WSL Future of Health Event

New group a work in progress

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The reconstructed, reconfigured, rechristened and, it is hoped, reinvigorated global retail group previously known as CIES — The Food Business Forum — held its first serious meeting last month, a three-day Summit in London designed to bring together the world’s most important mass retailers and suppliers.

The reconstructed, reconfigured, rechristened and, it is hoped, reinvigorated global retail group previously known as CIES — The Food Business Forum — held its first serious meeting last month, a three-day Summit in London designed to bring together the world’s most important mass retailers and suppliers.

The organization, now known as the Consumer Goods Forum, combines three previously separate organizations (the Global Commerce Initiative and the Global CEO Forum, along with CIES), none of which had succeeded in fully engaging the global retail community. While impressive in the attempt, the initial result, judged by the success of the Summit, was less than one would have hoped for.

On the positive side, some 600 of the world’s leading corporations — Walmart, Tesco, IGA, A&P, Alliance Boots, Sobeys, Delhaize, Carrefour, Woolworths of Australia, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Coke, Pepsi, Nestlé, L’Oréal, Kraft — participated, and many of their senior officers attended the board meeting that preceded the conference. The organization’s mission, which emphasizes such global challenges as best practices, health and wellness, sustainability, and food safety, is laudable.

The program, while uneven, provided moments of enlightenment, insight, useful information, compelling calls to action and irresistible challenges to the complacency that too frequently surrounds these issues. The passion and commitment of several speakers — the Prince of Wales, Woolworths’ CEO Michael Luscombe and ASDA’s Andy Bond come quickly to mind — were impressive.

The problem with the Consumer Goods Forum’s Summit was just about everything else. For openers, the Paris-based group is poorly organized. Though a new managing director, Jean-Marc Saubade, has been named to head the organization, that individual was pretty much kept under wraps at the Summit. Rather, the public faces of the Consumer Goods Forum were its co-chairs, Carrefour CEO Lars Olofsson and Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola, each of whom already has a full-time job. That being the case, they will prove very difficult to engage should a member of the Consumer Goods Forum wish to become more actively involved in the group’s agenda or proceedings.

The organization, according to its introductory brochure, has offices in Washington, D.C.; Tokyo; Shanghai; and Singapore, in addition to its Paris headquarters. But the officials said to head these offices were, like its new global chief, largely invisible. The impression, then, was of an organization without day-to-day leadership.

Then there was the matter of attendance, or, more precisely, the lack of attendance. Like it or not, a truly global organization must rely for success on the active participation of U.S. retailers. True, Mike Duke and Doug McMillon, Walmart’s CEO and head of international operations, respectively, were on hand. So, too, was Mark Batenic, the very impressive head of IGA around the world. But that was it. Even those U.S. retail executives listed as board members — Kroger’s Dave Dillon, Wegman’s Danny Wegman — failed to send representatives to the Summit. The lack of any significant U.S. retail presence was duly noted — and not very well received.

Then there were the small oversights, those that seasoned association executives would never have condoned or countenanced. The most glaring of these was the fact that many of the retail participants were not very visible during the three-day Summit. Indeed, on three separate occasions, the board members and senior retail executives were invited, en masse, to private luncheons or dinners, effectively putting them off limits for the supplier members who had signed up for the meeting, at least in part, to spend some meaningful time with their retail counterparts.

Then too, for some reason yet to be understood or explained, individual retailers and suppliers were allowed to conduct private meetings during the business sessions. One can’t help but wonder why, given the stated serious nature of the agenda and the compelling subjects of the various business presentations, this was permitted, even encouraged.

Finally, there was the venue. The tiny conference center that functioned as the meeting’s location was, simply put, too small to hold the crowd. As a result, many attendees were forced to stand throughout the business program. Indeed, the hall proved an impractical location for many reasons — foremost among them, in addition to the lack of seating, the difficulty of moving the meeting-goers from floor to floor. It must also be noted that, though sustainability and the conservation of resources were core challenges at the Summit, and though Coke and Pepsi were both participating, and very visible, companies, plastic disposable water bottles could be found under virtually every seat in the auditorium — and left there at meeting’s end. A small issue, true, but undeniably off-putting.

Many of these mistakes would have been tolerated had they been made by an organization just getting its feet wet in the association business. But the Consumer Goods Forum positioned itself as a thoroughly professional group with impressive antecedents, an organization staffed with the best and brightest retailer and supplier executives from around the globe. Given the group’s stated mission, agenda and impressive roster of participants, this kind of behavior was clearly unacceptable.

The Consumer Goods Forum, then, is clearly very much a work in progress. Perhaps with time and more disciplined and focused leadership, it will function more smoothly. Perhaps its new leader will assert himself with the same degree of authority and autonomy with which the best American association executives conduct themselves. Perhaps American retailers can be cajoled into participating. Perhaps the organizational difficulties which hampered the London meeting will be smoothed out before next year’s Summit, scheduled for Tokyo in June of 2011.

If these issues are not addressed, however, … well, Tokyo is a long way to go for a meeting that, while laudable in intent, is nowhere near fulfilling its very ambitious agenda.


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