State of the Independents: Q&A with NGA’s Peter Larkin

State of the Independents: Q&A with NGA’s Peter Larkin
Progressive Grocer's Kat Martin chats with NGA CEO Peter Larkin

At the recent NGA Show, held last month in San Diego, Progressive Grocer had a chance to sit down with the National Grocers Association’s CEO, Peter Larkin. He shared some of his insights on the state of the independent grocer, as well as what he wants to leave as his legacy after he steps down from the association this year.

Progressive Grocer: What do you see as the state of the industry for independents?

Peter Larkin: This is not my thought, but someone expressed it to me earlier today, and they almost feel a renaissance, if you will, for the independent channel, that the opportunities are so great. [At a wholesaler panel discussion during the recent NGA Show], I think David Smith made a really, really good point about how independents are taking over some of the stores that are being divested by some of the regional chains, that are trying to figure out who they want to be when they grow up. So I am actually very optimistic. With that said, there's still going to be a number of independents that, for whatever reason -- they haven't invested, they haven't tried to differentiate themselves, and, to a certain number of them, that family businesses that don't have any more family to pass it down to -- those also are opportunities for other independents to come in and take their stores. So we may end up with fewer companies, but I think they will be healthier, and in some cases [a] larger ... number of stores in their portfolio. I sense the optimism.

Another reason for optimism is that I see them really not being afraid to look at other formats. I think that our members -- I'm admittedly biased --, but I think our members are more flexible and can make those decisions to do those a lot quicker, easier, than some of the large chains. In the long run, we're going to find out that they're better equipped to run them. I think that some of the larger organizations know that they need to go there, but their DNA is running larger stores, and I'm not sure if they're really going to be able to figure out how to do both things.

Progressive Grocer: What are some of the challenges or pitfalls ahead that independents may have to face in the next couple of years?

Peter: Talent, I think, recruiting, retaining, and in some cases, they're going to have to change their culture to adapt to the different expectations of the people that they are attracting. I think that it is a huge challenge.

Progressive Grocer: More so than in previous generations?

Peter: Yes. I think there are different expectations of ... whether or not they're accurate expectations, or even possible, but I think people the younger people, the Millennials --  but I don't even know if it's just Millennials -- they want different things with their work experience. Forward-thinking independents probably have more of an opportunity to be flexible, and offer some of those attributes that maybe the larger organizations can't. I think the perception in the industry in general is that we bring in anybody who is willing to go to work, but we don't necessarily provide them all with the training that they need. And I think we need to turn that around. That's part of the reason that NGA has focused our foundation specifically on people and human resource positions. We are launching a new website with a career center. We're going to have job postings. We're going to be really focusing on helping our members recruit, train, retain employees.

The other advantage that I think our members may have in this going forward is, I think the same people that want more flexibility and are looking for something different, also are looking for jobs with a purpose, and sometimes being part of the community, being local, providing local products, tying things back to the farmers that produce them. That sense of, I'm not just working at a grocery store, I'm a part of the heartbeat in the community, and that I know my customers.

Progressive Grocer: You are stepping down from the CEO position this year. What do you want your legacy to be?

Peter: What I want people to remember isn't that in the time that I was at NGA, we made it stronger, and we made it a louder voice for independents, and that we created an organization that provides them resources that they might not otherwise have had before. What I want people to remember is that I gave everything I had to the organization. I loved the industry, I loved the people, I love our members, and I love, more importantly, what they do on a day-to-day basis. The community award is very important to me because I think that no one does community better than independent grocers. [At the recent NGA Show, the association announced the new Peter J. Larkin Award for Community Service.] I have had a dream of being able to somehow capture that and aggregate it so that we can better tell the story. But, the fact of the matter is, is that they don't capture what they do. So short of being able to aggregate it and report it then at least on an annual basis, we can, by putting together a process of criteria for the award, we'll be able to showcase at least one member every year that is doing those amazing things in their community. And over the years, that body of work will add up, and we'll accomplish that objective over time.

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