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WASHINGTON -- With Food Distributors International holding its annual businessconference here this week in the shadow of the Capitol Dome, the spotlight will be squarely on the legislative agenda of the 105th Congress, and that suits John R. Block just fine.Block, FDI president, told SN last week he is looking forward to the opportunity to have the association's members express their views firsthand

WASHINGTON -- With Food Distributors International holding its annual business

conference here this week in the shadow of the Capitol Dome, the spotlight will be squarely on the legislative agenda of the 105th Congress, and that suits John R. Block just fine.

Block, FDI president, told SN last week he is looking forward to the opportunity to have the association's members express their views firsthand to members of Congress.

FDI's primary concerns, Block said, involve support for lower estate taxes, a balanced-budget amendment and use of labor teams.

"There's a great deal of unanimity among our members on these issues, so we will be able to visit with freshman members of Congress during a Wednesday morning reception and meet individually with specific senators and representatives later that day to let them know who we are and what we represent," Block said.

To be sure Congress gets the message about its concerns over inheritance taxes, FDI has taken out full-page ads in tomorrow's Washington Times "to alert representatives, senators and their staffs that our members will be voicing their concerns on this very important issue," Block said.

He said Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, has told him inheritance tax relief is high on his agenda.

FDI's other top priority, Block said, is passing a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, though he acknowledged he is not optimistic about doing so.

"President Clinton's budget does not directly tackle the difficult problem of balancing the budget, where entitlements like Medicare and Social Security are threatening to bankrupt us," Block said. "Instead he has called for more new entitlements, mostly in education." FDI also supports legislation authorizing the use of labor teams, which are composed of members of employees and management, Block said.

"With business so competitive, we need smoother working relationships more than at any other time, and if we can put together working teams to talk about problems and issues, then companies can avoid adversarial relationships while working more efficiently to meet competition," he explained.

Reflecting the association's concerns with legislation, Tuesday's general session at the business conference will feature a discussion on issues facing the new Congress with a panel that will include Block; Robert E. Stauth, chairman and chief executive officer of Fleming Cos.; Sen. Don Nichols of Oklahoma, the Republican Party's No. 2 man in the Senate; and possibly another member of Congress.

According to Block, the task of lobbying Congress on a wide range of issues has become a little easier since the industry's various trade associations began cooperating with each other and forming various coalitions over the last few years.

"FDI and some of the other associations don't have enough staff to take the lead on every issue," he pointed out. "So on food safety, Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Marketing Institute take the lead. And on retailer issues like food stamps, FMI and the National Grocers Association play the key roles.

"But when proposed legislation relates to distribution and transportation or tax issues, we take the lead.

"It just seems to have evolved that way, based on logic, with each association taking a bigger or smaller role as each issue arises, depending on where the interests of its members lie."

Trade associations have also been cooperating more in developing programs and services for their members, Block noted.

The most recent joint effort occurred during NGA's annual convention in Houston last month, when FDI held its annual marketing conference simultaneously.

"A lot of our members have attended the NGA annual meeting in the past, so we moved our marketing conference to their site, with each group holding workshops that were open to members of either association, and that worked out well," Block said.

He called the simultaneous effort "a good start," pointing to the Admark contest as the most obvious benefit of the parallel meetings. "Both associations formerly had ad contests in which the same companies competed, so combining that at the Houston meeting resulted in more contestant entries and less duplication."

He said FDI and NGA will try to develop additional joint undertakings during future NGA meetings.

The two associations will get together again here in June to co-sponsor the annual government affairs conference -- the third time the two organizations have jointly sponsored the event.

While FMI will continue to hold its own government affairs conference in the winter, Block said FDI and NGA are having discussions with FMI to determine the priority issues in those meetings, "so we can all come down the same track."

GMA is a full partner in FDI's fall productivity conference, Block pointed out. "They program some of the workshops for their members, and they've helped line up some exhibits, which makes it a true food-industry meeting on productivity and logistics. "We've also been encouraging FMI to take a stronger role as part of a team effort, since they have a lot of retail chains with the same needs in physical distribution and logistics, and they have told us they want to help us promote the productivity meeting more." According to Block, FDI's priorities are to help its wholesale distributors reach their fullest potential, and to enable those distributors to help their retail customers achieve their fullest potential.

"We will always continue to be logistics oriented, but we have a real obligation as well to direct distributors' focus to their customers as we look for new, more innovative ways to bring additional service to independent retailers," Block said.

Association cooperation will help wholesalers assist their customers by focusing more on programs geared to retailers, Block said.

As for helping distributors achieve their potential, he said the face-to-face meetings at the annual business conference are an excellent way to develop partnerships and strategic relationships.

Although FDI's business conference formally opened yesterday, the Vendex meetings between merchandising vice presidents and suppliers actually began on Saturday. Vendex was moved to a weekend schedule "so it doesn't compete with the executive-level business conferences that will take place [today and tomorrow]," Block explained.

"Although the two meetings are designed for different groups of people, there is some overlap, and some people were running back and forth between the two meetings, so we separated them.

"And if signups from vendors are any indication, then the separation has helped because we see more wholesalers participating in Vendex this year than last year, and that's encouraging to the vendors who want to talk with their customers.

"We think this level of participation could lead to more wholesale partnerships with suppliers, which will help distributors reach their fullest potential."

While Block said he believes the face-to-face meetings are the most important part of FDI's annual business conference, "we need other events to spark interest," he noted. The conference was set to include general sessions with talks by John Sculley, former president and chief executive officer of Pepsi-Cola Co., and Dan Rather, CBS News anchor.

Other general sessions include a speech by Block; a keynote address on creative solutions to industry challenges by Allister P. Graham, chairman and CEO of Oshawa Group, Etobicoke, Ontario, who is FDI's current chairman; and an industry panel that will reflect on some of Graham's comments.

Panelists will include William Dowd, chief operating officer, Fleming Cos., Oklahoma City; Roger M. Laverty 3rd, chairman and CEO, Smart & Final, Los Angeles; Tom Johnston, chief executive officer of Sutton Place Gourmet, Rockville, Md.; and Paula Snead, senior vice president, marketing, for Kraft Foods, Chicago.

One of the workshops at the event will focus on Retailing 2005, a follow-up discussion to the study presented at FDI's midyear conference in September regarding the role of food-service distributors in the future of home-meal replacement.

"What's clear from that report is, there's no single answer to the challenges of HMR, and retailers and wholesalers are trying to figure out how to capitalize on new opportunities in that area, to make sure those opportunities don't slip through their fingers," Block explained.

"There are so many different ways to go, and no one knows all the answers, but if you're not in there experimenting and trying to find out how to do it, then you'll be left at the starting line.

"As a result, many wholesalers are partnering with food-service companies to make sure their retail customers are at the head of the line and able to prosper in this new HMR environment."

According to Block, food service is playing a larger role in FDI activities.

"if you go back 10 years or more, food service was a stepchild of this association. But there's no question that it's now a full partner in FDI because the food-service industry has been on a growth curve for some time, and we think it will stay on that curve."

With the food-service industry beginning to look at Efficent Foodservice Response, "a cousin to Efficient Consumer Response," Block said, "the food-service side is just starting to get its teeth into the area of efficiency, but it's about five years behind the rest of the industry. And it won't catch up very quickly because there are more smaller companies doing business in that area.

"But the fact the industry has acknowledge there's a lot to be done is a first step in the process."

Block said FDI membership is growing. "We had a small increase in 1996, but it's hard to keep the membership numbers from going down because of industry consolidation," he said.

"That trend has made it more difficult to see an increase in the total number of member companies. But we have seen a steady increase in the amount of business the members do and there are still a lot of smaller companies, mostly niche players, that are potential members.