FEATURE: Career boost

Feeling like your supermarket career is in a rut? Several reputable universities offer top-notch food marketing programs at reputable universities designed to help, and the majority of them would require only a week or so of your time.

From Wal-Mart to vendor relations to supply chain technology, the hot-button issues among food industry executives are being tackled in continuing education programs across the country in what is arguably the most competitive period in the industry's history. Hands-on sessions and guest speakers not only provide new insight into tough issues, they also help overloaded executives recharge and refocus their businesses.

"Many retailers today are in survivor mode. They're looking to reinvent themselves to some degree, and our program can help them," says Frank Gambino, director of the annual Food Marketing Conference at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. At the 39th annual conference, which was held in March, nearly 600 people attended two days' worth of workshops and presentations. For the first time the conference's organizers invited people from outside the food industry to speak. "We wanted the speakers to contrast their experiences from outside the industry with what they've encountered in the industry," Gambino says. The all-star roster included Greg Josefowicz, chairman, president, and c.e.o. of Borders Books, who was formerly president of Jewel-Osco; Ken Stevens, c.e.o. of Express and board member of Spartan Stores; Gary Rodkin, chairman and c.e.o. of PepsiCo Beverages & Foods; and Bob Mariano, chairman, president, and c.e.o. of Roundy's, Inc.

Super sessions

Workshop topics included "The Growing Roles of the Dollar Stores" and "The Urban Market." "We've been going through the comment cards, and just about every workshop had high marks. We're also hearing that people were really impressed with the quality of the speakers," Gambino notes. "Supervalu did a session on category management, and it was packed. It was intended to be for independents, but I think there were a lot of manufacturers and other retailers who participated, too."

Supervalu is also a frequent participant in the annual Food Executive Program at Cornell University, which is set to take place July 12 to 23 at Cornell's campus in Ithaca, N.Y. "First and foremost, this program is an opportunity for organizations and individuals to enhance their careers, to develop their skills. We like to say that we're attracting the future leaders of the industry to our programs," says Bill Drake, director of the program, which is jointly sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute.

Drake should know -- he spent 20 years with Supervalu and was a regular participant in the program before becoming its director. Since its inception the program has been modified where needed, to stay relevant, he observes. "This program began as a full two weeks, but we gradually shortened it. It's very difficult to get an executive away from an organization for more than a couple of days. But we're strong believers that immersion in the on-campus experience, along with living and working with your brethren for 11 days, is a key part of the program. The camaraderie that develops and the willingness to discuss things openly are invaluable," he points out.

Real-life applications

This year's program will include 19 instructors from various backgrounds, including consultancies, universities, and, of course, the food industry, among others. Attendees will also participate in a supply chain simulation, in which they'll spend a half-day in teams that run small supply chains. Later they'll try their hands at the supermarket operations simulation, which takes place over several days. "Each team pretends to operate small groups of failing supermarkets and tries to resurrect them by building new stores, remodeling stores, and trying different promotions. This is a great way for manufacturers to learn about what retailers experience, and for nonoperational folks to learn from retailers what the operations teams do. It provides a great backdrop for the lectures," notes Drake, adding that retailers tend to be "fiercely competitive" during the simulations.

Cornell's Food Executive Program tends to attract larger companies, including most of the top 10 grocers, as well as some of the stronger regional players, according to Drake. Independents have their chance, too, however, as the National Grocers Association sponsors a weeklong NGA Leadership Program in June, also at Cornell.

Several state grocer associations have become more involved in funding training programs for independent retailers, so high-level programs such as these may be considered, as well, notes Julie Carrier, director of the Ohio Grocers Association's Foundation. "The focus used to be on college scholarships, but now there's more of an emphasis on investing in the nontraditional students, the people who have invested their careers in the stores," she says.

It seems that retailers have plenty of good things to say about Cornell's Food Executive Program. Dave Pylipow, s.v.p. of human resources at Save-A-Lot, says the program helps the company develop high-performing senior managers. "The program provides an in-depth look at issues related to the food industry. It helps our executives look at our business in the broader context of the whole industry, which facilitates their strategic thinking. It also helps them develop forward-looking plans for their segments of our business. The program is now a key component of our executive development process."

Manufacturers benefit, too

Members of the manufacturing community likewise take away much from their time at Cornell. Nestle USA has sponsored more than 420 food industry executives through a scholarship it's been offering for 22 years. "At Nestle we believe this program gives our company the opportunity to give the food retailer community and our customer partners the gift of education," says Bruce Barner, director of sales training and development at Nestle USA. "For manufacturers this program is a rare opportunity to learn about the food industry through the lens of a retailer operation."

At another well-known institution of learning, St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, several client-specific, noncredit programs are available through the Center for Food Marketing, which was created with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The center has worked with groups including the USDA, the Private Label Manufacturers Association, Acme/Albertsons, and Wakefern. "These programs typically combine both on-campus classroom sessions with study tours. Because of the relationships we have with the industry and individual firms, and due to the large number of food marketing graduates in executive positions throughout the industry, we can get the best speakers on campus to augment our faculty," notes John Lord, chairman of the department.

Of course, retailers and manufacturers who want to invest long-term in education have opportunities to explore credited programs at most of these schools. St. Joseph's, for instance, started an executive master's degree in food marketing in 1989. The program is nontraditional in its format, consisting of 27 two-day, 1.3-credit courses. Still, Lord says, relatively few supermarket executives have participated because of the time commitment.

Wawa, Inc., a popular convenience store operator based in Wawa, Pa., is one retailer that's been closely involved with St. Joseph's food marketing programs, he notes. "They're working with us on providing both baccalaureate- and master's-level education to their employees. It's not a coincidence that Wawa retains their top people and is considered a tremendous employer," he adds.
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