LAS VEGAS -- The National Grocers Association is setting off on a new mission as it begins its annual concept show here today.

According to Thomas K. Zaucha, NGA president and chief executive officer, the association's new strategic plan, including its new mission statement, is scheduled to be unveiled at tonight's opening general session by Michael S. Needler, NGA chairman, who is also president and CEO of Fresh Encounters, Findlay, Ohio.

Zaucha said registration for the show is up 15% this year and registration for exhibitors on the show floor is up 35% -- "the first time in recent memory that we've sold out," he pointed out.

The jump in attendance and exhibitor participation "are signs we're seeing a reenergized independent sector," Zaucha said. "Community-focused companies are realizing more and more the importance of the roles they play in the marketplace, which translates into greater show attendance; and suppliers also understand that the independent sector is more vibrant and an important sector to invest in."

NGA's revised mission statement is "a concise statement of the association's strategic intent," he explained. The statement reads, simply, "To ensure success of independent retailers and wholesalers to better serve the consumer."

That simple declaration contrasts with the association's original mission statement at the time of its founding 22 years ago: "To advance the common interests, improve the level of trust and mutual understandings and enhance the business partnerships between independent retail grocers, retailer-owned companies and voluntary wholesale distributors with manufacturers and suppliers engaged primarily in the sale and distribution of food, beverages, consumer products and services so as to better serve the consumer."

"What we never really quite articulated before was the passion of the community-focused independent," Zaucha pointed out. "As we look at NGA and its members now and in the future, we see [that] retailer in a class by itself, and we think a new mission statement better reflects the economics and the thinking of our membership.

"The successful pursuit of the new mission statement by NGA will benefit consumers and their communities by enabling retailers and wholesalers to provide competitive choices in the marketplace. It provides NGA with a singular focus and reason for being as a trade association, and all association activities, programs and services must focus on the accomplishment of this mission."

According to Zaucha, there's "a sense of urgency" about implementing the association's priorities: to significantly grow association membership by establishing growth targets, and communicating and promoting NGA's philosophy, mission and objectives to targeted non-member companies; and to increase the effectiveness of its government structure by successfully balancing needs for decision-making efficiency with desires for participation and involvement among members.

Zaucha said NGA has 1,500 member companies -- a number he said can be increased by 500 members over the next three years, with many new members coming from the growing ranks of emerging retailers, many of them ethnic operators.

By NGA's definition, an independent retailer is a privately owned or family-controlled company that operates one or more formats; it may be serviced by a wholesale distributor or be partially or fully self-distributing; and while it may be publicly traded, controlling interests are held by families or by employees. "But all are true entrepreneurs," Zaucha pointed out.

"This definition suggests NGA members are differentiated from their competitors more on the basis of philosophy, approach and commitment to the consumers and community than [on the basis of] company size," he pointed out.

NGA members falls into two categories, Zaucha explained: direct members, including traditional retailers, regional independents, emerging retailers, wholesalers and state associations; and a separate tier that includes manufacturers and service suppliers.

NGA is also encouraging universities to become "alliance partners," he said. "Universities continue to be an important source for research and for potential industry leaders, yet they are an under-tapped resource," he pointed out.

NGA has invited representatives from a handful of universities to make presentations at a board meeting here this morning that precedes the convention opening. Schools scheduled to participate are Arizona State, Cornell, the University of Minnesota, Oklahoma State, Portland State, Purdue, St. Joseph's and Western Michigan.

Besides allowing academic voices to be heard, Zaucha said, NGA is also attempting to give its members a greater voice in the workings of the association with the creation of four new executive councils: one for regional chains; one for emerging retail operators; one for wholesalers; and one that will include representatives from each of the 50 state associations.

"The councils are an attempt to create more of a sense of belonging and participation in NGA," he explained. "Each council will look at the operational, marketing and political trends within its sector and attempt to develop programs and services tailored to meet the specific needs of the constituency it represents."

Besides the mission statement and membership definition, the association's new strategic plan encompasses a statement of philosophy that provides the rationale for NGA's existence; its strategic objectives; and a working agenda for implementing the plan.

According to the new statement of philosophy, NGA's goal is "to promote diversity in the marketplace to increase consumer choice in price, variety, service and value achieved through a healthy independent sector."

"We're living in an era of consolidation when companies argue that bigger is better, but consolidation doesn't provide inherent values or economic values to consumers," Zaucha explained. "We believe this statement of philosophy identifies the economic and social values NGA desires to sustain in the long term in the broadest and most fundamental sense of accomplishment."

Zaucha said NGA is committed to nine strategic objectives to fulfill its mission: retailer services, wholesale services, manufacturer and supplier services, consumer relations, government relations, research and education, communications, fair competition and industry relations -- "objectives [that] should be prioritized each year to address targeted opportunities and challenges faced by the industry and members to provide a foundation for developing annual plans and operating budgets," he noted.

NGA's working agenda consists of the "10 keys to retailer success" it has developed over the last few years: to compete effectively against supercenters and other power buyers; to repeal the estate tax; to create a level playing field; to reinvent supermarkets as a lifestyle destination center; to win back center-store sales; to recruit and retain the next generation of managers and entrepreneurs; to help retailers and wholesalers operate more like a virtual chain in collaboration with their trading partners; to take full advantage of all available technology; to create new synergies that achieve more competitive economies of scale; and to gain access to competitive growth capital.

"These items provide a focus for NGA and help to translate the association's efforts to achieve outcomes and benefits that are demanded and recognized by members," Zaucha explained. "These working agenda items provide strategic-level outcomes that can be used to assess the association's performance over the long term."