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Notes and comment from The Content Guy

PORTLAND, OREGON -- It was a throwaway line, but one that resonated.

“As my grandmother used to say, he puts feet to the prayers.”

The specific reference, made by a former student, was to Al Carey, president/CEO of Frito-Lay, who was receiving the 2009 Roger Ahlbrandt from the Portland State University (PSU) Food Industry Leadership Center for his longtime work with the program, especially his dedication to diversity in the workplace.

But it was a sentiment that went beyond the moment, because in a personally and professionally competitive world, the ability to implement, to have an impact, is of critical importance.

That was the clear message from Kroger CEO Dave Dillon, who gave the evening’s keynote address and talked about some of the profound changes that have been implemented at kroger over the past few years to make it a more relevant and responsive company. He said that by putting the customer first not just in word, but by using every tool available to connect with them, Kroger had created a more sustainable business model for the long term.

Dillon used a sports metaphor to illustrate the notion that constant improvement is a requirement, not an option: Cesar Cielo of Brazil recently set a world’s record for the 100 meter freestyle with a time of 46.91 seconds, which is remarkable considering that in 1972 the record was set by Mark Spitz at 51.22 seconds, and in 1924 it was held by Johnny Weissmuller at 57.44 seconds. Same race, but the bar for success keeps getting set higher and higher ... and those who wish to excel have no choice but to push themselves harder and harder. “We either get better, or we get worse,” Dillon said, leaving no doubt that only one of those options is acceptable at Kroger.

In addition, the notion of “feet to the prayers” was at the core of a panel discussion with four PSU students that explored their work experience and attitudes toward the industry. I had the privilege of moderating the session and was especially struck by the stories of two of them.

Hannah Gallagher, who will be graduating next spring, spoke of bumping into an attitude that some seemed to hold that Generation Y isn’t all that hard-working, and at the moment is really only good at using the various online social networking skills that they have developed to communicate with other members of their generation. In fact, very little of this description seemed to fit Gallagher, who recently found herself carrying an 18-credit load, working as an intern, and holding a part-time job to pay her bills at the same time. This was one very impressive young woman - strong-minded and highly focused - and her moments on the stage should have dispelled that generation Y myth for everyone in attendance.

(After all, there are lazy people in every generation. Members of Generation Y are, in fact, indispensable to an industry that must market to them. Condescension would seem to be a counter-productive attitude.)

I was especially touched by another student, Isiaka Adigun, who came to the US from Nigeria just two years ago and will be graduating next spring. Adigun, who speaks with a soft voice and a deep passion, spoke of his commitment to customer service, and of his internship at Costco. At one point, he said, he found himself refusing to allow a woman to buy a particular chicken because it had been in the case for just over two hours; Costco’s rule is that after 120 minutes, the chickens get pulled. While the woman resisted at first, she eventually accepted his explanation, bought a newer chicken, and later came back to thank him for watching out for her.

It is hard to explain why, but Adigun seemed to have an almost visceral connection to the notion of customer service. It wasn’t just an abstract concept to him - there was an emotional component to it, as if it represented the core of why he came to the US and wants to live and work here.

In other words, it is his “feet to the prayers.”

In the church of the food industry, it was fascinating to see four very different disciples - Dillon, Carey, Gallagher and Adigun - and get a sense that they were connected by something more than just an industry. There’s something else going on there, something both tangible and intangible, that speaks volumes about what the food industry should and sometimes does represent and achieve.

For a few hours this week, it was on display in Portland, Oregon.

“Feet to the prayers.”
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