing his education in law or grad school.

“My manager said, ‘How about you take a year off, become a full-time manager and see if you like this career in food retail,’” says Persons. “After that year, food retail became embedded in my DNA and a part of my persona.”

After nearly a decade in company operations, marketing, advertising and real estate, Tops made Persons’ pursuit of a graduate degree a reality when they enrolled him in the School of Management’s Executive MBA program. He says his experience in the EMBA program, and the connections he made there, played a pivotal role in shaping his career.

“The faculty were icons in their field,” he says, reflecting on such professors as Jerry Newman, Arun Jain and Frank Krzystofiak. “To have exposure to that level of teaching was so important for me and how I looked at professionalizing my career.”

In the years after earning his Executive MBA, Persons led Tops with a commitment to customers and the empathy needed during monumental challenges — including the COVID-19 pandemic and in the face of tragedy after the racist mass shooting at the Tops in East Buffalo in May 2022.

Tops is now a better corporate citizen than ever. The company is proactively involved in the local community surrounding its stores, and now highlights Black- and locally owned businesses.

“Recently, we hosted a supplier summit and brought in more than 150 local people, many of whom are diverse owners or families, to pitch their products,” Persons says. “As we reengage with the community, we have new perspective. We want to be that local company that is there to support, from grassroots to larger nonprofit organizations.”

Persons’ meaningful community support extends to his board work. He currently sits on the board for Kaleida Health and previously served as chair of the Children’s Hospital of Buffalo Foundation and as a board member for the Summit Center.

Most recently, Persons was named chief executive officer of Northeast Grocery (the parent company of Tops and Price Chopper/Market 32), following 39 years as president of Tops.

He says it’s important to impart knowledge to the next generation of leaders, and his advice reflects his own journey and experience.

“What I tell even my own kids is: Be open to a path that could be outside your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to start your career and then take an offshoot into another, get another degree or try something you never thought possible,” Persons says. “It’s the journey — the good and bad decisions, the failure and successes, the people you will interact with, the things you learn — that will define your career and the impact you will make.”

His own journey, which began with grocery carts and UB, has evolved into unparalleled leadership in food retail — all while remaining committed to Buffalo.

“I love it here. I consider myself blessed to be able to advance my career and not have to move out of Western New York, in large part because of everything I learned and the connections I made through the School of Management.”

Written by Alexandra Richter