FLEMING'S NEXT TOP GUN: IS IT A JOB FOR SUPERMAN?

DALLAS -- Fleming's next top executive needs to be someone who can build morale inside the organization, repair relationships with retailers, and win the trust of Wall Street. That's what executive recruiters and retail customers of Fleming here told SN last week.And, they added, the new boss should also make sure that the delivery trucks get to the stores on time.Finding such a person is a tall order,

DALLAS -- Fleming's next top executive needs to be someone who can build morale inside the organization, repair relationships with retailers, and win the trust of Wall Street. That's what executive recruiters and retail customers of Fleming here told SN last week.

And, they added, the new boss should also make sure that the delivery trucks get to the stores on time.

Finding such a person is a tall order, noted Jose Tamez, managing partner of Austin-Michael, a San Antonio recruiting firm.

"You're talking about a really multi-talented person, a unique person, one's that's not easily found and, once found, not easily enticed to take on a job such as this," he said.

Earlier this month, Mark Hansen resigned as Fleming's chairman and chief executive officer, leaving the company to deal with issues such as a formal investigation of its vendor practices by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the loss of its Kmart business, and the continuing decline of its stock price.

The company named Archie Dykes, non-executive board chairman, and Peter Willmott, interim president and CEO, to run the distribution operation temporarily while it scours the business world -- or perhaps simply looks in-house -- for a successor to Hansen. According to Mary Jane Schermer, Denver-based vice president and managing director of Cook Associates, a Chicago recruiter, the next head at Fleming needs to be able to see clearly into the future. "They need somebody who is able to anticipate the next Kmart, and that means pulling back the covers and looking under the blankets," she said.

Fleming's retail customers said they had more modest hopes for the next executive to head the company.

James Stoll, president, Bag-N-Save Foods, a single-store operator in Dover, Ohio, told SN the company needs a leader who knows the industry. "They need somebody with a lot of common sense. I think Fleming, in an effort to control their costs, cut too many people out of their divisions," said Stoll.

"If they have somebody who has a lot of experience in the grocery business, has run warehouses successfully in the past, and is more of a people person, It would make a whale of a difference," he said.

Honesty was also cited by the retailers as important.

Gary Nichols, owner, GLN, in Checotah, Okla., said, "I'm real concerned about the reputation of Fleming. If it doesn't have a good reputation in the vendor community, they are not going to be able to get the merchandise they should get from them.

"We need what everyone else in the corporate world needs: leaders who can bring forth a good image and honesty to the marketplace."

The retailers also wanted a leader with a strong focus on independent supermarkets.

Thomas Shope, president, Shope's IGA, Coolidge, Ariz., said, "They've had a tremendous morale problem, so I'm excited to see a change being made.

"I'd like to see someone that's interested in serving independent retailers, who made up a big part of Fleming's volume in the past, instead of someone who goes around making great deals with big companies that are no longer around."

However, not all retailers expressed dissatisfaction with the company.

"So far, the service level has been pretty good in our area," said Gene Stille, president, Nugget Market, Woodland, Calif.

Jeff Gray, vice president, Gray's Foods, Rockford, Ill., gave the previous management a vote of at least partial confidence. "I thought the qualities Mark Hansen had were good, but it seems like he's the victim of bad decisions," he said.

Like the retailers, the recruiters were divided on whether Fleming's next leader needs to stay the course or find a new direction.

Schermer said, "They received a major blow by the Kmart relationship crumbling, but I believe in their strategy in terms of getting into supplying the convenience stores and big-box retailers.

"They're poised to do that and do that well."

Tamez, in contrast, said he believes that Fleming under Hansen's direction pursued too many contradictory goals.

"You're looking at a company that in the last two to three years has said they're a wholesaler and a retailer. Then they say they don't want to do retail anymore. Then they say they want to get back into retail, but only into price-impact retail. Then they say they want to get into the c-store distribution business."