Scott McCelland

Texans were at their best when the hurricane was at its worst

Grocery executive and USC Marshall alum Scott McClelland offers the Spirit of Troy during the devastating disaster

September 14, 2017 Julie Tilsner

If you’re a Texan, chances are you’ve shopped at H-E-B, the nation’s largest privately held grocery chain, with the distinctly Texas-sized sense of community.

You might even recognize Scott McClelland ’79, the bespectacled president of the chain’s Houston division, who shows up at stores to meet customers and employees, represents the store at community events, and more recently, appears in popular commercials with Houston Texans defensive end J. J. Watt and other players. In these clips, McClelland plays the self-deprecating ordinary guy, in contrast to the strapping hometown NFL heroes.

But when Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of water onto his town over several days in late August, McClelland was anything but the ordinary guy.

Hunkering down

McClelland, a Southern California native and Houston division president since 2003, knew the drill as Harvey approached.

“In Houston, it’s just what you do,” said McClelland, who made sure the products people need most — water, bread, batteries, canned meat — were on his shelves in abundance.

But this storm was different. Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain on the city before it moved east.

“Our warehouse was closed for three days,” he said. “We couldn’t get to a lot of our stores, and three out of the 83 in the Houston area were completely flooded out.”

With command posts set up in Houston and San Antonio, McClelland and his team got to work.

First up was running tabs on their more than 24,000 employees in Houston, making sure they were OK. While many were displaced by the flooding, others showed up to help wherever they could.

We opened one store and operated with just five people when it usually has a staff of 70.

Scott McClelland

“We opened one store and operated with just five people when it usually has a staff of 70,” he said.

Soon, more than 2,000 volunteers from other stores in nearby regions drove in to Houston to help, working 18-hour shifts and sleeping on other employees’ couches.

“I don’t know when my stores ever looked worse — or my employees ever worked harder, or when customers were happier to have us open,” he said.

McClelland credits his business education at the USC Marshall School of Business for some of his instincts.

“There were classes on how to communicate in times of stress, classes on strategy and a number of hands-on simulations — role playing — about how to handle crisis situations that have really stayed with me,” he said.

McClelland will be speaking to the Food Industry Management cohort, part of USC Marshall’s Executive Education program, on Monday.

Bringing Houston back

With their warehouse temporarily closed and roads flooded, H-E-B had to figure out how to restock shelves with the products customers needed most. But with many local drivers stranded in their homes (or rendered homeless), they knew they’d need capacity as roads cleared. So H-E-B helicoptered in additional truck drivers from San Antonio.

McClelland called his suppliers directly, including Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark, and requested entire trailer loads of needed product like paper towels and toilet paper delivered to his stores, bypassing the warehouse.

From the Houston command post, they also ran community relief efforts, deploying the company’s mobile kitchens, which can feed 2,000 people apiece, to areas where evacuees and first responders needed them most.

When the town of Beaumont lost its tap water, H-E-B sent 10 trucks filled with bottled water to hand out to residents.

Texans gave of their time and money. When J.J. Watts announced he was raising money for relief efforts, he donated $100,000 himself, with the hopes of doubling that amount.

On Sept. 6, H-E-B’s owner, Charles Butt, grandson of the store’s founder, presented a check for $5 million, bringing the amount raised to more than $27 million. McClelland was there.

“For 112 years, we’ve been part of this community,” he said. “Last week, the weather might have been at its worst, but humanity was at its best.”