business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

CHICAGO - As I write this in the early morning hours, the city of Chicago and surrounding communities are facing a day in which there are supposed to be torrential rainstorms, high winds, and even the potential of tornados.

Inside the McCormick Place convention center, where retailers and suppliers are meeting at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Connect and United Fresh shows to consider their futures, the atmosphere may be less damp, but the winds and threat of dangerous storms are no less ominous.

I do love a metaphor.

The question is whether attendees are prepared to deal with the competitive storms and the inevitable repercussions. It seems to me that the industry has reached a critical juncture at which retailers, suppliers - and yes, even trade associations - have to not just acknowledge the fundamental economic, technological and cultural changes that are changing the landscape in which they operate, but must embrace the opportunities that these changes create.

Without hesitating. Without hedging their bets. Without hoping, in the backs of their minds, that doing business in traditional ways will be enough to survive.

Steve Case, the co-founder of America Online, which helped build the "on ramp" to the internet that made it accessible to millions of Americans, and who now runs an investment firm that helps innovative startups gain traction in the marketplace, certainly seemed to think so. Case pointed to a "third wave" in the Internet revolution that is making technology more integrated in our lives, saying that this requires "a different mindset and different playbook" for companies that want to succeed.

Case also argued that the ability to create networks of people and companies - virtual (in every sense of that word) partnerships - may be a defining characteristic for competitive companies. He quoted an African proverb: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." And he suggested to the FMI audience that "no matter how many smart people work for your company, there are more smart people who don't work for your company." Finding ways to access them - and make companies accessible to them - is a critical ability in the current environment.

The importance of a people-focused culture was echoed in a presentation made by H-E-B president/COO Craig Boyan to the United Fresh conference, in which he suggested that most experts would say that the three best supermarket companies in the country are Wegmans, Publix and Costco - and that all of those companies place a premium on investing in employees, not driving down labor costs as a means to an end. (Boyan was modest enough not to put H-E-B in the same class, but pretty much everybody else in the audience would've done so.)

Networks, I would suggest, can exist both within and outside organizations ... and that the key to successful leadership is being able to nurture them, take advantage of them, invest in them, and learn from them. Indeed, Case responded to a question about legacy cultures by pointing out that companies like Amazon and Google have been designed not to be complacent, and not to create legacies that may hold back innovation and disruption.

Which brings me back to the weather. As storm clouds gather, there will people who will ignore the predictions and radar reports, and there will be those who will understand that ignorance of such things put their companies and employees at severe risk.

The question, for the leaders here in Chicago, is what kind of people they want to be.

Eyes open, or eyes closed.

Other notes from Chicago...

• Food Marketing Institute (FMI) President and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin presented the organization's 2016 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends analysis, suggesting that there have been some significant shifts in how people shop. "Today, 85 percent of the U.S. population reports it shares in at least half the grocery shopping for the household, and there is great diversity in the way these individuals divide food shopping responsibilities," she said. "It’s time to expand our shopper vocabulary," and start marketing to a more fragmented consumer class that is sharing more of the shopping responsibilities.

• FMI recognized Maureen Murphy of Price Chopper Supermarkets/ Market 32 with the 2016 Esther Peterson Award for Consumer Service, celebrating her for "a lifetime of vision, integrity and caring sensitivity to the needs of retail food customers."

• And, FMI presented the Glen P. Woodard, Jr., Award for Public Affairs to Jack Brown, executive chairman of Stater Bros. Markets, describing him as "as one of the most ardent supporters of the organization’s Political Action Committee and for encouraging his company to be involved in the political process."
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