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CEOs Leave Industry Meeting With Piles of Homework

CEOs Leave Industry Meeting With Piles of Homework

By David Orgel

There’s loads of pressure on food industry CEOs these days, so surely they must look forward to escaping work for the occasional industry conference at a warm-weather location, such as FMI’s Midwinter Executive Conference in Orlando, Fla., late last month.

Yet anyone who attended with the expectation of a worry-free interlude would have been mistaken.

Top executives were forcefully challenged by conference speakers to embrace industry initiatives, fix internal company problems and act before regulators force change upon them.

The food industry’s top brass left Midwinter with lots of homework assignments.

“I need you to have passion for these issues,” Tim Hammonds, FMI’s president and chief executive officer, said in a speech that outlined hot-button topics. “You are here to take something home that can make a difference.”

Hammonds urged action on issues ranging from high interchange fees to food safety. He also warned of the “tremendous gap in management talent” that will follow the retirement of Baby Boomers. Particularly troubling was how some supermarkets are undermining themselves as they attempt to attract college students to deal with this management problem. It turns out some of these students are forever turned off during retail internships in which they encounter store managers who give them the worst jobs and impart an uninspiring experience based on the philosophy that everyone has to come up through the ranks. This is a problem embedded in supermarket culture and one for CEOs to address forcefully.

The issue of sustainability is gaining momentum and was addressed by more than one Midwinter speaker. Claude Hauser, CEO of Federation of Migros Cooperatives, Switzerland’s largest retail organization, urged executives to seek global industry standards for sustainability initiatives. It was hard to argue with this point. For example, why should each retailer have to develop their own codes of human rights conduct for suppliers rather than standardize them? “We must enlarge the circle and work together before regulations oblige us to find expensive solutions,” Hauser said.

The topic of health care took center stage when Steve Burd, Safeway’s chairman, president and CEO, pressed industry leaders to attack rising costs by seeking market-based health care plans and by lobbying lawmakers. Burd observed that change can be easier than many seem to believe. “I’m trying to broadly enlist the business community to change the rules of health care,” he said.

If all that didn’t provide enough CEO assignments, there were urgent remarks about diversity from Jeff Noddle, Supervalu’s chairman and CEO and current FMI chairman. He said retailers need to improve diversity both in their organizations and on the FMI board. “We need to make tremendous progress on diversity, and we need to start now,” he said. His remarks were sure to ruffle a few feathers, as many executives feel their companies have already made much progress.

So many issues, so little time. How many topics will get adequate follow-up attention? No one can say for sure, but there’s lots of opportunity for individual and collaborative action. However, as any schoolchild knows, the longer you wait, the more homework builds up.