As the first president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute, Robert Aders helped forge the supermarket industry as a bridge between consumers and manufacturers.
Aders' diplomatic style and savvy leadership facilitated the 1977 merger of FMI's predecessor organizations — the Super Market Institute and the National Association of Food Chains — and propelled the new organization to success. His efforts led to a more unified industry voice, both on Capitol Hill and on Main Street.
“I think he made FMI what it is today,” said Byron Allumbaugh, the former chairman and CEO of Ralphs Grocery Co. and one of the first chairmen of FMI. “We owe him a lot.”
Aders worked hard to make sure that FMI welcomed independent operators into its membership as readily as large chains, Allumbaugh told SN.
“We knew we had to provide services for the independents that the big chains didn't really need, but Bob promoted that, and therefore we had a united group of retailers in FMI,” he said. “The independents probably had closer ties to the legislators than the big chains did, and that turned out to be very important.”
A former chairman of Kroger Co. — who later served as undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Labor — Aders had also served on the boards of both Chicago-based SMI, which focused on representing independent operators, and Washington-based NAFC, which focused on representing large chains.
In the years leading up to the merger, Aders said, the industry faced pressures from consumer groups concerned about pricing and from the threat of government price controls, as well as the challenges and opportunities brought on by new technology and the advent of the uniform product code.
“As early as the late 1960s, both organizations recognized that each had something the other didn't,” Aders told SN in an interview last month. “The urgency was pointed out in the early 1970s as the two organizations were facing the same sets of issues — the emergence of price controls, the emergence of the uniform product code, an atmosphere of negative media coverage, and hostile consumer groups.
“All of these things were coming up at both of these places and all of their meetings. Finally, I think the members got tired of doing double duty on so many things and it led them to say, ‘Can't we just have one organization?’”
Food-retailing leaders describe Aders as a visionary who helped advance the supermarket industry both in the U.S. and abroad.
“At a time when the food retail industry was experiencing dramatic growth and challenges, Bob was instrumental in helping explain the retail food industry to the world, while simultaneously coaching the industry in ways to adapt to a changing world,” said Leslie G. Sarasin, the current president and CEO of FMI. “Bob understood the customer service aspect of the retailer's role, and wove that perspective into the tapestry of FMI.”
Aders, she said, saw food retailers as “standing in the gap between the consumer and the food manufacturer, often thrust into the role of interpreter for both camps.
“Through his staff organization and programmatic focus, he put in place many of the bridges that FMI uses even today to keep those two groups connected. His formative influence shaped the balanced role that FMI strives to maintain to this day of keeping one eye on consumer needs and the other eye on food industry issues.”
Tom Haggai, executive chairman of the Chicago-based IGA network of independent retailers, said he recalls Aders as being an advocate for independent retailers at FMI and an advocate for the U.S. supermarket industry in the eyes of the world.
“He held sacred the fact that the food industry is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, contribution the U.S. has made to the world,” Haggai said of Aders. “He felt we were the home of widespread answers.”
Aders, a lawyer by training who also served in the military, had started at Kroger Co. in 1957, and worked in a number of executive positions before being named chairman in 1970. He remained at Kroger until 1974. He became the undersecretary of labor under President Gerald Ford and also served as acting secretary of labor.
Much of the planning for the merger of SMI and NAFC was done before Aders was asked to be its first CEO, he told SN, under the auspices of some of the industry's top executives at the time, including Irving Rabb of Stop & Shop, who was FMI's first chairman.
“[Aders] had a background in government, the food business and associations,” Rabb told SN in a 1997 interview. “So it was what we were looking for. Bob Aders put us years ahead of the game because of his understanding of organizations and government.”
Aders wistfully recalled that the industry at the time was characterized by a great deal of cooperation among supermarket industry leaders. Both SMI and NAFC, he noted, had “top-notch leadership.”
“There were some great guys that all had this like-minded attitude,” he said. “There were multiple people working on the same issues, and everyone was working together.
“It would be nice to see that today, particularly in government,” Aders quipped.
“There were people of varying size and interest with a common purpose. It was a time of expansion and cooperation — there was very little antagonism or infighting. People were not looking for fights; they were looking for solutions. There were a lot of very good people in the industry. It was a great time to be in the business.”
Sarasin of FMI noted that Aders had a management style that was well-suited to the times.
“Bob was one who believed in civil discourse before the concept even had a name,” she said. “I like to believe that we at FMI are continuing to build on his ability to listen respectfully to those who differ from us, allowing aspects of their thoughts to influence and perhaps improve our own thinking. So, we definitely still feel his influence in regard to our style of advocacy, but it also is reflected in our organizational strategy.”
Aders had a talent for “bringing diverse perspectives together amicably and productively,” she explained.
“FMI has been well served by the Aders-influenced conviction that if those with different approaches continue talking to each other, ultimately a better idea will emerge and that idea will be supported by a larger, stronger base.
“I also believe our effective collaborations with consumer groups and the consumer-facing quality of much of FMI's work owes a tip of the hat to Bob's view that the retailer's role is that of serving as the purchasing agent for the customer. His fingerprints still show up on the direction our research takes, the type of consumer education resources we produce and in our emphasis on industry partnerships.”
Allumbaugh noted that Aders was “not a demanding person in terms of his personality” as the head of FMI.
“He had a sort-of laid-back approach, but it worked very well, and people responded to him,” Allumbaugh explained.
Among the efforts Aders undertook in the early days of FMI was to launch a consumer affairs conference. Such actions helped open up a fresh perspective for supermarket operators, as consumer advocates like Esther Peterson first criticized, and later joined to support, the food retailing industry.
“We thought we were doing such a great job for the consumer, but she was telling us that wasn't so,” Aders told SN in 1997.
Aders also built upon the successful trade show that had been operated by SMI, as a way to generate funds for running the association while keeping dues low. The show greatly expanded in size during his tenure at FMI, he said, in part because suppliers saw the benefit of being able to reach the entire industry.
Aders put together a staff of industry veterans to run FMI, including many of the top executives from the two predecessor organizations.
Among those was Tim Hammonds, who succeeded Aders as president and CEO when he retired from FMI in 1993. Aders remained active as a consultant after his retirement and served on several company boards.
At age 84, Aders now splits his time between homes in New Jersey and Florida. He remains a lifetime member of the FMI board of directors, and told SN he “stays current” with the happenings at the organization he helped create.