MINNEAPOLIS -- Mike Wright becomes chairman of the Food Marketing Institute this week as the supermarket industry struggles with seemingly unrelenting change. New forms of competition and shifting consumer preferences mean heavy burdens for anyone taking a leadership role.
But Wright, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Supervalu, Minneapolis, brings a remarkably calm and reassuring outlook to the top-elected spot of FMI, a position he will hold for two years. His attitude is grounded in his understanding of food retailing history and his faith in the ability of FMI and the industry to handle virtually any shift with remarkable finesse.
"If you look at FMI's record over the years, it has been outstanding at helping the industry change as the change has happened," said Wright, a 20-year Supervalu veteran, in an interview here. "It almost becomes seamless the way that FMI helps in this whole endeavor.
"FMI has helped the industry evolve with new technologies, concepts and studies of emerging trends. You see the same kind of evolution as the consumer changes to wanting more prepared food and takeout. You see FMI taking more of a leadership role through training and meal solutions and our educational programs. I see it as a high priority to make sure that we continue to help the industry evolve as the consumer does."
The FMI chairman's role is rotated between independent operators, chain store executives and wholesalers. Wright will take office during the FMI's annual convention in Chicago.
Wright's confidence about handling upcoming challenges doesn't mean he hasn't prepared himself. He has already mapped out at least four areas that will be among his top priorities. They are:
Advancing the industry's savvy with home-meal replacement programs.
Working with suppliers to insure high standards of food safety.
Facilitating continued progress in Efficient Consumer Response.
Supporting the continued health of independents and the diversity they bring to the industry.
Wright will also help steer FMI's development of a new strategic plan, which is expected to be worked on during his tenure at FMI. "The last strategic plan was done in 1993," he said. "The last one took us to the year 2000, and the new one will bring us to 2010. We need to take a look at the direction of the industry and what our response will be. That will be a very interesting process as we go through these next two years. It should give us some direction into how FMI can help as the industry continues to evolve."
In speculating on what issues the new plan will address, Wright said new forms of meal delivery are likely to get more attention.
"Some things are looming more as issues since the last plan was developed," he said. "I'm thinking of where does home delivery fit in the scheme of things. Everyone is amazed at the quick progress of HMR and how much the public is looking for the solutions to their meal requirements compared to simply looking for ingredients. All of these have been accelerated in the last five years. We're focusing more and more on the restaurant trade as competition."
In listing meal development as one of his major priorities, Wright applauded FMI's efforts thus far in rousing the industry to the home-meal replacement imperative and vowed that work will continue. "We're finally recognizing that probably the biggest competitor we have -- in terms of our losing market share -- is restaurants. People don't want to buy as many ingredients to go home and make meals, they want to buy prepared food. We're taking a leadership role in that."
Wright said FMI's annual MealSolutions Show, launched last year, is an important step in educating the industry on this trend. He said innovative leadership efforts would continue. But he cautioned that being a cheerleader for meal-development programs is only half the equation. The industry needs to make certain the meals are as safe as they are good.
"As we move into more prepared food and meals, the whole issue of food safety becomes a big one," Wright stressed. Wright said much of the solution lies in better communications with the supplier community.
"We need to work closely with the manufacturers to prepare the safest, most nutritious products out there. I think that we probably want to get into closer working relationships with the grocery manufacturers. We've had a good relationship over the years, but we need more dialogue."
In addition to communicating, Wright underlined the importance of industrywide education to get the message across. "One bad episode hurts us all," he stressed.
While home-meal replacement is one of the newest industry trends, Wright said FMI is still aggressive about promoting a slightly older trend: the quest for efficiencies.
"ECR and efficiency has been an ongoing theme throughout the '90s, and at times it looks like it's not moving forward with much momentum," he said. "But I think that beneath the surface you'll find a lot of the progressive companies in this industry are paying a lot of attention to what is said and what is being done, and are moving aggressively towards creating more efficiencies in distribution. FMI needs to keep talking about it and working with it, so all the industry understands the significance of what's going on."
Wright implied that operators may need to be reminded that this process isn't discretionary.
"You can't go into a drug store anymore, or a gas station or discount merchandiser, without seeing standard grocery store types of items," he said. "That's fine. That's what the American Way is all about. But we need to figure out ways to become more efficient and do a better job than they [do] at serving the needs of the consumer."
Industry observers have noted a growing trend by some firms to become more closed about sharing ECR information, but Wright refused to dwell on that aspect.
"Granted, there are some that are keeping very quiet about it, but there's a lot of progress being made on the whole ECR front," he said. "Some companies are more open than others, but there's not much you can do about that. But I do believe the role of FMI is to continue to talk about what is happening in the industry, and why it's important we get more efficient."
Also on the front burner for Wright is supporting the future of the independent sector. That was a prime goal of Wright's predecessor in the FMI chairman's spot, Bob Bartles, president of Martin's Super Markets, South Bend, Ind.
"My predecessor spoke a lot about the point of view of the independent operator," Wright said. "People tend to forget how big a role FMI plays in dealing with independent operators. Independents are very important to me, and to Supervalu, and to the industry, and to the consuming public."
Perhaps most important is the independent's ability to create unique concepts, he said. "Many of the best innovations in supermarketing have come from independent operators. From the independent who has an idea, gets help from a wholesaler, opens a store and all of a sudden there are some fresh ideas. And the industry is quick to copy those ideas.
I think that kind of diversity is important. We don't have a monolithic kind of population out there."
The importance of independents means that FMI will redouble its efforts to serve that sector, Wright said.
"I think we want to continue to strengthen our programs for the independents. We do have a board-level committee -- the independent operator committee -- and a lot of seminars, and we help facilitate share groups, and are also working with National Grocers Association and others. This will be a continuing priority."
Another goal in working with other associations is to further eliminate duplication of industry efforts, Wright said.
Wright said good examples of cooperative efforts around trade shows include the Food Industry Productivity Conference, held in the fall with sponsorship from various organizations, and the linkage of FMI's MarkeTechnics earlier this year with the National Grocers Association's annual convention, with the two events overlapping each other.
"Personally I'd like to see more meetings combined," Wright said. "We're going to try."
On the membership front, Wright said he expects that FMI's member companies will continue to reflect the diversity in the industry. As new types of food retailers spring up, he said many of these will become part of FMI's base. "We're a pretty open group," he said. "People in the food retailing business can join. We encourage it. This is the way the industry has evolved over the years. You don't accomplish anything by keeping people out."
However, he underscored the importance of supermarkets in general, and independents in particular, to the future of FMI.
"You look at some of the newer players, and you're talking about a handful of companies," he said. "And there are still thousands of independent retailers out there that also have a lot of impact on what's happening in the industry. We're trying very hard to solicit their membership and involvement to make the supermarket side of the business stronger."