CEO ELECTION-YEAR VIEWPOINTS

While repercussions from mad cow disease and proposals to increase the minimum wage can grab immediate attention, food-industry chief executive officers mostly want sustained economic growth in this election year, they told SN.Executives interviewed by SN gave President Bush credit for jump-starting the economy with his tax-relief package. Yet, factors such as U.S. troops still in Iraq, slow-to-rebound

While repercussions from mad cow disease and proposals to increase the minimum wage can grab immediate attention, food-industry chief executive officers mostly want sustained economic growth in this election year, they told SN.

Executives interviewed by SN gave President Bush credit for jump-starting the economy with his tax-relief package. Yet, factors such as U.S. troops still in Iraq, slow-to-rebound national employment, and the country facing a $500 billion deficit tempered their opinion that the nation was in full recovery.

Acknowledging that consumer confidence is up, Larry Johnston, chairman and CEO, Albertsons, Boise, Idaho, noted the consumer still remains wary. "The overall economy, of course, is the principal factor affecting consumers, but the situation has been exacerbated by the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have proven to be major challenges for our country.

"I would advise the winner of the presidential election to carefully consider the current atmosphere of uncertainty in our country when weighing decisions."

Jay Campbell, president and CEO, Associated Grocers, Baton Rouge, La., said he supports Bush and wants to see him re-elected. "The programs he put in place are just starting to take effect, and I think they are going to pay dividends very similar to the ones that Reagan put in during his first term. They were the ones that kick-started the great growth economy throughout the '80s and through the Clinton administration."

Al Plamann, president and CEO, Unified Western Grocers, Los Angeles, said taxes will be an issue in the presidential election, "revolving around budget deficits at the federal and state levels."

John Catsimatidis, chairman, president and CEO, Gristedes, New York, asked whether it will be guns or butter. "A great majority of our $500 billion deficit is going toward guns and defense-related industries. If war continues and the butter section of the economy is moderate, then the economy will continue to suffer."

Eileen Scott, CEO, Pathmark Stores, Carteret, N.J., said the big challenge for the next president is to "get the economy back to pre-9/11 levels."

In order to achieve that, "meaningful job growth" is needed, said Ron Marshall, CEO, Nash Finch, Minneapolis.

Besides the economy, the CEOs pointed to other food-industry issues that could affect their business -- permanent repeal of the death tax, raising medical costs, and the renewed call to implement the country-of-origin labeling rule .

"One issue important no matter who is president will be health care costs, particularly as it relates to both the elderly and the poor," said Scott. "Obviously, I'm speaking about Medicare and Medicaid and the impact the changes will have on our business, especially Medicare and the prescription drug component."

Jeff Noddle, chairman, president and CEO, Supervalu, Minneapolis, said the cost added to imports if COOL is enacted concerned him. "While we don't know the outcome of country-of-origin labeling, it adds enormous costs to imports and needs to be revised or changed," he said.

"Hopefully, there will be some calmer heads thinking about that issue [COOL] before the election, but we will have to wait and see," stated Ric Jurgens, president, CEO and chief operating officer, Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa.

Jack Brown, chairman, president and CEO, Stater Bros. Holdings, Colton, Calif., said the presidential election "will put the final nail in the coffin to the death tax, which is a major concern for all supermarkets, regardless of size. It's about family-owned businesses being taxed out of existence when the proprietor dies, and it's about enabling a business to continue, which affects many regional chains."

Rich Parkinson, president and CEO, Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City, said he believes if there's a change in presidential administration, "then things like ergonomics and estate taxes will be issues again.

"During the Clinton administration, we saw more attention paid to social issues, including proposals on ergonomics that involved obscene costs. And we didn't see any movement on estate taxes until Congress was aligned with the current administration," he observed.

Ross Roeder, chairman, CEO, Smart & Final, Los Angeles, said, "This industry has always been fairly conservative in its basic business, and that favors Bush, but it depends which candidate takes a more pro-business approach to job creation and dealing with the deficit."