ABINGDON, Va. — Steve Smith is stepping down as chairman of the Food Marketing Institute, but his leadership there continues as chairman of the revived Strategic Thinking Committee.
One of the key areas of focus for the new committee — which begins meeting later this spring and will include key FMI board members — will be the revision of the traditional FMI Show that is scheduled to take place in even-numbered years in Las Vegas, alternating with the FutureConnect leadership development conference in odd-numbered years in Dallas.
“We will sit down and look at where we need to go over the next two, three or five years, and how do we need to incorporate the convention so we can make it more appealing to retailers, wholesalers and certainly manufacturers,” said Smith, who is chief executive officer of K-VA-T Food Stores, based here. “We need to work quickly so that, hopefully, we can have it implemented before next May.”
Asked if he expects the changes in the traditional FMI Show will be significant, he said he believed they would be.
“I don't know what form or shape that will take, but what I hear from our members is that they want to incorporate some more educational things into it so when they go home, they feel like they got their money's worth. They want to do more than just walk up and down some aisles and shake some hands — they want a productive conference.
“We need to put some meat out there for attendees so they can say, ‘Hey, I made some money on this trip.’”
The show has to be more productive for suppliers as well, he pointed out, with more opportunities for strategic dialogues with retailers and more meetings that go beyond the typical booth visits.
The effort to enhance cooperation with suppliers for the FMI Show parallels similar efforts for the FutureConnect conference, which was designed to have appeal to retailers, wholesalers and suppliers. Smith credited Michael Sansolo, the former FMI executive who worked as an independent consultant on FutureConnect, with taking great pains to keep the needs of all three groups in mind during the planning of this year's event. (After this story was written, FMI indefinitely postponed FutureConnect out of concerns for the flu outbreak.)
The cooperation between the retail and supply side also reflects the agreement FMI and Washington-based Grocery Manufacturers Association unveiled at the FMI Midwinter Executive Conference in January. The two associations plan to merge that annual event with the GMA Executive Conference beginning in 2011, and pledged to work together in other ways as well.
He noted that the two newly appointed CEOs of the two associations, Leslie G. Sarasin at FMI and Pamela Bailey at GMA, have been working closely together, as have Smith and his counterpart at GMA, Douglas Conant of Campbell Soup Co.
Reflecting back on his two-year tenure as chairman, Smith described it as a “great experience.”
“Leading an organization like FMI is not only an exciting thing to do, but it was also a challenging time, with some of the things we've faced, and with the financial challenges that we have had. Hopefully, things are moving in the right direction.”
He said the most challenging aspect of his tenure was the announcement of the retirement last May of Tim Hammonds as president and CEO of FMI.
“But Leslie is someone I think we are all excited about,” he noted. “We are in the process of putting the organization on a lot more stable footing financially, and being able to move it forward. I think there's a new sense of invigoration among the team there, and I feel good about turning over the reins to [incoming FMI Chairman] Ric Jurgens on a little more positive note.”
Smith said there were some legislative issues that he had hoped to resolve during his tenure, such as credit card interchange fees, but that he is optimistic that things are moving in the right direction there.
He also noted that food safety has been a priority for him during his tenure as chairman, and he cited the creation of FMI's recall portal as a significant accomplishment. He also said FMI “is in a great position to have a seat at the table” for whatever discussions take place about the reshaping of the nation's food-safety net.
“It certainly needs the input of the retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers, so when we come out at the end of the day we've got something that's more functional than what we've got today.”
He also cautioned that although the Employee Free Choice Act legislation appears stalled, it is still a “work in progress” and some compromise could be proposed.
“There are some issues we will not see retailers willing to compromise on,” he said. “We will not want to compromise on the secret ballot election, or mandatory arbitration by a government official who knows absolutely nothing about our business.
“There may be some middle ground, but I haven't seen anything that we would want to support at this point,” he noted.