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Notes & commentary from Kevin Coupe

There was a sense of both anticipation and trepidation at this year's annual Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Show in Las Vegas, based on various casual conversations held and overheard during four days there.

Much of it was keyed to the imminent leadership changes taking place at FMI; CEO Tim Hammonds announced his retirement just days before the conference began, and there is tremendous speculation about who will replace him and what it will mean to the organization. There is a sense – both on the part of retailers and manufacturers – that this is a time of opportunity for FMI…though there is by no means any sort of unanimity about whether the organization's leadership will meet the challenge.

What should be the role of a trade association? And how should the business model of a trade show change to reflect an evolving marketplace? (People continue to wonder about a food industry trade show at which companies such Pepsi and Sara Lee do not exhibit. Can such a show be relevant? And does going to an every-other-year schedule make it more relevant, or less so?) These are the questions that people seemed to be asking, and it may be that FMI's members are ready for a little revolution, even if the notion worries them a bit.

"Think big, act bold, start simple, iterate fast," said futurist/author John Patrick in his Monday presentation about the Internet, and that seems like a pretty good model for how FMI should proceed at this juncture in its history. People with whom I spoke suggested that bold moves are called for, such as the consideration of new alliances or even mergers with organizations such as CIES, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the National Grocers Association (NGA) or the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS).

(In fact, NACS CEO Hank Armour often is mentioned as the model for the kind of person who could replace Hammonds; Armour is smart, relatively young, energetic, extremely aggressive and very focused in pursuing the NACS agenda, and he is a former retailer who "gets it.")

And so, there is much anticipation about next steps for FMI, even if there is trepidation…because there are more than a few people who think that it is unlikely that a bold move will be made, and that the opportunity will be missed. Or worse, avoided.

However, while there are those who feel anticipation and others who feel trepidation – and some who feel both – there is another group of people who feel something else. Apathy. They think that it doesn’t matter what FMI does, or any trade association, for that matter. They think that this is all "inside the beltway" stuff, and that it has little impact on the day-to-day conduct of business.

Apathy, I suspect, is FMI's worst enemy. And if it is to be relevant for a changing industry, and to embrace the kind of revolution that can redefine its role and mission, then it has to take aim at apathy first and make a persuasive and compelling case for why people and companies should care.

KC's View: