Ideas on Special at FMI Midwinter

ORLANDO, Fla. - No bombshells this year--just on-topic, thought provoking discussions engaging a packed house of perhaps 600 attendees, marked the first day of the Food Marketing Institute's Midwinter Executive Conference here.

FMI chairman and Supervalu c.e.o. Jeff Noddle made passing reference to his stressful state of mind at last January's conference, which was convened the same day that his company had announced its acquisition of a huge chunk of Albertson's.

At the podium yesterday, Noddle half-jokingly apologized for what might have been his distracted appearance at the event in 2006, due to the "small transaction" on his plate at the time. He then went on to affirm an opinion that many of the c.e.o.'s in attendance would probably share: that more mega-mergers are in the offing in the immediate future, part of the turmoil of change that the grocery industry will face in 2007 and beyond. Also notable signs of momentous change, in Noddle's view: Trader Joe's, Wal-Mart, and Walgreens, all in attendance as FMI members.

"Many of us mistakenly did not see them as part of our industry," Noddle said, adding that an overall conference registration this year among the largest since 2000 should be seen as a sign that grocery's leaders are aware of the gravity of the changes, and need for change, facing the business, both in retailing and manufacturing.

Noddle covered highlights of FMI's internal efforts under his tenure to adapt to remain relevant in the face of a rapidly changing marketplace, praising the efforts of a strategic team led by Craig Schnuck, chairman of the executive committee of his family-run chain, Schnuck Markets, "to accelerate the pace of change."

Change--as well as membership and participation as vehicles of change--helped shape the opening remarks of conference chairman and Hy-Vee c.e.o. Ric Jurgens, whose natty attire matched his sharp plea for greater participation from his colleagues in FMI's educational and trade show events, as well as the trade group's governance, and government affairs, activities.

Seeing fit to remind his counterparts of "why we need FMI," Jurgens reviewed the association's lobbying, educational, and public relations roles, as well as the "sense of community and industry" it fosters through events. "Maybe we don't need it, but I like it," he added of that last of FMI's contributions on his list.

The balance of Day One at FMI Midwinter went to expert discussions featuring crack minds from Kraft, Harvard, Deloitte Touche, and elsewhere on industry issues characterized not by the nitty gritty of operations or merchandising, but higher-level concerns such as grocers' and vendors' responsibilities to straighten out the morass of information about health and wellness for consumers; the challenge of filling inevitable gaps in management talent; and the crying need to tap into their own knowledge banks of female managers and workers, to become better servants to the needs of female shoppers.

At one point during the health and wellness discussion, Hy-Vee Jurgens mused that at his company, "anytime we have frustrated consumers is an opportunity. We've worked to provide knowledge as well as food. We actually are selling knowledge now."

And judging from the first day of Midwinter, FMI as well is trying hard to merchandise knowledge as a hot commodity.
-- Steve Dowdell
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