ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Peter Larkin is ready to hit the ground running on Thursday, when he becomes only the second president and chief executive officer in the history of the National Grocers Association here.
He succeeds Thomas K. Zaucha, who, as previously reported, plans to retire after 28 years at the helm of the association. The two have been working on the transition since mid-June, “and Tom has been very helpful to me in terms of the history of the association and his perspectives on issues, people, staff and programs,” Larkin told SN last week.
While acknowledging it is too soon for him to provide specific details about his plans, Larkin did outline some of his goals for NGA, including boosting membership, increasing the availability of training programs, increasing the public's understanding of the role independent food retailers play in the economy, and working proactively with other trade associations.
Larkin has been meeting with the NGA staff to obtain feedback, “but this is really about what the members want NGA to be,” he said.
Accordingly, he said he plans to spend the next few weeks meeting with board members and the rank-and-file membership “to get their views of NGA — what works for them and what doesn't, what they like and don't like — to help me determine where we need to go in the future.
“Although I've spent a great amount of time in the industry and have a good sense of what's going on, I don't operate a grocery store, nor am I a wholesaler or a supplier of goods and services, so I need to tap into what's on the minds of the people who rely on the association.”
He also said he plans to review the association's programs, services, policy, staff, financial resources and governance structures, “and once I have that information, I can put together a plan to move forward.”
Larkin said his vision for NGA parallels the association's mission statement — to serve independent operators and their wholesalers — which is one of NGA's greatest strengths, he explained. “Because of Tom and his leadership over the years, NGA has established itself as a powerful, well-respected organization because it has already defined its vision.
“The ability to communicate that vision is what sets NGA apart and creates a unique value system for the association. Many organizations find they lose focus because they try to be all things to all people, but Tom and the staff here have kept NGA's focus on its core principles, and the most important thing I can do is preserve the core values of the organization.
“But we still have to recognize and embrace the fact that the industry is constantly changing, and if we are to remain vibrant and relevant for the members, then we must keep up with change and deliver products, programs and services that meet the members' needs.
“So the future is not only about maintaining a strong focus on our vision and communicating it and working with the members to understand their needs, but also with moving the organization forward to address those changing needs. However, it's still a little early to articulate what any changes will look like.”
Larkin, 56, comes to NGA with an extensive industry background, including the last two years as an industry consultant; as president and CEO of the California Grocers Association (1996-2007); as vice president, state government relations and environmental affairs, Food Marketing Institute (1989-1996); as director of public affairs for Kroger Co., Cincinnati (1982-1988); as state director for Minnesota and Wisconsin for The Tobacco Institute (1979-1982); as coordinator of government relations for Philip Morris U.S.A. (1977-1979); and as legislative assistant to New York Rep. Donald J. Mitchell (1976-1977).
“A big part of my job with Mitchell involved working with members of Congress on Capitol Hill on advocacy programs, so I understand the Hill and will spend quite a bit of my time at NGA focusing on government relations,” Larkin said.
“At Philip Morris, I got perspectives on relationships between suppliers and the industry; at Kroger, I dealt with public policy and labor issues; and at FMI, I was involved with state government relations and environmental affairs, so I have an understanding of issues from a national perspective.
“And when I got to CGA, the association was challenged from a financial and membership perspective, and resolving those issues taught me how to develop a strategic plan for the membership and the association, and that experience will help immensely in this new job.”
NGA has approximately 1,545 members, including 1,400 retailers, 35 wholesalers and 110 suppliers.
Larkin said one of his goals will involve a more aggressive membership outreach and recruitment program.
“There are large numbers of independent retailers and some wholesalers that are not part of NGA, and we need to reach out and be more aggressive in our efforts to bring them into the fold,” he noted.
“NGA has very good programs and an experienced staff, but my initial observation is that maybe we can expand those programs and focus more than we do now on issues of vital importance to retailers and wholesalers.”
One NGA program, called “Grocers Care,” calls attention to how independents are connected with the communities they serve, Larkin pointed out, “and I strongly believe in that program. But we want to bring more attention to it — not just to the significant contributions independent stores play in their communities but also to the economic impact they have.
“And we must do a better job letting people know how important independent retailers are to the entire fabric of society.”
The audience for that message, Larkin said, is the consumers, who need to understand the importance of the independent retailers in their communities; the media, who need to gain a better sense of how independents operate and the impact they have; and local, state and federal officials and regulatory agencies.
“I absolutely believe there are some very strong competitive advantages for independents, and NGA needs to help identify and publicize some of those advantages,” Larkin said.
“For example, independents are uniquely positioned to address the issue of food deserts because they are more flexible and understand their markets in a micro-sense better than the chains, and they can react quicker. They are also well positioned to offer locally grown foods, and we are working with the agricultural community to promote that local angle to meet consumer demand.”
Larkin said he sees a strong place for independents in the future.
“What NGA can do is educate and train our members through a variety of programs and conferences and meetings — to bring them the most relevant information we can to help them grow and improve their businesses,” he said. “The goal is to communicate the availability of the programs we offer and to make those programs as helpful as we can.”
As to whether he expects to have a tough time in Washington, Larkin said, “Dealing with Congress has always been difficult, and we don't see any reason to complain about it. Our job is to make sure the industry has a voice on Capitol Hill, and that's what we intend to do.”
Among the association's top legislative priorities, Larkin said, are tax policy, including estate, or death, taxes; preservation of LIFO; and defeat of the Employee Free Choice Act, “which could seriously impact independent operators.”
Although health care legislation has already been passed, “over the next several years the real impact of health care legislation will become clearer to independents, and our mission will be to help members understand how it will impact them,” Larkin said.
“NGA has a responsibility to make sure members know what will happen, how and when it will happen and what impact it will have on their operations, and we will make sure they do.”
Coincidentally, NGA, FMI and the Grocery Manufacturers of America have each named new top executives in the last year, and Larkin said he expects to meet with Leslie Sarasin of FMI and Pamela Bailey of GMA “to talk about their visions for the future and how we can collaborate and work together.
“I expect those conversations to be very positive and proactive, and I look forward to developing working relationships with the other associations.
“But NGA is in a strong position — financially sound, with a very clearly defined mission and a very committed membership that wants us to act as their spokesman — so we need to figure out how to take advantage of the opportunity to work with the other associations.”