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Olsen Takes on Challenge of State Association Network

Why would Jim Olsen, the newly seated president of Food Industry Association Executives, move from the largely pro-business confines of the Utah Food Industry Association into the maelstrom of political activity nationwide? It's his nature to accept more challenges: Olsen pilots Cessna, Beechcraft and Diamond airplanes, and he drives a BMW R1200RT motorcycle these days all pursuits that require quick

Why would Jim Olsen, the newly seated president of Food Industry Association Executives, move from the largely pro-business confines of the Utah Food Industry Association into the maelstrom of political activity nationwide?

It's his nature to accept more challenges: Olsen pilots Cessna, Beechcraft and Diamond airplanes, and he drives a BMW R1200RT motorcycle these days — all pursuits that require quick reactions, quick thinking and systematic checklists to safely maximize performance — much like his new post.

He told a search committee for the Utah association 32 years ago he'd stay on as president until he “got bored.” Boredom never seeped in, yet Olsen sought the FIAE presidency this spring once Barbara McConnell retired after 15 years of service. As an FIAE member all these years in his Utah post, Olsen told SN he is familiar with the most effective processes and feels eager to dive in and address today's thorniest food industry issues on a national platform at FIAE.

Bottle bills, bag laws, bank interchange fees and beverage taxes are some of the heated topics arising from many parts of the country in 2010 — all of which he is moving on in his post at the center of it all. Olsen points to government budget deficits as the biggest producer of angst for FIAE members today.

“Red ink is bleeding across this nation, particularly in state governments,” Olsen told SN in an interview. “Utah, for example, is one of the states that has a constitutional mandate to have a balanced budget each year. Combine these mandates with the loss of revenue most or all states are experiencing, and it has them looking to cut expenses and develop new revenue sources. High on their list are bigger sin taxes on cigarettes and alcoholic beverages, and greater efforts to tax bottled water, sugared drinks and juices.”

He hears about contested issues every day from FIAE members, who are primarily local, state, regional and national food industry associations representing 95% of the grocery retail industry (chains, regionals and independents, as well as some leading CPG manufacturers). They are on the front lines protecting business interests of the food channel, county-by-county, state-by-state. Their battles inevitably funnel up to his hub position.

Olsen has been in their shoes for more than three decades. He knows the value of shared insights from other FIAE members about strategies and tactics “that either work well to beat back these efforts or get you in more trouble. When I represented Utah, for example, I could learn from Ron Fong in California [president and CEO, California Grocers Association], which is one of the bellwether states, about the issues active there. I'd know in 12 to 18 months they'd be coming to my state, and I'd be prepared to handle them,” said Olsen.

The need to share insights is often more urgent and unforgiving today, however. Olsen knows the strength of FIAE lays in the collective knowledge of its member network, so the quicker questions are posed and solutions shared, the better. “If a local association has a problem, they can find out from any other member about resources to use, allies to engage with, arguments that are effective and research that supports our case, so we aren't constantly re-creating the wheel,” he noted.

Olsen sees his role primarily as a builder of coalitions and networks that facilitate prompt movement of information and insights to the parties that need it. To keep it all concise, digestible and actionable, Olsen intends to filter and prioritize what he does pass along. “‘Where do I turn for help’ is the No. 1 question we get. We don't need to know every detail. We just have to understand the issue to support members in need,” explained Olsen.

To help speed communications, Olsen plans to make FIAE adept in the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which younger members tend to want to use. He also intends to step up the frequency of the quarterly newsletter.

Olsen also regards the FIAE Annual Convention as a linchpin event that brings together more than 100 state and industry executives who “develop professionally through educational sessions, strengthen and broaden relationships, and network on important issues.” The next convention is slated for Nov. 10-13 at the Tradewinds Island Resort, St. Pete Beach, Fla. Olsen has visited the site and is “pulling the agenda together” with this year's convention chair, Linda Doherty, president of the New Jersey Food Council.


Synergy between FIAE and other key trade groups has proven to be a powerful industry advocacy tool through the years. So Olsen made it one of his first priorities this spring to meet with executives of the Food Marketing Institute, the National Grocers Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association. His purpose: To “make sure they know we will continue to support them, and that we hope they'll continue to reciprocate.” He came back from the trip describing how “without exception, they will be active and supportive. Barbara [McConnell, the former FIAE president] did a great job with them and others. I hope to build on that.”

FMI, NGA and GMA all lobby for the industry and tackle issues of national scope. The blend of their resources and authority, along with the state- and local-level political connections of FIAE members across the country, has proven to be an effective, cohesive way to advance positions with legislators wherever issues arise.

One recent example Olsen described: A Utah legislator who is a dairy farmer using rbST on his herd filed a bill that would have imposed package labeling restrictions on manufacturers and dairies that sell rbST-free milk. The GMA shared insights it had from dealing with rbST labeling issues elsewhere, and together with FIAE they prevented this bill from becoming law.

Each of these associations is also an FIAE member with a senior-level executive on the FIAE board of directors. They include: Bill Manteria, vice president-state government relations, FMI; Tom Wenning, executive vice president and general counsel, NGA; and Scott Riehl, vice president-government affairs and associate counsel, GMA. Also, the FMI, NGA and FIAE trade groups co-host the annual Washington Public Policy Conference, which occurred most recently in March 2010. It was at this conference in prior years when McConnell and Olsen each received FMI's Donald H. McManus Association Executive Award for public affairs leadership.

Olsen also received the NGA Association Leadership Award in 2009, and was lauded by NGA President and CEO Tom Zaucha for having pushed millions of dollars to retailers' bottom lines either by passing or killing various pieces of legislation. “Jim's dedication and commitment to his members and the industry is unmatched. He is a tireless advocate,” said Zaucha.

FIAE also collaborates closely with other trade groups, including the American Beverage Association, International Bottled Water Association, International Dairy Foods Association, American Chemistry Council, Consumer Healthcare Products Association, National Association of Convenience Stores and Soap & Detergent Association.

Olsen also noted his background serving retail merchants, and said he intends to strengthen FIAE's relationships with NACS, the National Retail Federation and the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

Following are some recent state issues tracked by FIAE:

Credit card interchange fees:

  • The Vermont Senate unanimously passed S. 138, a bill that reins in credit card interchange fees. The law cites the market power of Visa and MasterCard and notes “merchants do not have negotiating power with regard to the contract for acceptance of credit and debit cards and the cost of the interchange fees for such acceptance,” according to a posting by the Vermont Grocers' Association. The law, which will go into effect July 1, prevents any electronic pay system from imposing any requirement, condition, penalty or fine in a merchant contract for any of the following: setting minimum or maximum dollar values of credit card purchases, not accepting cards at any locations, and display of a discount for consumers who pay in a way that carries lower fees for the merchant.

  • In Colorado, Senate Bill 188 would have prevented retailers from adding extra fees to debit card transactions and extended such a ban on credit card surcharges, reported the Denver Post. But its own proponents killed it after retailers pushed state senators to support an ATM amendment to the bill, which would have publicized a 30% increase in Visa's PIN-based debit card fees.

Taxes on sugared beverages:

  • Washington state started taxing soda and sweetened beverages three years ago. Yet in an April 2010 special session, the legislature layered on an additional 2 cents per can pop tax at wholesale, and added sales tax to unsweetened bottled water and carbonated beverages, according to Jan Gee, president, Washington Food Industry Association.

  • Kansas is considering a tax on any beverage that is sugared or has less than 10% juice.

  • New York anti-tax advocates formed a coalition, held petition events in the state Capitol, and continue to run an information website at Eleven talking points galvanized the discussion against Gov. David Paterson's penny-per-ounce tax proposal. Among them: academic research that such taxes have minuscule effect on obesity; voters oppose such legislative encroachment; such a tax is regressive; and the industry is bringing to market more low-calorie, no-calorie and reduced-portion products.