BEYOND 2000

MINNEAPOLIS -- Mike Wright, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Supervalu here, said he was looking forward to the release of the Food Marketing Institute's new strategic plan for the first decade of the new millennium.Wright, who is ending his two-year term as FMI chairman at this week's FMI convention, headed the committee that put the report together.The report, still untitled, will

MINNEAPOLIS -- Mike Wright, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Supervalu here, said he was looking forward to the release of the Food Marketing Institute's new strategic plan for the first decade of the new millennium.

Wright, who is ending his two-year term as FMI chairman at this week's FMI convention, headed the committee that put the report together.

The report, still untitled, will provide a road map to take the association and the industry through 2010, Wright told SN in a preconvention interview.

"The strategic plan will attempt to offer a mission statement of who we are, what kinds of change-drivers will affect us in the next 10 years and what those drivers will mean for the industry and FMI," Wright explained.

"Everything in the world affects the industry, and the strategic plan is designed to respond to the change drivers.

"We've spent a lot of time talking about drivers like the economy, technology, new competition and different demographics and lifestyles and what those things ultimately will mean for FMI in terms of member needs, government relations, meal solutions, food safety and other factors."

The new strategic plan, covering the first decade of the new millennium, will succeed FMI 2000, the outline developed for FMI in the early 1990s. "That was a well-developed plan that was put together when Dick Currie [president of Loblaw Cos., Toronto] was FMI chairman, and it paved the way for most of the initiatives we've seen in this decade, including Efficient Consumer Response, food safety, meal solutions and technology issues," Wright said.

The only issue the report did not foresee was the rapid industry consolidation of the last couple of years, he added.

Wright said the new report would deal with "what we anticipate from the economy, technology, the industry's structure and changes in demographics and lifestyles, and the implications of all those things for FMI."

Included in those considerations, he said, would be the aging of the baby boomer generation and the arrival in the workforce of what Wright called "echo boomers" -- the under-20 group that includes 72 million people, only slightly smaller than the 78 million baby boomers, he pointed out.

He declined to discuss any specifics of the report before it was released.

During the interview with SN, Wright offered several observations:

He said he hoped for a new definition of what constitutes an independent so that segment's true strength could be gauged.

He was encouraged by the success of the Fight BAC! campaign that urges consumers to guard against food-borne bacteria at home.

He said the FMI intended to take a closer look at home meal replacement by converting its Meal Solutions show next fall into a conference.

Taking costs out of the system, one of the goals of Efficient Consumer Response, has become an ingrained part of the food industry, he noted.

Looking back at his chairmanship of the last two years, Wright said the high point had been "the overall continued success of FMI. I leave office following a term that saw FMI continue to make major strides at improving services to the industry. FMI's new strategic study will continue that."

Wright said his successor, Danny Wegman, president of Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., would bring a new perspective to the FMI because of his background as a major chain operator and his experience working with FMI in the past.

"Danny has been deeply involved with the Efficient Consumer Response project, so he's been working for years to find ways to make the industry more productive. He's also got experience with home meal replacements from the excellent departments at his stores. And food safety has been another of his areas of involvement with FMI over the years.

"In addition, Supervalu and Wegmans have been among several companies working together on an FMI project to use the Extranet for commercial transactions."

Wright, a wholesaler executive, said his tenure illustrated that the independent segment had been given high priority, just as it had been under his predecessor as FMI chairman, Bob Bartels, president of Martin's Super Markets, South Bend, Ind.

"Both of us have brought a unique perspective to the chairmanship, and that's been evidenced by FMI's work helping independent retailers resolve Y2K problems, establishing an e-mail relationship among 60 independent operators to exchange ideas and question with one another over the Internet and giving strong support to independent operating committees -- share groups for noncompeting independent operators -- under FMI sponsorship."

Wright said he believed the independent segment was very healthy, although he admitted it could be difficult to gauge the strength of independents. "It's a definitional problem," he said.

"The definition formulated 50 years ago, and still being used today, said independents operate fewer than 11 stores. But many of Supervalu's customers have more than 11 stores, and they are very independent. But the definitional problem means surveys aren't capturing all independent sales.

"Bob Bartels devised a definition that said an independent is a family-owned operator who buys from a wholesaler and who believes he is an independent, regardless of how many stores he has.

"For me, the typical independent is a business entrepreneur, with new and creative ideas. For years independents have been the source of many industry innovations, including super-warehouse stores, supercenters and upscale stores."

Industry consolidation offers independents new opportunities, Wright said, "because stores that are spun off by chains frequently end up in the hands of independents who choose to grow and add market share. And often, as chains move to single formats, independents can carve a niche for themselves that can't be duplicated."

Turning to food safety, Wright said he's been thrilled by the amount of consumer education FMI has tried to spread. "I'm particularly gratified that food safety has been such a high priority, and the whole campaign to educate consumers has gotten off to a whiz-bang start," he declared.

That campaign, Fight BAC!, is an effort to educate consumers about the risks of food-borne bacteria at home. The program was developed by the Partnership for Food Safety Education in Washington, which is funded by the FMI and other industry organizations.

"Manufacturers and retailers are certainly doing their part to insure food safety, but consumers can't rely solely on them," Wright said. "Preparers at home also have some responsibilities for food safety -- to wash their hands and preparation surfaces often, avoid cross-contamination of products, cook products to proper temperatures and refrigerate promptly."

Wright said he had been gratified by the widespread acceptance of the Fight BAC! campaign, particularly at the classroom level, "and several international organizations are also trying to use it," he added.

Food safety has always been an important issue, Wright said, though he acknowledged it has been in the spotlight more in the past few years because of outbreaks of e coli and listeria pathogens. Accordingly, the FMI has beefed up its staff in the food safety area, he said, "and the association has done an outstanding job helping members with problems and working with all levels of government."

But Wright said he saw a need for more dialogue on the subject because of improved scientific methods. "Science is better able to identify food-borne problems than ever before, and it's finding problems in areas no one expected -- for example, produce that carries e coli and other bacteria.

"The solution is for science to get better at eliminating such bacteria and to provide more tools to insure the safety of our food supply."

One proven tool is irradiation, particularly of ground beef and poultry, Wright said. "There's more movement in the industry to offer consumers the choice of buying meat that's been irradiated or meat that has not, and FMI has tried to move that process forward."

Irradiation science has been available for 40 or 50 years, Wright said, "and irradiation has been declared safe by more government agencies in the world than any other method of insuring the safety of the food supply other than pasteurization.

"The astronauts have been eating irradiated foods since the beginning of the space program, and nuclear medicine has been around for years. So I hope the media doesn't play demagogue with irradiation, but instead tries to educate the public about scientific findings."

Commenting on home meal replacement, Wright said he's seen considerable improvements in the past two years. "But HMR doesn't just mean deli," he said. "There are other options for quick meals.

"For example, frozen foods manufacturers are responding with items where you just add meat to make some wonderful quick meals. And when you look at prewashed, packaged salads, you see that we've gone from just one or two items a few years ago to full walls of it in the produce section, including cut vegetables and lettuce in different styles and combinations.

"So I certainly think the industry has progressed in the area of HMR over the last two years."

The industry's changing perspective about HMR will be evident in October when the FMI converts its third annual Meal Solutions show to a conference without an exhibit floor, Wright said. The meeting, scheduled for Colorado Springs, will be invitation-only and will be built around case studies.

"We want to sit down and discuss how to move the industry forward and to focus on what we need to do with product lines and employee skills, and we felt we could do that better in a conference environment," Wright said.

ECR, the industry's hottest buzzword in the mid-1990s, has "pretty much become a way of life," Wright said, "so we don't talk about ECR as much as we used to because we're already doing things that way.

"Most wholesalers are working with manufacturers to get more efficiencies and to take costs out of the system, and that's just the way business is done now. It's part of the ingrained fabric of how we do things.

"So while there's very little discussion of ECR specifically, the talk is about how to continue to improve efficiencies. When we meet with manufacturers, the theme is how can we do things better to take costs out of the system, and that's what ECR is intended to do."