There's little doubt that our industry's national and state trade organizations are facing a number of challenges not unlike those confronting their own members. Decreasing revenues due to continued industry consolidation, budget cuts, productivity issues, and other concerns have forced most trade groups, if not all, to examine every aspect of their operations.

Difficult as it must be to part ways with longtime, valued staff members, or to do away with programs that perhaps took years to develop and implement, we must all applaud those trade associations that continue to put the needs of members first, by offering programs and services that not only positively affect their constituents' bottom lines, but can also help to improve employee morale and retention.

Working with the best

Since April 2002 I have been honored to work alongside Tom Jackson and his staff at the Columbus-based Ohio Grocers Association. Volunteering my time as chairperson of the group's Ohio Food Industry Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the OGA, I have benefited greatly by interacting with some of the finest supermarket operators in the country.

Also, during my term as foundation chairperson, I've witnessed firsthand the commitment of three outstanding retail leaders: OGA past chairpersons Judy Reisbeck Wright of Reisbeck's Markets and Dave Daniel of Giant Eagle, Inc., and current chairman Bill Price of Springfield, Ohio-based Howard's Foods. These three executives, along with their boards of directors, have worked side by side with Jackson to ensure that their fiscally sound trade group remains one of our industry's best.

Ten years or so ago, when Jackson first came up with the idea of operating a 501(c)(3) foundation in conjunction with the state trade association, it's my guess that OGA members had little idea about how much they would benefit from the foundation's works. And while success didn't come overnight, I believe that the OGA today serves as an example for other state trade associations to follow.

Among the many foundation programs that members of the OGA enjoy is a career education reimbursement program, which replaced its scholarship program four years ago.

"In establishing a tuition reimbursement program for OGA members, we accomplished two main goals," says Ohio Food Industry Foundation director Tonya Woodruff. "First, we wanted to increase the number of people who would ultimately benefit from our funding, plus we felt it was important to reward those who were planning to stay in the food business during their careers."

According to Woodruff, the increasingly popular program allows for any employee working for an OGA member, be it a manufacturer, distributor, or retailer, to apply for funding for up to two classes per grading period from an accredited university or college. Also eligible for funding are classes or seminars that allow associates to improve their work skills in the food business. Classes focus on pharmacy continuing education, floral arranging, cake decorating, and more.

"We allocate a specific amount of dollars to be awarded per calendar quarter," adds Woodruff. "Each quarter we review by committee all applications received, and award funding based not only on grades, but also on how relative the class is to the associate's work, and how they feel the class will benefit the company for which they work."

With budget cuts seemingly on every trade association's radar, including that of the OGA, how does the group fund its tuition reimbursement program? "We organize two major events that take place each year and benefit foundation projects," explains Woodruff. "Our annual golf outing, which took place this past July at the popular Longaberger Golf Course near Newark, Ohio, [and] a huge silent auction, which takes place at the Ohio Grocers Annual Trade Association Gala, continue to raise record funds."

Another high-profile project for which Woodruff and her OGA counterparts are responsible is "Parent's Week and Family Meal Night," a weeklong event that takes place each September.

Working for the past five years in conjunction with Ohio's first lady, Hope Taft, who, with Woodruff and Jackson, visits a number of supermarkets throughout the state during the event, the OGA promotes the many benefits of families sitting down together to enjoy dinner at home.

Loss prevention

While both of these programs provide members with access to meaningful relational marketing programs for employees and consumers, perhaps nothing has a greater impact on a member's bottom line than the work of the OGA's Loss Prevention Committee, which comprises 20-plus executives representing retailers large and small throughout the state.

Having once served as the education chairperson of the committee, I can attest to the fact that this group is one of the OGA's greatest assets. Whether planning a loss prevention or cost-cutting seminar to benefit all association members, or sharing with one another on a daily or weekly basis information on fraudulent checks or other types of bogus payments that may have come their way, this group is helping to make the food business safer and more profitable.

Granted, no trade group is perfect, but I encourage those association execs looking to better serve their memberships to take a closer look at what's happening in the Buckeye State. There you'll find leadership that has had to make some tough operating decisions of its own during the past couple of years -- but that continues to focus on the people working in our industry, as well as their bottom lines.

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