ARLINGTON, Va. — Leslie Sarasin, president and chief executive officer of FMI — the Food Industry Association, is intent on ensuring that the group’s recent name change signifies more than an update of its image. Formerly the Food Marketing Institute, the newly rechristened association represents an industry far more diverse and complex than it was a decade ago when Sarasin took the reins.
“As we evolved, we broadened our perspective as an organization,” she says. “Over time, the lines between who is a retailer, who is a manufacturer and who is a service provider blurred, and traditional grocers faced more and more competition from mass marketers, drug stores and lots of other retailers; practically everybody who is in retail is now trying to incorporate some food into their business. It became clear that if FMI wanted to remain relevant, we needed to widen our scope.”
Aside from the new brand identity, the most tangible evidence of the changes under way at the association are the inclusion of consumer packaged goods suppliers on the board of directors, Ten years after establishing an associate member category for vendors, seven such companies, including Anheuser-Busch, Nestlé and PepsiCo, are part of FMI’s governing body, and discussions with other potential board members from the supplier community are ongoing.
“We are very much about trying to get things done,” notes Sarasin, “and in order to get things done, you have to have the right people at the table. The more companies from different disciplines that are engaged with FMI, the more effective we’ll be in advancing the food industry’s agenda.”
The change in the composition of the board is significant. Since the views of retailers and vendors can diverge, the inclusion of suppliers could, in some cases, result in friction. Sarasin is confident the diversity of viewpoints will ultimately prove a source of strength.
“It is true that we occasionally have differences of opinion,” she says. “But if you compare today’s environment with a decade ago, we have many fewer instances of differences of opinion than we did in the past. That’s true because, to a large extent, we are all taking orders from our consumers. When we all have to respond to this shared customer, there’s much less room for differences of opinion throughout the value chain.”
Even if viewpoints among retailers and suppliers conflict, Sarasin foresees real benefits in the new board structure.
“The valuable part of what we’re doing here is having the conversation from the get-go as a collective rather than having pockets of conversation going on all over the industry, and hoping that at some point we’ll come together,” she explains. “We don’t have the luxury anymore of having these pockets of conversation that come to different conclusions because, at the end of the day, all we’re doing is confusing our customers.”
In the wake of a major legal victory last year, when the Supreme Court sided with FMI in its bid to protect the confidentiality of store-level sales information, the association remains as focused as ever on industry advocacy. The outcome of the 2020 election cycle could have a big impact on policies governing the food business, so FMI is working to influence the process.
“We do support candidates who are supportive of our industry issues,” Sarasin says. “We use the PAC [FMI Political Action Committee] dollars that we have available to try to encourage House and Senate members who are encouraging to us by helping support their campaigns.”
Once the new Congress is in place, FMI will devote “a lot of energy and resources” to educating members about issues important to the food industry, including pension reform, and building on recent progress with swipe fees and food safety.
“’Pension reform is a problem that a number of our companies face, particularly as a result of a lot of the merger activity that’s happened in the industry,” explains Sarasin. “They’ve inherited pension plans that aren’t adequately funded, or were part of group plans where some of the other companies involved are no longer in business. As a result, there is this tremendous pressure on some of our companies. So pension reform is something that we certainly would be thrilled to have addressed.”
Legislative, regulatory and legal developments in the states are also on FMI’s radar.
“With the gridlock in Washington, advocates on a wide range of issues have decided to go to the state level — and even the county and municipal levels — to try to get some of their goals accomplished,” Sarasin points out. ”That’s a challenge for us, because the last thing we want in a business like ours is a 50-state patchwork of laws and regulations that impact how we operate. In a business that relies on interstate commerce, it would be very challenging. We’re in a position of needing to put more and more resources into what’s going on in the state and local levels than ever before.”
Even as FMI deals with the vicissitudes in Washington and state capitals, the association will continue to serve members as a source of relevant information and new ideas.
“A big part of our role is to help educate member companies about what’s going on in the industry, the challenges and opportunities that exist and the technologies that are available to assist them, and to give members a forum to talk about the issues of the day,” notes Sarasin.
“That will help companies develop a sense of shared values and focus on the shopping experience. It doesn’t matter whether customers are shopping in the store or online, that experience is going to make the difference of who is in it for the long haul.
“If we want to keep them as customers, we’ve got to understand them, and we have to be able to personalize to the degree that we know what they want to know about our products, we know what they’re looking for in the shopping experience, and we try to meet those needs. That’s how we help FMI members remain relevant in the marketplace.”