A warm welcome

As the next leader of the NGA, Peter Larkin needs to continue to nurture the independent spirit and build on the past 28 years.

By Jane Olszeski Tortola

As a long-time observer of the National Grocers Association and independent grocers, I would like to celebrate my first column in Grocery Headquarters by extending my sincere congratulations to Peter Larkin on being chosen as the next president and CEO of the NGA. I would also like to share some advice I’ve gathered from industry veterans regarding the future direction of the organization.

Following in the footsteps of Tom Zaucha, a distinguished leader who devoted his career to serving the food industry, Larkin faces numerous challenges as he takes the reins of the NGA.

I am sure, however, that he will be successful with the support of an experienced staff, a devoted board of directors and the community-based retailers who rely on the NGA to represent their best interests and those of their valued customers and constituents across the country.

The votes of confidence were unanimous—Mark Batenic of IGA USA, retailer Pat Raybould of Nebraska, Unified’s John Runyan of California and Ohio retailer and former chairman of the NGA Mike Needler of Fresh Encounter, Inc., were among Larkin’s many supporters.

These respected industry leaders, along with others I spoke with during the past few weeks, offered their views on how they would like to see Larkin guide the NGA going forward.

First and foremost, they urge Larkin to work diligently to keep the spirit of independents alive at the NGA and remain focused on retailers, wholesalers and members operating in the U.S.

“Build on the momentum of the last 28 years,” says IGA’s Batenic. “The NGA is in a great position. The independent community-minded retailers and wholesalers that comprise membership are thriving winners. They know how to compete and build their businesses. Ask them how the NGA can provide value and then act. Move foreword with vigor and a willingness to work like an alliance for the benefit of the all.”

My sources also recommend that Larkin make the estate tax issue a priority. “If there is any one item that can have a negative impact on family-owned businesses, this is it,” says Batenic. Additionally, many constituents say that the NGA must make a next-generation succession program available to its members.

They also encourage Larkin to quickly become familiar with NGA members, allies and issues. “Every organization has strengths and weaknesses and you will want to identify these as early as possible in your new assignment,” says Needler. “With the number of issues already on the table, pick and choose the association’s battles carefully. It will be good for our industry to have the NGA influencing legislative/regulatory developments so that independents get a fair shake.”

John Runyan, executive advisor to the president and CEO of Unified Grocers, Inc., agrees. “One of the first things Peter needs to do is go to the stores and offices of retailers and wholesalers to find out what they need from NGA,” he says.

These industry leaders also counsel patience. “Time will be your friend,” says Needler. “A big challenge for you and the association will be to have the patience to allow and accept change.”

Another challenge, according to second-generation retailer Raybould, will be for the NGA to become even more visible with independents. “Be the main source for answers, advice and niche marketing for independents,” he says. “Attend state grocers association conferences and wholesaler functions as often as possible to meet with independents.”

Another industry veteran, wishing to remain anonymous, suggests that the NGA find out what’s on the minds of executives at larger regional chains such as Raley’s, Giant Eagle and Stater Bros. “Do a better job securing memberships of the regional chains and get them into the fold right away,” he says. “And stress to all members that belonging to an organization is much different than participating.”

But this source cautions against trying to make the NGA bigger than necessary. “FMI will no doubt continue to attract the internationals,” he says. “The NGA must zero in on what’s happening at home.”

It will be essential for those wishing to remain a part of the NGA staff to participate in developing and implementing a new long-term strategy, according to these veterans.  This will require much effort on Larkin’s part to re-energize a talented team that has been, at no fault of their own, recently working on auto-pilot while waiting for new leadership to arrive.

“There is no doubt that Peter Larkin comes to NGA highly qualified, dedicated and very smart,” says Batenic.  “He will need to connect quickly with the membership, build an even stronger consensus among membership, and then bring in new members. I’m extremely confident that the NGA will grow even more relevant with his leadership.”

Jane Olszeski Tortola is a freelance writer who devoted over three decades of her career to working in a family owned supermarket company founded by her late father.  She is a graduate of The Ohio State University and is active in a number of food industry organizations. She can be reached at JANIEOT@aol.com.

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