SN asked some industry executives — many of whom have become long-time friends of Tom Zaucha and his wife, Bernadette — to comment on Zaucha's personality and what makes him tick. The number of words used to describe Zaucha can easily fill up these remaining pages. Here are just a few: quality guy, the Ronald Reagan of the food industry, a gentleman, bright, articulate, informed, courage of convictions, consensus builder, smart, aggressive, foresight, and the list goes on.
Here are a few personal anecdotes about the man.
Many remembered, including Zaucha, the convention in Philadelphia in 1986 that never was, due to a pending city garbage strike. Zaucha had to decide whether to cancel the convention at the eleventh hour. The difficult decision demonstrates his fortitude and foresight under fire.
Jere Lawrence, president of Lawrence Bros., Sweetwater, Texas, got a phone call from Zaucha asking him to fly to Philadelphia because “things were looking bad” as city garbage workers were about to go on strike right before the start of the National Grocers Association convention. That meant other unions such as those who were to do the electrical hookups at the convention would be in solidarity with the strikers. The convention was about to be canceled.
Zaucha told SN it was like the 1950s TV show, “The Millionaire.” A guy with a little satchel from London showed up to meet with Zaucha and Lawrence in Philadelphia. Zaucha had the foresight to insure the event against unknowns such as a union strike that would shut down the city.
“Lloyd's of London said they would pay 100%,” said Lawrence. “So we didn't have all the convention expenses and we got all the money from Lloyd's. It was very lucky at the time and kept us afloat.”
It more than kept NGA afloat — it provided the organization with solid footing.
Lawrence added that none of the board members knew Zaucha had taken out an insurance policy on the NGA convention.
Imagine, said Tom Wenning, NGA executive vice president, having to inform 2,000 to 3,000 attendees within a few days of the convention that it was canceled. Back then, there was no such thing as email. A handful of NGA staffers had to hand type labels and FedEx the cancellation notices to attendees.
The effort met with nearly 100% success. Only one board member showed up for the convention. He had decided to drive to Philadelphia from Florida and missed the FedEx notice.
In April 2003, Fleming Cos. decided to self-destruct by applying for a reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.
The company's fortunes had suffered considerably over the previous two years as the result of an investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission into questionable business and accounting practices. Fleming had also faced a class-action lawsuit from its shareholders over the validity of its public statements, ended its relationship with its largest customer, Kmart, and saw its stock price drop to less than $1 per share.
Fleming was a major distributor to over 800 IGA retailers. When it decided to liquidate, many IGA retailers found themselves scrambling to find a distribution source.
“If we had not the continuity of being founded in 1926 we might have folded. There is always the strength that comes by continuity,” said Tom Haggai, non-executive chairman of IGA.
“There wasn't a week or two or three days at a time that I didn't hear from Tom Zaucha. He was the person from industry that called immediately and asked, ‘What can we do to help?’ You sort of remember at times like that who comes forward,” said Haggai.
Many IGA retailers went on to sign with NGA-affiliated wholesalers and joined NGA as members.
It was late in 2008 and Leslie G. Sarasin, president and chief executive officer of Food Marketing Institute, received a call from Zaucha congratulating her on her recent appointment to FMI.
“Because Tom and I have been friends for so many years, it was gratifying to me that this was among the first phone calls of congratulations I received when the announcement was made of my move to FMI. I was delighted to realize that in my new role, he and I would continue to be able to work closely and well together,” she told SN.
Zaucha is a gourmand, noted Tracy Mullin, president and CEO of National Retail Federation.
“Over the years, Tom and I have had an opportunity to have lunch together and it is clear that he has a very discerning appreciation for fine food, refined, no doubt, through his association with his industry. If Tom had not served as NGA's CEO, he would have made an excellent candidate for the presidency of the National Restaurant Association,” she told SN.
Mike Needler, chairman and CEO, Fresh Encounter, remembers a store tour he gave to Zaucha and Bernadette during a visit in Ohio.
“We traveled by car from store to store and Tom continually reminds me about the scenery of the trip. ‘The corn was so high we could not see anything else with the exception of the telephone poles that seemed to be flying by.’
“This was Tom's way of reminding me that we might have been pushing the speed limit a bit,” Needler recalls.
Jim Stoll, who worked with Zaucha in founding NGA, remembers Zaucha loving the game of golf, but struggling with it. “So many times he'd say, ‘It's only my third time out this year.’ That's because he had so much going on at NGA.”
Some say Zaucha can do pretty good impersonations. “I've been told he does an imitation of me that shows his other, more mischievous side,” said Dean Janeway, president and chief operating officer, Wakefern Food Corp.
“But what has always struck me most about Tom is his love for his family. Whenever we have dinner together and the conversation turns to family, Tom's pride for his daughter Rachel and love of his wife Bernadette becomes so apparent,” said Janeway.
Frank DiPasquale, who joined NGA in 1993 and is executive senior vice president, remembers Zaucha for his “Rocky Bleier tenacity and his Ronald Reagan evangelical leadership style.”
J.H. Campbell Jr., president and CEO, Associated Grocers, Baton Rouge, La., also recognizes Zaucha's wit. “He is a very quick wit and delightful personality. I have many great memories of times spent merely discussing an issue, but laughing in the process … never taking matters too seriously, while ensuring effective representation of the independent retail grocer,” he said.
Finally, Zaucha's parting shot is to his staff, many of whom have longevity with NGA. When asked what he will miss most, Zaucha said, it goes without saying, “I'll just miss the people — the association members and staff I've worked with for so many years. I've been fortunate to work with high-level professionals that have been with me for many years.”