TRADE RELATIONS ROLE MIRRORS FOOD RETAILING'S NEW REALITY

In today's world of reality TV and extreme makeovers, it's not surprising that we often find contestants who meet the star challenge one week only to be voted off the island in the very next episode. It doesn't seem to matter whether it's a few budding singers or a group of entrepreneurial apprentices, they've all discovered just how thin the ice can be when you're skating at or near the top of your

In today's world of reality TV and extreme makeovers, it's not surprising that we often find contestants who meet the star challenge one week only to be voted off the island in the very next episode. It doesn't seem to matter whether it's a few budding singers or a group of entrepreneurial apprentices, they've all discovered just how thin the ice can be when you're skating at or near the top of your game.

So as we fast approach the Food Marketing Institute Show, May 1 to 3, I am reminded of a few of the missing -- Holbritter of Minute Maid, Irish of Philip Morris, Maurer of Procter & Gamble, Miller and Williams, both of Unilever Bestfoods. These guys were among an elite group known as trade relations executives. Last year, FMI recognized this group of veterans, as it has others before them, with the Albers Industry Relations Award for their service and statesmanship. They are all retired now.

In their heyday, the trade relations guys wielded significant power, authority and dollars as knights-errant for the big consumer packaged goods companies. They were ambassadors who worked with industry associations in tackling everything from board-based initiatives such as backhauling, ECR and category management to helping sponsor speakers, research studies and golf outings at industry functions.

Their dance cards were filled during the year as they hit the show and convention circuit making high-profile appearances from Boca Raton to Desert Springs. Always quick with a big smile and a handshake, these guys were empowered to get things done. They had the CEO's ear. They had access and information. On the customer side, they were the liaison between the national accounts salesman and the retailer. They could help get new products to shelf. They knew how to smooth ruffled feathers when things went wrong, and patch up relationships. That was then.

Today the industry has changed. The go-to-market strategies have to fit in with the new reality of the marketplace. The balance of power has shifted from the big CPG companies to the big retailers. As a result of on-going mergers, acquisitions and consolidations, many have fallen through the ice. Even the trade associations have consolidated with fewer events to attend these days. Intense competition also has led to cost reductions and operational efficiency. The pressure is on more than ever before to grow top-line sales.

The one-on-one relationship between the trade relations guys and the retailer has been supplanted by account teams that represent various disciplines -- marketing, sales, promotions, logistics, IT, financial. These teams along with the heads of the CPG and supermarket chain companies have their top-to-top planning meetings to set the course for the coming year. All the key decision makers are now together, talking and strategizing with each other. This is a good thing and didn't exist in the good old days, say industry observers. So where does the trade relations guy fit in?

Those who have retired are being replaced for the most part by others who may hold additional responsibilities. Trade relations have become a part of their job but not their sole responsibility. Most of those I've talked to still see a need for this position. What needs to happen so the position doesn't become extinct is an extreme makeover with a focus on adding value and finding innovative ways for food retailers to better serve their shoppers and grow sales.