ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Peter Larkin has hit the ground running in his new role as president and chief executive officer of the National Grocers Association.
As he was preparing to preside over his first NGA convention this week, Larkin outlined some of the association's objectives in an interview with SN.
Among the ideas that could be advanced, he said, are more share groups, more opportunities for manufacturers to help retailers grow their businesses and additional forums for innovation and technology.
Having taken over from Thomas K. Zaucha, the only top executive NGA had during its first 28 years, Larkin spent most of his first five months on the job — from July through November — meeting hundreds of members.
While working his way through those meets-and-greets, Larkin also helped NGA launch a major initiative to solicit opinions from member retailers, wholesalers and suppliers about how they perceive the association and what they'd like to see done to improve it.
“My first priority is to listen, learn and respond,” Larkin told SN — “to figure out what members like about NGA, what they want to see changed, how we can help them do a better job and what they would like the association to look like in the future.
“That effort has reconfirmed what I already felt about the organization — that we have a very loyal, committed membership and that Tom Zaucha and the staff established a strong foundation over the past 28 years and a strong vision about the association and what it stands for.
“But I believe we have a great opportunity to build on the past and make the association better than it is today.”
To get an accurate read on how the membership views NGA and what it can do to make current members happier — while also attracting new members — the association launched a Member Value Project in September, an effort to solicit members' opinions on NGA's strengths and weaknesses and how the association can help members prosper.
The first phase involved hour-long interviews with approximately 35 key industry leaders to determine their perspectives of the association, what they liked and disliked and what could be improved, Larkin noted.
“We collected a tremendous amount of data, and we learned a lot,” he said.
Based on that information, NGA formulated an online questionnaire to get the views of a broader cross-section of the membership, “to make sure we are going down the right path,” he explained. “The survey represents a deep dive into who we are and where our members would like us to go.”
The online survey was sent out early last month and garnered close to 250 responses, Larkin noted.
“What we've found is a definite desire among our members to make sure NGA is heard loudly and clearly in Washington, D.C., particularly in the legislative and regulatory arenas, to ensure that the independent retailers and their wholesalers speak with one voice.
“We've also learned there's an interest in having us do more than we're doing to expand our government relations activities and bring more resources to bear in that area; to provide more educational opportunities for the members, whether that means additional share groups or finding other ways of sharing best practices; and to bring the retailer and supplier communities together to exchange information.
“Our job now will be to figure out how to use the feedback we've received to make NGA a better association.”
By improving the association and the services it offers, Larkin said he hopes to add to NGA's membership.
The Member Value Project is being conducted under the auspices of the Perry Project, an Annapolis, Md.-based company headed by Stephen M. Perry — an organizational development consultant Larkin said he has known for more than 20 years. “He's done a lot of work with other trade associations, and he has a background in the food industry, having served at one time as vice president of education and research for Food Marketing Institute,” he explained.
The study is being overseen at NGA by an eight-member advisory group representing all of the association's constituencies, Larkin said. Headed by Joe Sheridan, executive vice president at Wakefern Food Corp., Keasbey, N.J., the committee's members are Janel Haugarth, executive vice president, merchandising and logistics at Supervalu, Minneapolis; Ed Roche, CEO of Roche Bros. Markets, Wellesley, Mass.; Jimmy Wright, owner of the single-store Wright's Market in Opelika, Ala.; Chuck Pelletier, senior vice president of operations at Trader Joe's Market, Monrovia, Calif.; James Rogan, head of the Food Industry Association of New York State; Bob Richardson, director of sales, customer and industry development for Clorox Co., Oakland, Calif.; and Bill Drake, director of executive education in the Food Industry Management Program at Cornell University.
Larkin said he hopes to use some of the data collected from the MVP initiative to improve communications with the membership. “There's a lot of information we have that members need and want, so we must look at our communications structure to determine how well we're doing now and what we can do differently to be more effective,” he explained.
One way Larkin expects NGA to improve its effectiveness is through more collaborative efforts with other trade associations, including FMI, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Produce Marketing Association, GS1, the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers and the Global Market Development Center.
“We realize we have limited resources and can't be all things to all people, so it makes sense to work with other industry associations in partnerships that deliver information, programs, products or services that are valuable to the members.
“For example, we did a webinar with GMDC in December to help retailers understand and implement the flexible spending account changes on over-the-counter purchase eligibility,” he said.
The webinar was just one example of an opportunity for NGA to work with other associations on legislative issues or operational programs, educational services or publications, Larkin noted, “and we have much more work to do in that arena because those kinds of efforts will enable us to provide value to our members and pay big dividends.
“We realize our members' time is valuable, but the resources are there, and because our members expect us to run NGA like a business, we have to find ways to be more efficient and effective so we can increase the value of NGA for all members. That's something they expect us to do.”
There are also a number of legislative, regulatory and legal issues on which NGA has been very effective, “despite very limited resources, and we believe we can and should do more. The MVP initiative will indicate issues and areas where members want us to be more active,” Larkin said.
On the legislative front, the top issue on NGA's agenda is to achieve permanent repeal of the estate tax, Larkin said. “We won a significant victory when Congress extended the limit to $5 million on estate tax exemptions and a maximum rate of 35%, and our goal now is to make that extension permanent.”
A second legislative priority is labor relations, Larkin said. “With the House of Representatives controlled by the Republicans, the issue of labor relations is likely to shift to the regulatory arena, with the National Labor Relations Board becoming more active and proposing that stores be required to hang posters promoting union membership in every backroom.”
Regarding another priority issue — health care — Larkin said, “Congress passed a law with thousands of pages, with the result that a lot of people are just beginning to learn how the new law will impact their companies. This is a very complicated area of law, and NGA is doing two things:
“First, we've organized a health care task force to help members plan for the future by educating them on how the new law will impact existing plans; and second, we're providing guidelines on how to interpret the new law.
“We've also hired Epstein Becker & Green, a Washington law firm, who are experts on health care and who will help us formulate a strategy for a legislative appeal to modify certain provisions of the law that are particularly onerous to the independent retailer.”
Another area of concern, Larkin said, is interchange fees. “That's a topic on which we must continue to be vigilant,” he said. “Though the Finance Reform Act was passed last year, several associations are working together on a Merchants Payment Coalition because the banking industry is lobbying Congress hard to repeal the reforms it's already enacted.”
Though most details of the annual NGA convention had been worked out before his arrival, Larkin said he will put his own stamp on the proceedings by discussing data from the MVP initiative on the convention's opening night.
Other differences this year include locating the convention at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, “which is better equipped to deal with the flow of people,” Larkin said. “And we're also co-locating for the first time with the National Meat Association.”
Though final figures weren't available at the time he spoke with SN, Larkin said the trade show floor, which will be larger this year, is completely sold out, and registrations were tracking ahead of last year.
Zaucha, who headed the association for its first 28 years, will be in attendance, Larkin said.
Asked if he has consulted with Zaucha since July, Larkin said he has, “though I respect the fact Tom is retired so I've tried not to bother him too much. But we've met several times, and he's been very open to the questions I have and the ideas I've bounced off him.”
The NGA staff has also been very cooperative, he added.
There's been only one major top-level staff change since Larkin came to NGA — the hiring in November of Charles Bray as executive vice president and chief operating officer, to oversee finance, education, membership and the convention.
His hiring prompted the departure of Frank DiPasquale, NGA's executive vice president, after 14 years with the association.
“Bray has a great background in the association business and the food business, with financial and administrative skills and expertise in running a large convention, and when we had the opportunity to hire him, we did, and that required some reorganization,” Larkin said.