CONTACTS AND CONFERENCES

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- If Food Distributors International here broadcast its 1999 agenda on television, it accurately could be billed as "All Business, All the Time."Taking cues from the response of last year's participants, the FDI's education staff tweaked its upcoming calendar to give members more of what they want most -- "a chance to do business," said John Block, president of the FDI.Building

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- If Food Distributors International here broadcast its 1999 agenda on television, it accurately could be billed as "All Business, All the Time."

Taking cues from the response of last year's participants, the FDI's education staff tweaked its upcoming calendar to give members more of what they want most -- "a chance to do business," said John Block, president of the FDI.

Building on last year's theme of enhanced cooperation between supply chain partners, the 1999 calendar aims to stress "face-to-face communication" designed to strengthen those relationships. One of the main vehicles the FDI provides is the annual Business Conference and Partner Programs scheduled this year for March 6 to 10 in Dallas.

"It brings distributors together with vendors," and pairs "CEOs of major wholesale companies with the CEOs of major suppliers," through fast-paced Vendex meetings and Business Conference Suites, Block explained.

"We get a tremendous amount of business done in a short period of time," he said. Vendex, a series of 20-minute face-to-face sessions between wholesaler merchandising executives and their supplier peers, is designed for exploring day-to-day tactical concerns, while BCS is an opportunity for senior distribution and supply managers to discuss long-term strategic issues. The meeting times for Vendex and BCS are offset to allow conference-goers to participate in both programs.

In 1999's event, Vendex will be more segmented and "will run all day Saturday and Sunday," Block said.

The BCS format will provide "21 hours of discussion of what the important issues are," said John Gray, executive vice president and general counsel for the FDI. There is also another format available -- the Chairman's Club, where participants can continue their discussions or just spend some friendly time in an atmosphere intended as less frenetic than the other two formats.

Block said the annual event is run at a hectic pace. "The truth is, by the end, they're exhausted, but they're happy because they accomplished so much work." The agenda "is dominated by business meetings. That's the heart and soul of it," Block said.

Another major event on the FDI's calendar is the Midyear Executive Conference Sept. 26 to 28 in Coronado, Calif. "The theme of the discussions tends to be on a strategic level," Block said of the program that brings together top executives from wholesaler, food-service distribution and supply companies.

Last year, "We invited retailers for the first time. We asked wholesalers to pick some and bring them. After all, they are our customers. The whole industry is pressured to improve the relationship [between retailers and wholesalers] and this is a natural thing to do to accomplish that."

Described by Block as one of the "signature events" of the year, the conference features a guest lecturer. The 1999 speaker has not been announced but recent conferences have been addressed by former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Robert Dole, syndicated columnist George Will and former South African President F.W. de Klerk.

One of the highlights of last year's executive conference was the formal unveiling of a comprehensive FDI study on the wholesale supply system with a focus on improving wholesaler/independent retailer links. This year's event will devote some time to "following-up the report" and focusing "on fundamental issues involving how to keep independent retailers operating," Gray said.

According to Gray, part of the FDI's mission is to make sure "wholesalers are adept enough at dealing with the different types of retailers. It's easy enough to say 'I'll deal with the big chains. But there are a lot of different [sized chains] that there can't be a shotgun approach."

Another key event, the Food Industry Productivity Convention & Exposition, Oct. 31 to Nov. 3 in St. Louis, "is the crown jewel of our annual meetings," Block said. He explained that, keeping with the cooperation theme, "all of the companies that want to be a part of this are encouraged to invite 15 partners."

What they can expect are more than 100 workshops and general sessions that range from pallet exchange and category management to human resources and information technology, and exhibits from more than 200 vendors showcasing cutting-edge services and products and a facilities tour. On the latter, "we don't just [tour] food warehouses," Block said. " Once we did a Federal Express facility. Something different can be an eye-opener for our members."

According to Gray, the human resources segment will concentrate on "the talent drain in the industry, all the way from the warehouse to the executive offices and what we can do to keep the best and brightest."

The FDI continues to reach out to the retail sector with its Retail Store Development Conference in Atlanta Nov. 7 to 10. Co-sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, this conference "is a very popular one," Block said. The emphasis will be on current trends and challenges, such as emerging retail food channels and new, experimental formats, and how to recognize and seize opportunities. Issues include how to enhance the performance of development executives and how to locate vehicles for taking costs out of the system.

Block said the conference will also be an opportunity to gather insights into how to stay competitive despite growing challenges and "promoting new development that will capture [increased] market share." As an added bonus, the FDI will be offering exams for the its Certified Supermarket Designer program during the conference.

According to Block, while a date has not been set for this event, the Legislative and Regulatory Issues Meeting, slated for sometime next December in Washington, represents a chance to "go to the Hill and promote our policies."

Also on the horizon is the Financial Executives Conference, Feb. 14 to 17, in San Antonio. The theme is "The Diverse Strategic Role of Financial Executives in the Emerging Century." Topics will include "Striving for Excellence," "Mergers and Acquisitions," "Using the Latest Tools of Strategic Cost Management" and "Foodservice Is Everybody's Business in the New Food Chain."