CEO UpdateCEO Update Live recently hosted a panel of association CEOs addressing the topic of leadership disruption, with FMI President and CEO Leslie Sarasin among the contributing panelists. The following is an excerpt of the questions posed by moderator Mark Graham, Managing Director of CEO Update, along with Leslie Sarasin’s responses. 

Mark Graham:What has your association done well to help your association or profession deal with the disruptive forces?

Leslie Sarasin:  In the case of the disruption resulting from increasing levels of online grocery shopping, FMI has done several things, including the following:

  1. Name the threat;
  2. Collect the facts;
  3. Reveal the trends; and
  4. Provide the resources/connections to facilitate innovation.

While some may criticize food retailers as being a bit slow to the online game, I think we’re seeing a lot of “make-up” ball being played and some interesting partnerships being formed. 

Because the cultivation of the right partners is such a crucial part of how our members are tackling this huge opportunity, it made sense for FMI to model that behavior, so we formed a three year partnership with Nielsen to help our members grasp the current situation, provide them with useful self-assessment tools and offer resources in developing a plan of action. 

There’s inherent tension that exists with retailers in that all of them want to differentiate as a means of competing, while at the same time they are highly imitative. This reality makes some really hesitant to be the first to undertake any major innovation; many prefer to wait to let others expend the capital in learning what NOT to do. But now, with change coming at them faster and faster, we’re working hard to help change that “wait and see” mentality to one with more sense of adventure

Mark Graham: “The industry we serve is learning it must rethink and when appropriate, redesign all aspects of its business…. Likewise, FMI must adapt and look with fresh eyes at the opportunities this new frontier holds, even when it requires letting go of old methods that hold places in our hearts.”  Now, that sounds like disruption. This was a part of a letter Leslie wrote to members in 2016 announcing the end of their big trade show. Leslie, in that same letter to members you also said that bringing people together is still “desired and needed.”  What lessons did you learn from dis-assembling FMI Connect, the big trade show, and what products/meeting/services have you subsequently created that have resonated with your members?

Leslie Sarasin:  The move to sunset the FMI Show was difficult since for 40 years nearly everyone operating in the food and consumer products industry had spent the first weekend in May in Chicago to see and be seen. But the difficulty with the decision became more about sentimental issues rather than business ones and in the grand scheme of things, the decision to sunset the show was actually pretty well received by our members. That said, I recognize - perhaps more now than even at the time of the decision - that it also served as a massive statement that it’s a new day in the industry and to navigate the new reality, we sometimes have to say goodbye to the memorable and familiar and move into uncharted territory. I think having FMI take this step has helped our members begin looking at their own operations in some new ways. As funny as it sounds, I think sometimes we all just need permission or a little push to make a change we may have been considering already, either consciously or subconsciously.

Post-sunset, we looked at how we could provide the good things the Show offered in some new ways that didn’t carry the unnecessary baggage. We have learned we must operate more nimbly and offer more small gatherings with more focused content – either through face to face events or through webinars, calls, and committee meetings. We have quadrupled the number of webinars we offer in the past 5 years. We’ve also learned that we have to maximize the networking aspect of every physical meeting we continue to develop AND we have to be willing to shake up the way we do them. This means redesigning our Midwinter Executive Conference and a recent overhaul of our Future Leaders program.

We’ve also become more astute at taking advantage of the opportunities and benefits from partnerships, for example, working on the Grocery Talk track as part of the highly successfulShopTalk. We constantly look for new and interesting collaborators with whom we can develop new programs that help build industry community, such as our recently launched Emerge to help developers of new food products find deeper supermarket penetration.

Mark Graham: How do you leverage or compete with this kind of outside (technology) investment/disruption?  Do you go head to head, re-evaluate your value proposition, or try to harness/partner with it?

Leslie Sarasin: I think it is a mistake to think you can go head to head with tech and win if you continue to do things exactly the way you’ve always done them. I suggest, at least in the case of food retail and perhaps other industries as well, it’s a matter of how you use tech to continue to offer valuable customer service that is more personalized and more meaningful. 

The Contact with your customer must remain primary. In the food retail world, which has such a long tradition of customer service and is a tremendously labor intensive industry, the trick is getting our associates who KNOW the industry trained in technology to find the best ways to apply it, WHILE bringing in new tech savvy associates and getting them trained in the high-touch traditions of the industry.

Mark Graham: The cliché is boomers are joiners and millennials are not, so are we heading toward the end of the subscription-membership model? Do associations need to think about other ways to earn revenue?  

Leslie Sarasin:  Associations should always be questioning and changing their revenue models. And we should take every generation’s critique seriously and go out of our way to solicit the opinions of those our current governance models may not empower. Millennials tend to get maligned in my estimation; they are challenging us to think differently, but they are also growing into their generational responsibility. I mean, look at us back in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s when we were just coming into our self-awareness – and look how respectful and respectable we are now. 

Mark Graham: If the membership model is dead or dying, where will associations make up the revenue difference?

Leslie Sarasin: As long as we are offering relevant services, we will be able to figure out the revenue streams. If we’re not offering relevant services then the question shouldbe asked if we should continue to exist.

Mark Graham: How are trade associations, like Beer Institute and FMI, dealing with generational divides?  How is it impacting your membership and what are you doing to address it?

Leslie Sarasin:  We’ve always been an industry and an association heavily invested in paying attention to Trends – especially shopper Trends – so, in some ways the current generational divide and the differences surfacing, feel like just another feature of the developing direction we’re going.

As an association, we feel it’s important to invest in developing industry talent. We’ve retooled our Future Leaders program so it can be done locally by our members, who can’t afford to send their up and comers to a centralized event every year. This move was done to make leadership development and a means of retaining talent as available as possible. 

We also try to be very sensitive about having millennial perspective on the platform at every event.

Mark Graham: That generational divide cuts both ways for associations, your members and your staff. Earlier this year Pew Research Center said millennials are the largest generation in the labor force now (56M vs. 53M-gen x, 41M-boomers). What are you doing to attract and retain this generation into your work force? 

Leslie Sarasin:  As I’ve suggested earlier, we don’t necessarily like to make generational generalities, but our Millennials have challenged us to reinvigorate our Community Outreach Program because CSR matters to them, they want to make a difference, and enjoy the community building aspect of a shared service project, so we seek to channel and target that energy through our EVP -Employment Volunteer Program.

Also, we are intentional about living into our association’s tagline – feeding families and enriching lives- in the working life of FMI by being family friendly, exploring flexible workplace arrangements, and doing things like providing financial advisor meetings 2 times a year. Millennials, like all generations, are experiencing the challenges that come with starting families and maintaining a family life; negotiating with career minded spouses; managing demanding kid’s schedules; and finding time to get together with friends; AND some are beginning to deal with the role reversal that comes with aging parents. 

 We’ve also expanded our orientation program so that new employees spend time with the leadership in our various departments in order to provide them with a bigger picture of the industry and the role FMI plays within it and to get cross-department relationships underway. 

We also offer tuition reimbursement program and encourage continuing education opportunities.

Because our industry is a passionate, customer focused industry, filled with folks who care and who want to make a difference, we find that going after employees who also have those qualities tends to work out best for them and FMI.