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51st Annual Food Marketing Conference Draws Record Crowd, Notable Inspiration


“There is no service without people,” Rich Wolowksi, president of Gordon Food Service, told attendees of Western Michigan University’s 51st Food Marketing Conference. “Take care of your people first,” and they will take care of each other and they’ll take care of the customer.

“It doesn’t matter what you take to market. If people aren’t energized about what your company stands for, you will never be successful,” said Wolowski. To achieve success, the 119-year-old GFS demonstrates care for employees, demonstrates integrity, and celebrates workers’ success.

Wolowski’s presentation “It’s All About People and Culture,” supported the conference theme of “People, Purpose & Passion: The Pathway to Success.” Success was very much on hand as the April 11-12 event, which moved to Grand Rapids to accommodate growing attendance, drew 820 attendees, including students of the school’s Food Marketing Program, and grocery retail and CPG industry executives. The Food Marketing Conference included 140 students from the program, who are offered special opportunities to network with and learn from attendees. The conference provides support to students with industry-relevant curricula, events and scholarships.

The Network of Executive Women sponsored Tara Jaye Frank, founder and CEO of TJF Career Modeling, who addressed “Courageous Leadership,” which shows up in mindset, behavior and expectations. “Culture is businesses’ revolution” and we all need to build it and be a part of it. Frank believes that inclusion – and listening to the dissenting voice in the room – aids in discovery, design, development and deployment. “Diverse perspectives matter,” she told attendees, and encouraged companies to have leadership that is representative of the markets they serve.

An “Executive Forum” provided various strategies for and perceptions of the changing CPG and grocery retail landscape. Paul Madura, a retired SVP of H.E.B., moderated a panel that included Chris Albi, VP of Operations, Kroger; Tom Burkemper, Sr. Dir. of Merchandising, 7-Eleven; Kathy Casey, VP US Channels, Kellogg Co.; Chuck Pilliter, retired EVP, Trader Joe’s; and Bill Renz, VP, Rite Aid Corp.

  • Trader Joe’s Pilliter stressed the importance of recognizing the difference between consumer and customer. “Treat the customer better,” he says, as we’re all consumers, but the customer is the one in the store, interacting with store associates.
  • Burkemper says 7-Eleven wants to be “convenient.” “We don’t think of ourselves as a convenience store, we want to be ‘convenient’. What the shopper wants, when and where the shopper wants it. We compete against everyone.” His key motivation: “If I can make you feel special – whether you’re an employee or a customer, is that matters.”
  • Kroger’s Albi: Kroger wants to be more about solutions than ingredients. “Culinary adventures – such as Taste of Spain – lend excitement throughout the store, with customers” and associates. “Grocery shopping used to be a chore; now it’s an event.”
  • Kellogg’s Casey: U.S. grocery retail is experiencing flat growth, “so the challenge is to keep up with disruptions.” She told student attendees: “We need your thinking and talent and the pressure you can apply to ‘get us to the puck.’” She says that the route to market will be very different in five years, as will how we get to market.


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