Sounding Board: Red Apple to Big Apple

Do retailers like John Catsimatidis have the experience and wherewithal to serve in public office?

Len LewisYou have to wonder why anyone in his or her right mind—especially a wealthy, successful businessman—would want to be mayor of New York City. It is akin to being President, with all the problems and no nuclear weapons.

The subject came up in a recent conversation with a local retailer who mentioned John Catsimatidis, billionaire owner of the Red Apple Group which, among other things, owns the Gristedes chain and who is running for the city’s top job. After initially wondering why, I began thinking… why not? Billionaire New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has already broken the crystal ceiling.

In fact, I have always thought that retailers would make great candidates for public office. Instead of the usual politicos whose main job is to keep their job, retailers have actual experience managing people and selling something consumers actually want and need.

I remember talking with John Catsimatidis back in the 1970s when he was just a poor millionaire running the Red Apple supermarkets. I recall him being friendly and no nonsense, a get-to-the-point kind of guy, not afraid to give his opinion—in other words, a typical New Yorker.  From what I have seen and heard, his demeanor has not changed much.

I do not know what drives Catsimatidis these days. Maybe he has had enough of the supermarket, energy, real estate and aviation businesses and is looking for new challenges. Maybe this Horatio Alger character sees public service as a way to give back to the community that raised him.

Or, maybe he has just got a fetish for thankless, short-term, low-paying jobs with long hours and being surrounded by people who would like nothing more then to see him fall flat on his face.

Now that I have painted public office as a thoroughly unappealing prospect, let me ask the rhetorical question—Why don’t more supermarket executives get into politics? Over the years, I have known hundreds of retailers and association executives that have been active in government and community affairs. They have walked the halls of statehouses from Albany to Sacramento to discuss the big issues like health care reform, swipe fees and food safety. Others have become adept at schmoozing local legislators on a wide variety of critical topics. Then, there are those like former Safeway CEO Steve Burd, who probably will not get into politics but whose passion for healthcare reform and wellness issues is likely to be a lifelong quest.

However, I have yet to come across people in the supermarket industry who want to be on the inside. But consider the credentials:
•Results oriented,
•Crisis management expertise,
•Dealing with diverse groups of people,
•Tech savvy, but knowing that technology has its place,
•People oriented,
•Problem solvers,
•Open to new ideas and formats,
•Developing a consensus among disparate groups, and
•Knowing how to deal with vendors.

That last one alone should be an attractive trait for any state, city or municipality drowning in ill-conceived and incomplete contracts.

I do not know if Catsimatidis will make it past the primaries. He is more than a little outspoken and spontaneous—great qualifications for a retailer, not so much for a politician. On the other hand, one of his rivals is a former head of the Metropolitan Transit Authority who pushed through record fare increases for mass transit. And we all know how consumers feel about price hikes.

The point is Catsimatidis has ideas and is not afraid to throw some things out there to see what sticks. One of my favorites is giving free pet food to people who adopt homeless animals.

He has been derided for what some call outlandish ideas. But ideas, whether they work out or not, are the lifeblood of retailing and are just as important in running a city as they are a company. As he puts it: “I’ve been a salesman all my life.”

Frankly, the political arena could do with people who know more about hamburger than sacred cows.

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