Sarasin Envisions a 'New FMI'

As Food Marketing Institute prepares to launch its new FutureConnect conference focused on training and development next month, it is also looking ahead to the reshaping of the association as a whole. In an interview with SN, Leslie G. Sarasin, president and chief executive officer of FMI, said she has been laying the groundwork for what she referred to as a new FMI that will seek to

ARLINGTON, Va. — As Food Marketing Institute prepares to launch its new FutureConnect conference focused on training and development next month, it is also looking ahead to the reshaping of the association as a whole.

In an interview with SN, Leslie G. Sarasin, president and chief executive officer of FMI, said she has been laying the groundwork for what she referred to as a “new FMI” that will seek to better serve its members. The results of that effort could involve changes to next year's more traditional FMI Show in Las Vegas as well, she said.

In the first six months since being named president and CEO, succeeding longtime FMI veteran Tim Hammonds, Sarasin said she has focused a lot of her time evaluating the association's staff, and meeting with FMI retail members and other industry leaders, such as former FMI Chairman Bob Aders.

“After this listening tour and all of this fact finding, and after we get through FutureConnect and our board meeting and some other things we have going on, I will begin to put all of this together and figure out what the new FMI is going to look like, and how it will accomplish the goals of our members,” she told SN.

Defining FMI's revised mission will be key to determining the kind of events and activities the association will produce going forward, she said, noting that members can expect some changes in the format of the traditional booth show that will be held in even-numbered years, alternating with FutureConnect.

“I am taking a very close look at the events we have scheduled,” Sarasin said. “We have FutureConnect this year, then we go back to the show like we've had in the past, but I think we have to evaluate that and determine, what is the event that is needed for the FMI of the future, and how can we meet the needs of the entire industry?

“Maybe there are aspects of the previous show that we incorporate there, and maybe we bring in some new ideas and provide some thought leadership in different ways. So, I think we'll see some changes in that direction.”

The traditional booth show, which had been held annually in Chicago for several years, had seen declining attendance and an erosion in supplier support in the form of booth space. The show moved to a smaller venue in Las Vegas last year in an effort to revitalize interest, and this year marks the first time in decades that the event will not be staged, as FutureConnect takes its place on the calendar.

“One of the things that happens in associations is we get really good at one thing, and it becomes very successful for a while, and then we don't change,” Sarasin told SN. “We don't stay abreast of the changing needs of our members. We say, ‘Well, it worked five years ago, it will work again.’

“We don't want to do that any more. We want to make sure whatever we are offering is meeting the most pressing needs of the people who might attend. This constant reevaluation of what we are doing will become a way of life at FMI.”

NEW COMMITTEE

To help crystallize the mission of FMI going forward, Sarasin has formed a new strategic-thinking committee, which includes some key FMI board members. That group is scheduled to hold its first meeting later this spring.

“We are going to start to have conversations about some of the things that need to be addressed, and how we might do things differently going forward to create the fiscally responsible, responsive, fun FMI that I know I envision, and I think the board has envisioned when they brought me along to help them put it together,” she said.

The new committee will also reach out to suppliers and other “industry partners” for input, Sarasin explained.

Seeking ways to collaborate with other industry associations, she pointed out, is also high on her agenda.

At the FMI Midwinter conference in January, FMI unveiled an agreement with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Washington, to look for ways to work together to streamline their activities and prevent duplication.

Industry relations representatives from the two groups — dubbed the Trading Partner Alliance — held their first meeting, a day-long event, three weeks ago to discuss “issues we face together in our shared supply chain,” Sarasin said.

“It was a tremendous meeting, and I think the beginning of some very important and potentially productive conversations between FMI and GMA.”

The two associations are planning to combine GMA's annual Executive Conference with the FMI Midwinter forum beginning in 2011, Claudia Peters, vice president of communications and marketing at FMI, told SN. Prior hotel commitments prevented the two groups from combining the events in 2010, she said.

In addition, earlier this year FMI announced that it would co-locate its annual Supermarket Pharmacy Conference with the Health Beauty Wellness Marketing Conference staged by nonfood trade group Global Marketing Development Center. That event is scheduled for Sept. 11-14 in Orlando, Fla.

Sarasin said such opportunities for collaboration are “numerous and exciting.”

“I think you will see more of those types of events with other associations as we get a little further into figuring out what is the best way to make things work,” she said. “My background is in the frozen segment in the industry [as president and CEO of the American Frozen Food Institute before joining FMI], so I wouldn't be surprised if you see some more conversations between FMI and the frozen-food sector, as well as produce and meat and other commodity-specific organizations, because there is a lot that can be achieved there, and we can do better together than we can separately.”

She noted that FMI historically has not collaborated as extensively as it could have.

“Not only is it part of my personality to want to do more of that, but it is a business imperative that we do it.”

Sarasin has also begun transforming the FMI staff, promoting Jennifer Hatcher to group vice president of government relations following the departure of longtime Senior Vice President John J. Motley III, for example.

MAKING A CONNECTION

Sarasin also said she has been enthused by early response to the FutureConnect Conference, scheduled for May 4-6 at the Hyatt Regency in Dallas, noting that “nearly 2,000” people have signed up to attend.

Peters said about 75% of registrants have been retailers and wholesalers, and about 25% suppliers.

The conference is designed to focus on training and development issues for companies in the food distribution business with the goal of nurturing future industry leaders.

In addition, it will include FMI's annual Speaks presentation, where the association unveils detailed research about the state of the industry.

“I am very excited that FMI has taken the lead in recognizing the importance of leadership and development, and the fact that we can begin this conversation at this year's FutureConnect conference,” Sarasin said.

She said the aspect of the conference that she finds “most intriguing” is that its educational programs will be extended beyond the confines of the event through electronically based training programs and social media.

FMI will provide “the ability to continue to communicate after we have left Dallas at the end of the three days, to allow the industry to continue to participate in educational sessions, even in ways where they don't have to leave their desks,” she said.

“I think once we have this event, it will grow in importance and stature in the industry, and I think we will see more and more people relying on FMI for this opportunity to help develop their leaders of the future in their company.”

FMI will conduct extensive evaluations internally and survey attendees in order to evaluate the program to make adjustments for future versions of the conference and in the ongoing educational activities. In addition, members who opted not to attend will also be surveyed to find out why they chose not to participate, Sarasin said.

She conceded that the event “would not be a tremendous revenue generator.”

“We've got to develop new a financial model at FMI,” she said. “We need to take a look at what needs to be done for the industry, developing a plan and then creating the financial model that goes along with that.

“We need to be fiscally responsible and have strong financial footing, but every event we have can't be judged solely on its revenue-generating potential.”