NGA, FDI ARE AGAIN DISCUSSING MERGER

RESTON, Va. -- The National Grocers Association here and Food Distributors International, Falls Church, Va., are talking again about a possible merger, although the top executives at both organizations told SN last week there is no certainty a merger or any other combination will occur.John R. Block, the FDI president, said he is taking a wait-and-see approach "because we've been up and down this

RESTON, Va. -- The National Grocers Association here and Food Distributors International, Falls Church, Va., are talking again about a possible merger, although the top executives at both organizations told SN last week there is no certainty a merger or any other combination will occur.

John R. Block, the FDI president, said he is taking a wait-and-see approach "because we've been up and down this flight so many times before, and while we are talking, I'm hesitant to be too optimistic because we have talked for a long time."

Block said FDI's next board meeting is not scheduled until March, on the eve of its annual business conference, "and there's nothing on our agenda right now, nor do we have any committee meetings set between now and then, regarding a merger.

"It's possible that a merger might be more likely this time, but I'm not sure. The situation can change from day to day, but it will be up to the FDI and NGA boards to decide."

Thomas K. Zaucha, chairman and chief executive officer of the NGA, said talks about some sort of combination between the two associations have been ongoing since an NGA white paper on the subject in 1994.

"It's been an evolutionary process that has resulted in a series of joint efforts, and that process will continue to search for synergies and greater efficiencies," he said.

"But it would be premature to suggest that process will result in a formalized structure of some sort or acceptance or rejection of a specific plan."

A board member of one of the two associations, who requested anonymity, told SN ongoing talks have been "fairly definitive."

He said the trade associations have set a March deadline for a proposal "because this is probably our third effort in the past 10 years to form some sort of alliance, and without a deadline, these types of talks have wandered and meandered, with no sense of urgency." Rather than pointing toward an actual merger, however, he said the discussions involve creating an umbrella organization that would include both the NGA and FDI, plus the International Foodservice Distributors Association (a component of FDI), an approach that would help eliminate duplication of efforts while allowing each group to maintain its autonomy. The board member also said it is likely that any proposal would suggest that one of the three association presidents would take on the dual role of head of his own group and of the umbrella organization.

Both Block and the board member confirmed that Patrick M. Quinn, retired chief executive officer of Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., is serving as liaison between the two association's boards, "which is a different approach than assigning joint board committees to explore what we can do together, as we've done in the past," Block said. "And although it's a unique approach, I'm not sure if it will bear any more fruit."

Appointing Quinn as liaison has helped move the process forward, the board member told SN, "because Pat has great credibility with both organizations -- having served as NGA chairman and been active in FDI -- and he's a great facilitator who feels in his heart that this is the right thing to do."

Quinn could not be reached for comment last week.