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CHICAGO -- IGA doesn't stand for International Grocers Alliance, but perhaps it should, because that certainly is what IGA has become.In just 14 years, IGA has built its membership outside North America to nearly 1,800 stores -- about the same number as operate in the United States -- with sales of $10.2 billion, almost half of IGA' s total 2000 volume of $21 billion.According to Paulo Goelzer, vice

CHICAGO -- IGA doesn't stand for International Grocers Alliance, but perhaps it should, because that certainly is what IGA has become.

In just 14 years, IGA has built its membership outside North America to nearly 1,800 stores -- about the same number as operate in the United States -- with sales of $10.2 billion, almost half of IGA' s total 2000 volume of $21 billion.

According to Paulo Goelzer, vice president, IGA International, IGA's U.S. operators like the idea of the company's international expansion. "IGA retailers here are excited about being part of a system that keeps getting bigger and bigger," he explained. "It makes them feel more confident about their own business."

It's hard to say how much international growth IGA will have over the next few years, Goelzer added. "Our growth in the past few years has been so far beyond expectations, it's almost impossible to estimate how much more will occur over any given period," he said.

All existing areas are targets for additional growth, Goelzer noted.

"IGA doesn't have any particular strategy for moving from one country to the next," he told SN. "We simply pursue opportunities as they arise, and we've been fortunate so far that retailers or wholesalers in each country have come to us.

"Maybe one day we will do strategizing for specific countries, but the nature of our growth today is more opportunistic. IGA does not solicit members overseas, and we don't approach them -- we wait for them to come to us," he explained.

That approach has enabled IGA to avoid any taint of political involvement, Thomas S. Haggai, chairman and chief executive officer of IGA, told SN. "We've opened 8 IGA stores in China since 1994, but the political situation at any given time has never had an impact on us because it's IGA China, not IGA U.S., that's operating in China," he pointed out.

"We have a quasi-relationship with each country, and in every country we're in, the country itself or a company within that country asked us to come in, and that gives us a real advantage."

Looking at expansion possibilities, Goelzer said IGA anticipates additional growth in Asia, which accounts for 40% of its international sales, with stores in China, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

"Our first wholesale partner was C. Itoh Food Systems Co. of Japan, followed by Davids of Australia, and when Davids moved into Asia, we followed, and we've grown since then through positive word of mouth," Goelzer explained.

Goelzer, a native of Brazil, said he also sees considerable growth potential in his native country, where IGA has 16 stores open and 35 more in transformation, with a total of 100 expected to be open there by the end of 2002. IGA is also in discussions with other South American countries, Goelzer noted, although nothing is imminent, he said.

He said there are also considerable growth prospects in Africa, where IGA has stores in South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland through its partnership with Metcash Trading, based in Johannesburg, S.A. With Metcash operating in several other southern African countries, the IGA banner is likely to show up in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Mauritius, Malawi and Kenya as well, Goelzer said.

"But elsewhere in Africa, the markets are very undeveloped, and we don't see opportunities at this time with any local companies with sufficient economic resources to partner with us," he noted.

Opportunities are also limited in northern and western Europe, he said. "In England, Germany, The Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, most of the business is controlled by a small number of chain operators.

"But we see some potential in southern Europe, in places like Italy, Greece and Spain, where there are a lot of strong independent operators," Goelzer said. "And we also see potential in eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and the Czech Republic, where the market is up for grabs because a lot of stores that were formerly controlled by the Communist government are now controlled by independent entrepreneurs.

"In addition, there are various laws in eastern Europe to protect independents and to help them stay in business, and those kinds of economic contracts help us."

IGA plans to expand into Jamaica later this year, following a commitment earlier this month from Super Plus, a 20-store operator based in Kingston.

According to Goelzer, IGA has been working with Super Plus for several months on a "twining project," which involves putting U.S. executives together with executives of a local company so one can transfer knowledge to the other over a period of time -- an approach IGA has used in Australia, China, Japan and Indonesia.

Twining project experts come from the ranks of IGA's distribution partners and IGA operators, and even from among the chain's retail executives, Goelzer said.

"A short period is not enough time to transfer knowledge of store development and management and to change a retailer's mind-set so he accepts new ways of operating," he explained. "You need a longer time to work together, so instead of sending someone to tell them what to do and who then leaves, we send people for longer periods to train these executives so they can train others."

An additional source of training comes from IGA University, which is a partnership between IGA and Coca-Cola Co. that's designed to help international retailers improve their operations, he said.

Although training is a key part of IGA's overseas expansion, "we're not there to Americanize the supermarkets in other countries," Goelzer explained, "but to provide whatever they need to improve their operations.

"And it's more than just telling them what to do to copy successful IGA operators. We want them to know why we at IGA believe what we believe. Because if you just copy a system without knowing why it works, then you can't apply that theory to your business and you won't have long-term positive results."

While the IGA system is built on partnerships with local distributors, IGA is flexible in its approach overseas, Goelzer explained.

"If we went only into countries with established wholesale systems, that would eliminate much of the world," he said. "In countries where there are no established wholesalers, we apply a franchise concept, where we teach one operator the IGA system and then make his company a master franchiser to expand IGA throughout that country.

"That's the approach we used in Japan, where there was no distribution company. And we may do it again with retailers in the Philippines, Jamaica and possibly Singapore, who would then become master franchisers."