Born in Montgomery, Ala. but raised as an "air force brat," Dagmar Farr has lived all around the globe, including the Middle East and Europe. Her worldliness has served her well in a high-level career of service to the retail food industry -- but Farr knows home is where the heart is, and she applies that knowledge with aplomb both professionally, as group v.p. of consumer and legislative affairs for the Food Marketing Institute, and on a personal level.

As a young girl, Farr dreamed of one day pursuing a successful career on Capitol Hill. She began to realize that dream soon after she earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Goucher College in Baltimore. After working as an intern for her congressman and the Republican National Committee during college, she was hired in 1978 as associate director of state government relations for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.

Remarkable career

Admiring her work and supportive of her desire to forge a career in the area of federal legislation, Gary Burhop of Malone and Hyde and Jack Partridge of the Kroger Co., both members of the NACDS government relations committee in 1981, encouraged Farr to apply for a lobbyist position at the high-profile FMI.

FMI's s.v.p, and general counsel at that time, the late Harry Sullivan, brought Farr on board as a legislative assistant for government relations, and so began her remarkable 25-year career at FMI.

When I first met Farr in the late 1980s, I'd recently joined the management team of my family's five-store supermarket company operating in the Midwest. Prior to earning my degree from Ohio State University and then working as a high school teacher for two years, I had worked part-time in our stores for years, putting my time in at the front end, produce, meat, grocery, and deli/bakery. It didn't take long for me to realize that actually managing the stores would be a much greater challenge, and I began researching how groups such as FMI could assist me.

Meanwhile Farr, who was making a name for herself at FMI, was charged with leading the association's Consumer Affairs Council, which was governed by committee. Farr felt strongly that independents should have a voice on the council, and she spoke with my father, with whom she had worked throughout his tenure on the FMI board, about my becoming a member of the committee. He agreed, recognizing it would be a great learning experience for me, and also assuring Farr that I wouldn't be the least bit shy in expressing my views on how FMI and the industry at large could best serve family-owned supermarkets.

I still find myself reflecting on the first council meeting I attended at 1750 K Street, FMI's former headquarters. Farr introduced me to a number of well-known food industry professionals, including Odonna Matthews of Giant Food, Harris Teeter's Betty LaFone, Fleming's Carol Scroggins, and Mary Ellen Burris of Wegmans. Thanks to Farr, they welcomed me with open arms.

Customer connections

We enjoyed working together for more than five years. While I'm no longer a supermarket operator, to this day I credit the group with encouraging me to share ideas, big or small, that in some way can benefit family-owned supermarkets.

Today Farr's work at FMI continues to benefit our entire industry, especially when it comes to understanding grocery customers. "Our department aims to help our members keep abreast of the ever-changing consumer," she says. "We know consumers lead hectic lives and that product quality, nutrition, ingredient content, health and safety, freshness, labeling, and myriad other factors influence their buying decisions. While consumers look increasingly to supermarkets for timely information, making that connection can be difficult."

That's when FMI's consumer affairs department steps in to help member companies connect with their customers. "We focus on hot-button issues; obesity and avian flu are just two examples," notes Farr. "FMI's Web page on obesity was created as a comprehensive resource for the entire industry. On the issue of avian flu, we've dedicated numerous resources for members, as well as a consumer guide.

"Effective consumer strategies can not only enhance a company's image and create store loyalty, but can also improve a company's bottom line in an increasingly competitive market."

Farr also offers sound advice to independents operating throughout the country. "Today it's all about the customer," she says. "What amazes me, especially when looking at the FMI Consumer Affairs Committee, is that we have some companies that in my opinion actually own their customers. They have devoted resources and very talented people to not only to the operations and political sides of the business, but also equally to the customer side."

"It's critical to pull these three areas together," she concludes. "If you focus just on operations, you may indeed have a great-running company. But when things get difficult, you want the customers on your side."

Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].
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