SMART & FINAL URGES SOCIAL EFFORT

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Food retailers and wholesalers face tough challenges from crime and other social problems and need to play a bigger role in improving the lot of their employees and their communities, according to Roger Laverty 3d, president and chief executive officer of Smart & Final Stores, Vernon Calif.Laverty, speaking as a member of a panel here, said his company has made a commitment

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Food retailers and wholesalers face tough challenges from crime and other social problems and need to play a bigger role in improving the lot of their employees and their communities, according to Roger Laverty 3d, president and chief executive officer of Smart & Final Stores, Vernon Calif.

Laverty, speaking as a member of a panel here, said his company has made a commitment to remain an anchor in troubled neighborhoods and to make employees feel integral to the organization. Smart & Final operates more than 140 grocery warehouse stores in California, Arizona and Nevada -- many in inner-city locations.

"The workplace is part of society, and, if I have any major criticism of our industry, it is that we haven't taken the responsibility as employers to deal with this," he said. "We haven't provided the training and development to help people grow with us. Then we cry that the Federal government is trying to force it down our throats."

Laverty was one of a four-member panel that addressed issues ranging from crime to immigration and health care. The program took place at the Midyear Executive Conference of the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association, held here recently. Other panel members were Gerald Austin, executive vice president of operations, Fleming Cos., Oklahoma City; Vernon Briggs Jr., a labor economist at Cornell University, and Reed Tuckson, a physician and president of Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science. The moderator was Arthur Miller, a professor at Harvard Law School. Laverty stressed that employers have a responsibility to identify potentially violent workers by screening before hire for drugs, alcohol and psychological problems, and testing during employment, under certain circumstances. Companies should also ask associates to report problems with workers on the job, he added.

Top management, he added, needs to improve workplace conditions by getting involved in major problems like harassment. "We've seen significant changes since leaderships of companies took strong positions on sexual harassment and similar issues," he said. The biggest crime problem for Smart & Final is not with employees but with outsiders. The company has been victimized by 64 armed robberies in the past nine months, "mostly carried out by 16-year-olds with their latest 9-millimeter handgun," Laverty said. "The threat to our employees and customers seems to be growing exponentially."

The operator has been facing hard choices about its commitment to inner-city locations.

"Do we turn stores into armed camps with armed guards and risk shootouts," Laverty asked, "or do we turn over cash? Or do we not operate in those parts of the city that have a crying need for us -- the inner-city areas?

"We've taken the position that we'll continue to be partners in the revitalization of these areas."

Panel members expressed different views on the role of government in tackling crime and other social problems.

"Why does business fight public policies that try to help?" Cornell's Briggs asked. "Corporate America's answer is downsizing, which can cause fear and violence."

Fleming's Austin said government cannot address these problems as well as the private sector can.

"Business won't change all social problems overnight, but it can do it better than government," Austin said. "Many of the solutions should be local, not from Washington. This industry is very involved in education. Our company, for example, is involved with a science museum in our home town to help educate children."

Tuckson stressed that social problems can't be completely turned over to corporate America with a "single-bullet approach." Instead, he advocated major roles by government and business, with companies focusing on education and training in the workplace and in communities, he said.