Ken Hoffman grills H-E-B's charming president Scott McClelland about his big exit
Last month, a couple of weeks before Christmas, Scott McClelland, the president and TV spokesmodel for H-E-B, told me that he was stepping down from leading the Texas supermarket dynasty.
I told him that I would write a column and emailed him a bunch of questions. He wrote back:
“It won’t be announced until January 1. Anyway, don’t write about me. I’m happy to fade into the sunset. We have a really good guy, Armando Perez, running our Houston business. He’s one of the best I’ve ever worked with.”
I guess it’s okay to write about McClelland leaving H-E-B now — and stop telling me what I can and can’t do.
I met McClelland about 10 years ago. He invited me to watch him and J.J. Watt make one of their popular H-E-B commercials.
When Scott met J.J.
This was the one where Watt is throwing a fun afternoon party. Guys are chatting up Texans cheerleaders. There’s music and dancing. In the background people are watching a football game on TV. McClelland knocks on the front door. Watt answers.
"Hi, J.J., I hear you're having a party. Got room for one more?"
Watt says, "Gee, Scott, I'm trying to keep the party small. You know how it is.”
McClelland returns, this time wearing a sombrero and fake mustache. He’s playing a ukulele for some odd reason. “Every party needs music," he says. "Can I come in?" Watt shakes his head in pity and slams the door.
If at first you don’t succeed, maybe third time lucky? Now McClelland is carrying a puppet. Watt takes one look and slams the door even harder.
Let’s bring it home. McClelland returns and he’s brought a load of fajitas and a full buffet of H-E-B’s made-in-store toppings. How he got the table to Watt’s front door doesn’t matter.
Watt surveys the toppings, "Is the guacamole fresh?" McClelland answers, “Of course!" Watt shrugs, OK you can come in … “But don't touch anything!"
I asked Watt, is it intimidating trading lines with a classically trained, internationally acclaimed thespian like Scott McClelland? Is it like a young actor getting his first movie role and he’s co-starring with Robert DeNiro?
“That’s exactly what it’s like. I’m just trying to keep up with the Oscar winner over there,” Watt laughed.
That was McClelland’s character, the lovable sad sack shnook, in more than a decade of H-E-B commercials with Houston's top pro athletes like Watt, Craig Biggio, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, DeAndre Hopkins, and Justin Reid.
"I have a lot of ham in me. I was always the class clown," he said during a break in filming. "My instincts are to be more comedic than I should. I have to remember that, yes, I am the H-E-B guy in commercials, but I'm also the president of H-E-B. I can't be too corny. I do run a business."
Scott doesn't play around
In real life, when he’s running that business? An absolute killer. H-E-B operates 340 supermarkets in Texas and northeast Mexico.
McClelland arrived in Houston in 2003 and under his leadership Houston became H-E-B’s best and still fastest-growing market. He took over the entire H-E-B empire in 2017. In 2020 Forbes rated H-E-B No. 9 on its list of “America’s Largest Private Companies.” Pretty good for a grocer that’s in a single U.S. state.
He will retire for keeps at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2022 — after spending this year advising and consulting H-E-B's invasion of the Dallas-Fort Worth market.
One time McClelland asked me to meet him at Central Market to try a new apple in the produce section. This one supposedly tasted like cotton candy.
I asked him, “You have 23 different kinds of apples here. Do we really need that many?” He said, “My dog likes to eat the same thing every night. People like different things every night. That’s why we have so many different kinds of apples.”
While he defended why anybody would possibly want an apple that tastes like tooth-decaying carnival midway candy, I noticed a group of shoppers drifting toward us. Most of them were women. They waited patiently to say hello to McClelland. They were meeting a TV star in person. Scott McClelland, grocery store sex symbol.
Farewell to Scott
“People see me and start talking like I'm their long lost friend," he told me. "The thing I hear most is, 'You're not as fat as you look on TV,' and 'Your glasses make you look like a turtle.' I know I have a face for radio, but come on. People don't hold back saying what they think."
McClelland and I drove downtown to meet Harry Belafonte at a lecture and book signing a few years ago. On the way over, I told McClelland that a pretty big Houston celebrity was leaving me very strange and, I can only assume, drunk voicemails. McClelland: “You serious?” Me: “You want to hear them?”
We pulled over and I hit play. I had a good 15-minutes of them. We both sat there stunned, mesmerized.
If you’re famous and leave me drunk voicemails, be assured I’m playing them for friends. My only concern was that a neighbor might see us and call the police: “There are two weirdos sitting in a car in front of my house giggling like idiots. Can you see what they’re up to?”
Try explaining that to a cop.