PASADENA, Calif. -- We do not know what we do not know. Mark Hansen, chairman and chief executive officer of Fleming, Dallas, is not unsettled by that idea. He maintains that the sooner the industry grasps that concept, the better chance it has of moving forward.
Many first movers in the electronic commerce era are no longer around. Those that remain have war wounds to show for it. What appeared to be the recipe for success five minutes ago is no longer the case. No one knows what the winning strategy will be, and the aggressive movers have proven their dubious staying power.
"The speed out of the chute is not a predictor of success," Hansen said. However, those companies that recognize opportunities to seize the low-hanging fruit -- even if that yields only short-term benefits -- stand to gain an edge.
In the face of all this uncertainty, and the often conflicting agendas of retailers, manufacturers and technology companies, business partners need to consider a big idea, Hansen said: "Collaboration doesn't mean 'The other guy has to change."'
It may be a big pill to swallow, but Hansen said the winning scenario is one in which everybody takes risks to make changes. He spoke here last week during a keynote presentation at the E-Tail Evolution Summit sponsored by SN and Executive Technology.
Hansen called for an alignment of objectives among business partners. He likened the exercise to distributors peering through the "big end" of a telescope to focus on their supplier partners -- or looking through the "small end" of the telescope and focusing on consumers. There are benefits to improving relationships with both vendors and consumers, but perhaps tackling everything at once is too much.
"If anything is to be accomplished, we have to peek through the same end of the telescope; we have to decide," Hansen said.
"We have to be willing to change. We are all rethinking our relationships with vendors and customers," he said. "These challenges are not new.
"Too often we get excited about the long-term opportunities" of business process improvement when there is plenty of "low-hanging fruit" to be harvested. Among the most obvious is the elimination of paper-based communications. "It's incredible how much paper moves through our industry," he said.
"Business-to-business exchanges offer a great opportunity to replace paper, phone and fax" used for conducting surveys, sharing pricing data and printing catalogs and marketing brochures. The idea here is to bring about efficiencies that allow for less time to be spent processing sales and more time dedicated to developing sales, he explained.
Hansen pointed to Cerespan.com, Atlanta, and the B2B services it offers as a resource for companies seeking to achieve efficiencies. "It's a low-cost substitute for phone and fax" communications, he said. "This is the low-hanging fruit that allows us to streamline" processes.
The portal technology of Cerespan.com was first developed to support Fleming's B2B e-commerce activity more than two years ago. The independent company, whose network links 160 consumer products manufacturers with more than 4,000 retail outlets, is seeking to expand its services beyond the grocery industry.
It's important to recognize that companies sometimes have conflicting priorities, Hansen noted, but there is room to find mutual benefits. "There are lots of agendas. The technology companies have their agendas. The manufacturers have their agendas, and the merchants have their agendas." But collaboration to improve productivity for all parties is possible today.
Hansen said he's well known for reciting a favorite mantra around Fleming's headquarters: "The only thing better than winning is winning together." However, he's since updated that paean to: "The only way to win is to win together. We must have an alignment of objectives."