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Notes & Comment from The Content Guy

DALLAS - It is a much exploited of science fiction writing that the universe in which we live may be just one of numerous realities, and that in those various alternatives, there are multiple futures that may or may not play out the same way ours does.

This literary conceit - which may or may not be scientifically accurate - was on my mind yesterday during the first day of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Future Connect conference here, postponed from lat May because of concerns at the time about a H1N1 flu pandemic. Most of the sessions that I attended at the education-oriented event implied that there are two possible futures for the food industry.

There’s one version in which companies are led by compassionate, modest, yet driven leaders, staffed by diverse and committed employees, selling healthy and nutritious food, and focused on a strategic vision of the future in which retailers are highly relevant to their customers. And then, there’s the other which the paths laid out by speakers are seen as well-intentioned but too hard or too improbable or too long-term to be applicable, and nothing changes.

Some moments from the day’s sessions:

Tim McGuire, a director at McKinsey & Company, told a general session that while 72 percent of consumers are looking to save money, it remains critical for retailers to “compete beyond price,” a strategy that can include a strong and loyalty-inducing private label program, a commitment to fresh foods, and format innovation that responds to differentiated consumer insights.

Knight Kiplinger, editor-in-chief of the Kiplinger family of financial publications, urged senior executives in attendance to practice ethical leadership that does not create pressure on employees to use questionable practices to meet financial targets, and that avoids excessive executive compensation. “Everybody needs to have some proportional ability to share in the success of a company,” he said, criticizing current practices that in some cases awards CEOs salaries and benefits that are 300 times the level of the average employee. An ethical leader, he said, “inflicts on others no pain or sacrifice that he has not already inflicted on ethical CEO cuts his own pay earlier and deeper than anyone else in the company.”

“I’ve never scored a point for the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team, and we have 1,005 wins,” said Lady Vols coach Pat Summit in urging executives to both be smart coaches and respectful of team contributions as they lead their companies.

In a breakout session on health and nutrition moderated by yours truly, author Dr. Wendy Bazilian and Karen Buch, director of lifestyle initiatives for Weis Markets, told attendees about how - by using super foods and super spices - they could create healthier meals and educate shoppers about how to cook and eat more intelligently. The consensus in this session was tat this is as much a marketing issue as a health problem - that retailers need to be more aggressive about explaining healthy solutions to consumers in easy-to-understand and actionable terms.

Rob Bell, president of Focus Consulting, stressed to his breakout session the importance of mentoring in an industry where dramatic consumer shifts and demographic changes create a need for more relevant and informed leadership.

In a session on “The Path To The Executive Suite,” in which CEOs including Ric Jurgens of Hy-Vee and Don Knauss of Clorox agreed that the qualities needed in the corner office is an ability to give let other people get the credit, having a sense of compassion, but also maintaining a fire in the belly for competition and winning.

And, in the annual “FMI Speaks” presentation, FMI CEO Leslie Sarasin stressed the importance of continued growth and education: “You are here because in spite of this (economic) downturn, you see a chance to raise the quality of your most importance asset - your human capital. You are emphasizing how important it is to learn. We are here because as we address leadership development and training today, tomorrow and into the future, we will better be able to retain our promising future executives once the economy begins to turn around. And you see that as a competitive advantage.”

But implicit in all these urgings and admonitions was the idea that chains have a choice - they can practice enlightened leadership, or they can fall back on traditional methods of management that may be both inappropriate and inadequate for 2010 and beyond.
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