Inside This Issue - Opinion
FMI makes itself more relevant
February 7th, 2011
by David Pinto, Editor
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the Food Marketing Institute.
After years of wandering in the backwaters of the retail association world, long on misplaced and outdated reputation and woefully short on sustainable accomplishments, FMI has of late shown unmistakable signs of life.
This metamorphosis was particularly apparent at last week’s Midwinter Executive Conference in Phoenix. Among the indications that FMI is indeed becoming more relevant was the heavy attendance of senior grocery executives, an energy level often missing at past FMI events, and a business program that, while uneven and often of only marginal significance to the retailer attendees, was nonetheless more appropriate for a gathering of this type than has been true in the past.
Much of the credit for this turnaround-in-progress has been given, as it should be, to Leslie Sarasin, the association’s new (she’s been on the job less than three years) president and chief executive officer. Though she reportedly sometimes struggles to effectively communicate with her internal staff, she has completely won the respect, admiration and support of the FMI membership, and most particularly the association’s board of directors.
With good reason.
Under her leadership the organization has become more effectively managed, more sharply focused and more closely attuned to the needs of its membership. The organization’s finances, long questionably assessed and unevenly managed, have been restored to some semblance of logic. The association’s supplier advisory board, long unwieldy, is being pared to a manageable size. Perhaps most significant, the organization’s board and executive leadership have been invited to serve as more than figureheads for the association with little meaningful work to do.
Under Sarasin’s leadership and direction at least one critical focus has clearly emerged, one of importance to both retailers and suppliers. That focus is health and wellness. With an eye toward what progressive supermarket operators like Hy-Vee have accomplished in this emerging area, FMI has set out to address this complex and elusive issue, one that has rapidly become a key focus for both food retailers and their suppliers. To that end, FMI has scheduled a Health & Wellness conference in Orlando in April. In doing so, the organization is demonstrating an ability to target its approach to the challenges that confront and sometimes confound its membership, one that is all too rare in retail association agendas.
At the just-concluded Midwinter meeting Sarasin’s imprint was amply in evidence. She wisely encouraged the retailers to speak for the association. She allowed outgoing chairman Ric Jurgens of Hy-Vee to detail some of the ways in which FMI has progressed. She gave conference chairman Norman Mayne, chief executive of Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton, Ohio, the opportunity to detail some of the groundbreaking merchandising and marketing programs he uses to attract and retain customers at a chain that claims some of the most loyal and committed shoppers food retailing has seen.
To be sure, FMI remains very much a work in progress, a product of a generation of benign neglect. Its 80-member board can most charitably be described as cumbersome. It offers few opportunities for prospective associate members to sample the association’s wares before they commit to joining it — though that policy appears to be changing. Its approach to current supplier companies, which can best be described as one that leaves no supplier outside the tent, has complicated the task of involving suppliers in meaningful discussions and positive outcomes — though that too appears to be changing as participation on the supplier board is pared to a more workable number.
Perhaps most encouraging, FMI appears to be an organization whose time, once again, has come. The critical issues that have emerged in grocery retailing and manufacturing in this decade — the suddenly critical issue of food safety, the emerging importance of health and wellness, the new emphasis on preventing and treating illnesses that have become endemic to American society, the developing need to educate consumers in addition to selling to them — have combined to lead FMI into uncharted but potentially lucrative waters, to make the organization more relevant to its constituents than it has been in 20 years, and to offer the very real possibility that FMI will reemerge as something that resembles what it once was: the unquestioned leader in the retail trade association community.
It falls to Leslie Sarasin to lead the association in these emergent directions without suffocating it, to gently provide guidance and direction while allowing the membership to assume the leadership roles, to make membership in FMI easier to attain while insuring that meaningful participation is justly earned, to expose the organization to new directions, new opportunities and newly meaningful events, to once again make the association worthy of its heritage and its mandate.
There is every early indication that she will, in time, prove more than equal to this daunting task.