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INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Growing the next generation

Nearly a century ago, a group of grocers traveled across the country by train to attend the annual National Association of Retail Grocers convention in Portland, Ore. During the trip, the delegates decided to form an organization that would symbolize their ties of friendship and promote their mutual interest in the food industry. Thus was born the Asparagus Club.

Founded officially on May 27, 1909, the Asparagus Club remains one of the most respected service organizations in the grocery industry. Open to a variety of National Grocers Association members, including retailers, trade association executives, manufacturers, food distribution center executives, trade press, and food industry associates, along with honorary and past service members, it has for years listed education as its No. 1 priority. Through a variety of ongoing fundraising activities, the "Tips," as they are known, have awarded well over $1 million in scholarships to students working in the food business.

Recently, I spoke with club president Russ Hockin, a 30-year veteran at Kellogg USA, Inc., and Larry McCurry, co-chairman of the scholarship committee and Unilever's director of industry and business development, about their involvement in the Asparagus Club, their goals, and their current challenges.

"I was inducted into the Asparagus Club 10 years ago and have since held several leadership posts in the organization," Hockin says. "Through my involvement with the club, I've met so many great people, and it's been an absolutely terrific experience. Most rewarding is working with those who want to ensure that our industry stays healthy and vibrant."

Hockin has identified two goals for the club: increasing membership and improving the scholarship program's return on investment.

"Due to continuous consolidation in manufacturing, retailing, and wholesaling, we have unfortunately lost some members in recent years," he says. "In order to be as far-reaching as possible, the Asparagus Club needs to maintain a large membership base. Personally, I'd like to invite anyone involved in other trade organizations to learn more about our group and consider becoming a member."

Helping Hockin to achieve his goals is McCurry, who serves on the boards of directors at the University of Minnesota, Arizona State University, and Western Michigan University, and has worked diligently over the past year to significantly improve the Asparagus Club's scholarship program.

"In the past, we didn't have a very sophisticated approach in terms of targeting those high school and college students who would in the end provide a return on our investment," he says. "In fact, many of the kids who earned scholarships were working in the grocery industry but had no intentions of making the business a career. As a result, last year we began to narrow the scope of our funds to include those students enrolled specifically in a food industry curriculum."

He adds, "Today, we're also doing a better job of target marketing schools that have contributed greatly to our industry. For example, colleges like USC, Arizona State, Cornell, Western Michigan, Portland State, the University of Minnesota, and St. Joseph's in Philadelphia all offer outstanding food marketing programs which help to connect the dots between academia and industry practitioners. That connectivity is important in that it ultimately provides the intellectual capital needed to guide our industry."

McCurry believes training and education are crucial to the big picture in the food industry, and he encourages his constituents to focus on long-term results. "With the recent changes to our scholarship program, which include awarding funds only to college juniors and seniors who have established majors, we'll begin to benchmark our results," he says. "Two or three years down the road, we want to look at those students and determine how they're contributing to the food industry. Hopefully the needle will have moved."

According to NGA president Tom Zaucha: "In recent years, NGA has identified 10 keys to retail success. One element is to recruit and retain the next generation of qualified managers and entrepreneurs. The schools with whom we work understand that community-focused retailers afford a great opportunity for a professional career path. They also realize that the food industry in one way or another provides three out of every 10 jobs in the United States."

The key to maintaining family-owned businesses has always been the ability to perpetuate leadership, and the club's scholarship program helps accomplish that, Zaucha says. "Despite competition and new entries into the market as far as different classes of trade, we will continue to enlist the talents of the sharpest and brightest young people in universities that offer food marketing programs," he says. "Thanks in part to the efforts of the Asparagus Club, I think the future for these folks and for our members looks pretty darn bright."

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