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In anticipation of next week's Food Marketing Institute "FMI Connect" conference and exhibition in Chicago, MNB this week will feature interviews with three FMI board members.

Today: Jerry Garland, president/CEO of Associated Wholesale Grocers and the new chairman of FMI.

What is the biggest transition you think the industry is going to have to make over the next 10 years?

Jerry Garland:
As is the case now, the distribution side of the industry will be inundated with more competition from existing players doing a better job, from new players in category specific niches, from new players that today are not selling groceries and from virtual “store fronts” over the internet selling convenience and unique offerings. The “pie” of retail sales will be getting cut into thinner pieces, making the continued existence of some of today’s store fronts questionable.

What do you think will be the biggest adjustment you'll have to make in your own company, and how are you laying the groundwork for it now?

Jerry Garland:
The conventional food industry needs to address consumer needs in more areas than we have in the past. We need to look for new ideas and additional offerings. AWG over the past few years has expanded our health and nutritional programs, to include a larger variety of organics and diet specific items such as “gluten-free” and “allergen-free.”

Through our subsidiary, Valu Merchandisers, we have expanded our seasonal programs, bringing a wider variety of depth and breadth to our item selection. VMC has also expanded their specialty foods offerings and made them not so special by lowering costs across the board to entice more trial by our customers.

As we seek new opportunities to drive sales in new areas, we are focused on reducing our operating costs, which we have done over the past ten years. To have a sustainable business model, costs must be reduced to afford more aggressive pricing on the shelves.

What demands do you think an empowered consumer base will put on the food industry? How important do you think transparency (about product sourcing, nutritional info, GMOs, etc...) will be going forward, and is there a line you think retailers should not cross because it will be going too far?

Jerry Garland:
Consumers are demanding healthier food options, in a convenient fashion and at an affordable price. Transparency builds trust and the goal of the industry should always be to listen to the customer. The Food Industry needs to be in a leadership position as it relates to food labels, which should be accurate, provide nutritional information, cautionary when needed to prevent adverse reactions, but also EASY to read and compare.

Do you think that retailer priorities will always be in synch with supplier priorities in this area?

Jerry Garland:
Generally, suppliers and distributors have the same objectives if they are willing to accept that the customer is in charge. A little bit of putting yourself in the other guy’s shoes goes a long way. While both may have differing operational goals, they are interdependent upon the other for success.

How about entire new generations of employees that make have different expectations of what the work experience should be like?

Jerry Garland:
That question seems to be asked for every generation. While I am not on the front line of hiring, I see very bright young associates at AWG as well as out in the industry. New employees that want to learn, be productive and advance in a long-term career. The real question may be, “What are we doing to attract recent graduates and is the right compensation program in place to retain them?”

What's the biggest - and in retrospect, the most important - mistake that you've ever made, and how did you grow from it?

Jerry Garland:
Upon reflection, my biggest mistake was not mentoring and developing more associates for larger and more responsible positions. As I look back, I was fortunate that many of my bosses took an interest in my success and my growth so I could achieve something that I could never have achieved on my own. Mentoring takes time, resources and requires a genuine interest in the future of the individual.

During my retail career I enjoyed giving “battlefield commissions” to folks I knew could accept the challenge. As I accepted more responsibilities it grew much harder and with more operational risks to have the time to personally assist in the effort. Asking others to take that role of mentor always seemed to lose something in the translation.

What is the most significant thing you do each week, and why?

Jerry Garland:
Listening. You learn a lot in casual conversations, visual observations and getting feedback from a variety of sources. Over half of my priority list is normally generated as a response to a need.

What is the single-most important retailing rule that you've learned in your career, and how did you learn it?

Jerry Garland:
Never make the assumption that you can speak for your customers. As a young chain buyer, a salesman came in my office with a new product caller Perrier. Thinking, who would ever pay money for water in a bottle I turned down the new item.

If you had to define the most important aspect of leadership, what would it be and why?  (And, if you are so inclined, could you give an example of this quality in practice?)

Jerry Garland:
Success is the most important aspect of leadership, it’s impossible to provide leadership if you don’t have follower-ship. No one wants to follow a dud. People obviously want to be part of a winning organization and want to believe their efforts are worthwhile. Leadership can be difficult in a turnaround situation, but simple achievable goals need to be celebrated when achieved.

A leader needs to be able to identify the hill to be taken, how the plan is laid out and what success looks like.

An example of leadership was on display in our new Gulf Coast Division by our newly assigned Division Manager. He saw the need to attract new business to our facility. He marshaled the resources, highlighted the objective and got out of the way. New business fed off new business: Success brought more success.

Bonus question : What is your favorite movie, and why? (And is there a business lesson in it)?

Jerry Garland:
Gone with the Wind. After all, tomorrow is another day…

Tomorrow: Colleen Wegman.

KC's View: