WAL-MART, THE FTC AND A&P'S LEAD IN THE EXECUTIVE SUITE

As was reported in SN not long ago, Wal-Mart Stores is continuing its incursion into the food retailing business and this time by acquisition. In February, it agreed to purchase Supermercados Amigo, the largest supermarket operator in Puerto Rico.And, as you'll see on Page 4, the proposal apparently has attracted the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which is looking to see if it would be

As was reported in SN not long ago, Wal-Mart Stores is continuing its incursion into the food retailing business and this time by acquisition. In February, it agreed to purchase Supermercados Amigo, the largest supermarket operator in Puerto Rico.

And, as you'll see on Page 4, the proposal apparently has attracted the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which is looking to see if it would be anticompetitive.

FTC scrutiny in this instance is seen by many as being groundbreaking since, it's thought, a wider view than is usual is being taken of the market. Here, the FTC seems alert to more than directly competing supermarkets, as is generally the case, and is considering Wal-Mart's sales at its several in-market Sam's Clubs.

Assuming a decision pivots on such scrutiny, it would suggest that should Wal-Mart want to acquire a supermarket chain on the mainland, it might have to clear higher hurdles than before.

But the FTC doesn't always move in a linear fashion. It's instructive to recall that in 1995 the FTC approved the sale of a batch of National Tea Co. stores in the Midwest to Schnuck Markets. It was a complex deal that required the separate flip of National Tea assets in New Orleans.

What's important, though, is that Schnuck Markets argued to the FTC that its Midwestern market share should be calculated with non-supermarket retailing venues in mind, such as discount, membership, drug, specialty and off-price, which happened.

Then, in 1999, a change occurred in connection with Ahold's failed buyout of Pathmark. In that instance, the FTC aimed toward requiring Ahold to sell certain Pathmark assets in a bloc, not piecemeal as had been satisfactory earlier. So, these things change.

Now, let's move to a sharply different topic, that of A&P. As you'll see on the front page, there's a news feature in this week's SN about the many challenges facing the chain, and some of the means its executives have developed to overcome them. Many of the challenges mentioned in the news feature are the same ones with which the beleaguered chain has grappled for maybe a generation or so.

What's different, though, is the advent of Elizabeth R. Culligan to the upper reaches of the chain. Beth Culligan was promoted to president and chief operating officer, from executive vice president, in February. She was appointed to the board in March. She joined A&P little more than a year ago from Nabisco, where she was president of its international operation.

Her incumbency and quick rise at A&P stands as a sharp reminder that the supermarket industry has few gold stars to pin on when it comes to elevating women to high executive posts.

Indeed, Beth Culligan is by far the highest-ranking woman in supermarket retailing, by virtue of both the size of the chain and the titles involved. More than that -- based on my knowledge, which may be faulty -- she is the sole woman who has ever ascended to the top or near-top of a supermarket retailing firm who got there without being a member of a controlling family.

This is very strange business given that a majority of supermarket patrons are women. It's time for more of this kind of change.