CEOs Offer Wish List for Next Four Years

The Beatles said all you need is love, but perhaps what the country needs is a little tough love, or so said at least one CEO speaking at FMI’s Midwinter Executive Conference this week in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Following a live broadcast of President Barack Obama’s inaugural address Monday, Fox News contributor Tucker Carlson led a panel discussion of what some of grocery’s top leaders think the next four years will bring. The panel featured Steve Burd, chairman/CEO of Safeway Inc.; Steve Smith, president/CEO of K-VA-T Food Stores Inc.; and Judy Spires, CEO of AG Supermarket Holdings.

The discussion ranged from the executives’ thoughts on the direction of the economy, health care, nutrition, food safety and labor relations during Obama’s second term.

Carlson noted that while the United States has the safest, cheapest, most efficient food supply in the world, “all we hear is, ‘You’re making Americans fat.'"

Burd noted the behavior-driven health insurance program spearheaded at Safeway in 2005 to promote wellness among employees and cut costs, a plan he has touted to lawmakers to no avail. “It would save the nation about $800 billion a year,” he said. “What’s missing from the Affordable Care Act is personal responsibility.”

Smith launched a similar plan at his company several years ago. “We only succeed with healthy employees,” he declared. Smith noted the voluntary front-package nutrition labeling plan pushed by Hy-Vee’s Ric Jurgens. “We didn’t wait for the government to mandate it, because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “It does cost, but it’s the right thing to do for our customers.”

So what’s the impediment to doing this at the federal level?

Regulators, who Burd argued tend to distort rules during the legislative process, “are often attacking symptoms rather than the underlying cause.” Further, in government, “there is no one person who can pull the trigger,” like in corporations, he said. There needs to be “a marketplace solution, coupled with a large dose of personal responsibility,” Burd said. “It’s a very solvable problem.”

Meanwhile, more stringent regulations are impacting the economy on multiple levels, as explained by Smith, whose company’s customers include a great many folks in the mining industry, which is experiencing high unemployment. “I don’t see that getting better in the next four years,” he said.

Spires noted food safety is a top priority for the industry and urged being proactive with training and in-house programs, even more important as a greater amount of food is prepared in markets for expanded deli and prepared foods departments.

"We don’t need that legislated,” Spires said. “The government makes us the bad people … It seems like we’re under attack … they’re not understanding what the true issues are.”

Spires said labor relations have warmed since card check did not pass as organized labor expected after Obama took office, and more so after Michigan recently became a right-to-work state. As such, Spires is finding union leaders “much more collaborative.”

With more attacks on capitalism, Carlson wondered, have business leaders made a good counter-case?

“Business people who take care of their people are successful,” Smith said. “I don’t think the president understands that. I think he thinks people who are successful did it at someone else’s expense. I don’t think we’ve done what we can to talk about the entrepreneurial spirit.”

Burd said business leaders need to be able to defend the benefits of a free market system, “but we’d be better off if that comes from a non-business person” so it doesn’t come off as self-serving. Most top business leaders “were not born with a silver spoon in their mouths,” Burd said, noting he grew up poor. “That’s a story that’s never told … people don’t understand we didn’t start out at CEOs.”

What do these CEOs want to see over the next four years?

“Tough love to get the budget under control and build consumer confidence,” Spires said, “and really learn to live within our means.”

Burd would like to see a “bipartisan effort to solve the debt crisis and the health care crisis.”

Smith wants “leadership, honesty … not just talk, really work on solutions,” he said. “I’m not optimistic that will happen.”

Jim Dudlicek is editor-in-chief of Progressive Grocer.

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