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How Zaucha's NGA Defied Odds for Independents

How Zaucha's NGA Defied Odds for Independents

Tom Zaucha has never shied away from bucking conventional wisdom.

When the food industry expressed excitement about possible benefits from Efficient Consumer Response in the early 1990s, Tom, the National Grocers Association's founder, president and CEO, instead warned of potential pitfalls. His point: The efficiency goals of ECR wouldn't succeed unless independent retailers first achieved fairer access to products and terms from trading partners.

When the industry increasingly viewed independent retailing as a declining sector, Tom begged to differ. He said the problem wasn't falling market share, but rather a faulty definition of what constituted an independent retailer. Independents, he contended, should be defined far more broadly than 10 stores or fewer, a description that overlooked their growth patterns.

And so it went. Conventional wisdom went one way, Tom often went the other.

On June 30, Tom will step down from his 28-year role at NGA, the organization he began in 1982. In a special section that coincides with this week's NGA Convention, SN looks at Zaucha's legacy in the independent arena. His tenure is a lesson to today's leaders about the benefits of a focused agenda and persistence in the face of daunting odds. His willingness to battle entrenched interests led to a wide range of victories on issues ranging from price discrimination to burdensome regulations.

It's also fitting that this week SN launches a new ranking: the Top 50 independent operators, which is a companion to our annual Top 75 list of the biggest retailers and wholesalers.

Tom was one of the first industry leaders I met in the early 1990s when I joined SN. I quickly learned that despite his reputation for debate and persistence, Tom had a congenial personality and winning smile. He has completely enjoyed being part of this industry and helping to mentor new entrants.

NGA's success was part substance and part style. The organization pressed forward on all the issues of importance to independents. Its knack for describing agendas and issues with memorable phrases helped drive attention to its mission. Consider the title of a Zaucha convention keynote address in 1998: “A Declaration of Independents: Succeeding in the Next Millennium.” Then there was that battle to broaden the industry's definition of independent beyond 10 stores or fewer. NGA dubbed it “The Rule of 10,” and Zaucha insisted, “‘The Rule of 10’ has got to be changed.”

Independents are far better off because of NGA's advocacy. So is the industry at large. Independents are ideal candidates for testing new products and initiatives, given their streamlined structures and closeness to communities. They are being rediscovered by some brand suppliers at a time when big chains are giving more weight to private label and SKU reduction.

Tom's advocacy will be missed, but his years of work ensures that the mission will go on at NGA.

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