PHOENIX -- If the supermarket industry is to win the war for supremacy as America's meal provider, it will have to rely on the meat department to fight its battles, said veteran retailer Peter V. Gregerson.
"The meat department can make the difference between survival and success of supermarkets in America. It really is that important," said Gregerson, chairman of Gregerson's Foods, Gadsden, Ala., who delivered the closing speech to the Annual Meat Marketing Conference held here.
He was speaking to what is quickly being recognized as one of the most fundamental challenges to the supermarket's primacy as a food distribution channel -- food-service meal providers, especially those possessing an edge on the home-meal replacement concept.
Gregerson made it clear that he sees the meat department as the most important vehicle through which supermarkets can contend with nonsupermarket opponents for the consumer dollars spent on prepared foods -- and also that he does not yet see that happening. But rather than offering retail meat executives a technically oriented prescription for winning the HMR fight, he sought to rally the troops to the task through inspiration.
"You can assume the leadership in this," he said. "The meat department has always been the backbone of the business. You have an extraordinary opportunity here.
"This conference serves the purpose for each one of you to get ideas as you shape the future for your company. And believe me, I don't care if the head of your organization is here or not, instinctively your CEO knows that until the meat department moves, nothing much is going to happen to offset the competition that we are getting from the Boston Markets and all the other people that over the years have eaten our lunch and taken $70 billion away from us," Gregerson said.
"If it is going to happen, it is going to be done by the people in the meat operation, and I can't give you information on technology, but I want to talk to you as a person about the idea of your growth, about your leadership, about building a team to get the job done in the future."
In essence, he urged the meat executives in attendance to take on the food-service challenge personally "and make up your mind that there is a better way to do it" and that it's the meat department's role to find that way.
"We've got to ask ourselves what we can do to become the kind of people that can make the enormous changes that need to be made in the food business, because that role, whether you like it or not, has been given to the meat end of the supermarket business. It will not come -- it cannot come -- from any other source."
He went on to relate personal experiences and lessons he'd accumulated from decades of participation in the food industry. One such lesson, he said, is that the best way to inspire people to work toward a goal is by example -- by showing enthusiasm and a positive attitude.
"Ralph Waldo Emerson said that every great movement in the history of the world is a triumph of enthusiasm. Certainly that is true of this industry and this meeting," he said. "But you are not at the end of the road. There is high enthusiasm here and you've got to keep it going. You in this room are ready to take the steps to turn this thing around, take the $70 billion in lost share and re-establish ourselves as the food people in America."
Gregerson also sought to remind the audience that, as meat suppliers and retailers, they've played a vital role in creating the best food distribution system in the history of the world. He even described the supermarket industry as the embodiment of "the spirit of America" in terms of entrepreneurship.