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Notes & comment from the FMI Midwinter Executive Conference

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona – It was music to our ears when William Coyne, president/CEO of Raley’s, took to the stage to open the annual Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Midwinter Executive Conference at The Phoenician here. “Why does a company like Raley’s matter?” he asked, noting that his is a far smaller company than many of those represented at the conference. “What value do we bring? What opportunities do we offer?” To his mind, value and opportunity have little to do with size, and much to do with attitude and heart.

The reason that Raley’s matters – and why other companies, regional and private and often without the financial resources of the national chains, matter – is because they take advantage of their size to create what Coyne called “compelling connections” with customers, employees and communities. “The result can be magical,” he said.

At this point in history, Coyne suggested, customers want to know that the companies with which they do business “are trustworthy, even noble.” Privately held companies with intense personal commitments to the business can accomplish that in unique and relevant ways, he said. And he pointed to the iPod as an example of a compelling connection – it may not be the most advanced technology, nor the cheapest price, but it has been engineered in a way that has created a dedicated and loyal customer.

Random notes…

• Anyone paying attention to the retailing business in 2006 knows the serious labor issues that confront it. The difference in cost between unionized and non-unionized labor, the skyrocketing cost of health care, and the broader problems of immigration and outsourcing are all issues that one might have expected to get a serious and detailed treatment from US Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao in her speech to the conference.

They would have been disappointed.

Instead, all Chao did was offer a litany of achievements from the first five years of the Bush administration in what might have been a campaign speech. She did not address, for example, the serious problem that unionized retailers have in competing with non-union chains such as Wal-Mart – except to say that the Bush administration’s policies are “based on the premise that government doesn’t create jobs, but government should create an environment in which the private sector creates jobs.” Which is fine, but it doesn’t really help unionized companies define and implement solutions that will help them be competitive.

• There were more than a few people with whom we chatted who were amused by the level of security in place for the Secretary of Labor. We checked, and found that the Labor Secretary is, in fact, 11th in line to assume the presidency in the event of a disaster.

Except, of course, that Secretary Chao was born in Taiwan and therefore is ineligible to become president.

• Hy-Vee chairman Ron Pearson received the Sydney R. Rabb award for excellence in serving the consumer, the community and the industry.

KC's View:
Our objections to Secretary Chao’s remarks are not political. We are simply getting tired of stump speeches, no matter who is giving them.

On the other hand, we loved Coyne’s remarks. While companies like Raley’s certainly have their challenges, he’s got his eye on the right target – relevant, compelling and even magical shopping experiences are what it takes to survive in 2006 and beyond.