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You could say that as the new U.S. head of IGA, Mark Batenic's got big shoes to fill. But his biggest challenge will be to lay the ground for a new footpath for the Chicago-based retail alliance to follow.
Tellingly, Batenic's been here before. While attending the University of Kansas, he found work as a clerk at Rusty's IGA in Lawrence. Like most new hires, Batenic started at the front end, bagging groceries and assisting customers. Little could he know at the time that his career would not only begin, but very possibly also end, with IGA.
Thus, for this newly appointed chairman, president, and c.e.o. of IGA USA, an old cliche holds true: Life has come full circle. Batenic, 57, officially assumed leadership of the group this past December, bringing with him a solid reputation, and a relentless passion for the independent grocer. He does so at a time when passion is in high demand.
As a high-ranking executive at Fleming, Batenic treasured working with family-owned supermarkets, and was always a champion of their causes. But when the seemingly invincible wholesaler, with whom he spent 30 years, made supplying chain stores its sole priority, Batenic decided it was time to move on.
Shortly thereafter, he joined Kulpsville, Pa.-based Clemens Family Markets, serving as e.v.p. and c.o.o. Privately held for 68 years, Clemens was acquired by Giant Food Stores late last year. With his career once again in transition, and his leadership abilities respected in boardrooms across the country -- from Coca Cola's Atlanta headquarters to a quaint office in Bend, Ore. occupied by single-store operator Rudy Dory -- Batenic found himself a prime candidate for IGA's prominent search committee charged with choosing a successor to longtime leader Dr. Tom Haggai.
Having worked with Batenic nearly a decade ago when I was a retailer, and appreciating how he unconditionally looked out for the "little guys," I wasn't surprised to learn that he was the search team's first pick.
I can report he's the same Mark Batenic who earned the trust of independents big and small. And he clearly understands the gravity of his new mission: to protect the health, vitality, and future growth of the IGA system in the United States.
Batenic has devoted these first months at the helm to "bringing closer together" three IGA constituencies who, in his words, "need each other" more than their sometimes tense interactions might indicate.
"IGA retailers, our licensed distribution centers, and our Red Oval Partners can't survive without each other," confirms Batenic. "Wholesalers would have no revenues without the independent retailers, and the independents need the wholesalers to provide the goods and services that they need to compete. Part of my role is to bridge the tension that has always seemed to exist between the two. Our focus today is on collaboration vs. conflict, understanding that both the retailers and the wholesalers play an important role."
He continues: "Roll into the mix our IGA Red Oval Partners and manufacturers. They want to see IGA thrive, because having just one system -- i.e., the chains -- is not healthy."
In the spirit
Reflecting on his 37 years in the business, Batenic remarks: "I truly never dreamed that I'd have the chance to lead IGA in the U.S., and I do so today with deep conviction. IGA is a movement, it's a spirit, and it's poised for growth. It's been a part of consumers' lives for over 80 years. How many companies can say that in this day and age?
"IGA will continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of all constituents," he adds. "Most importantly, we'll evolve to satisfy the consumer. This business really isn't complicated. Our stores truly are 'community centers,' and we must have in place a program that's relative to consumers, whether they're living and shopping in New York City or Dillonvale, Ohio. That requires understanding and adjusting to consumer trends both locally and nationally. Today it's all about saving them time and making available the right products."
As he settles into his new role, Batenic's getting valuable support from Haggai, who with Batenic's entry now oversees IGA's global efforts from his office in Highpoint, N.C.
"Tom has always been a source of inspiration, and I admire all he's done at IGA during the past two decades," says Batenic. "He took over the alliance and led us successfully through some rocky years. It's because of him that the spirit of IGA is today alive and well."
It's a unique kind of spirit that Batenic wisely realizes can't be duplicated. "I can never be a Tom Haggai," he says. "He has the ability to transform everyone in the world into apostles. I admire him deeply, but [the board] didn't hire another Tom."
Instead the board has hired "a leader that retailers can count on to move IGA USA forward," says John Runyan, president and c.e.o. of Associated Grocers of Seattle. "Mark brings to IGA USA retail experience, integrity, intelligence, and credibility. He also has the valuable experience of years at wholesale, working in multiple areas where he had continued interaction with IGA retailers. I cannot think of a better executive than Mark Batenic to lead the changes that must be made at IGA."
Retailers concur. "Mark has always been committed to the IGA program," says Mike Lee of Marketplace Advertising, LLC, who coordinates the group buying and advertising efforts for several IGA owners in northeast Ohio, and once worked with Batenic at Fleming's Massillon, Ohio division. "During this critical time of change, his leadership will be invaluable."
Adds Rudy Dory, IGA's International Retailer of The Year: "Mark brings instant credibility to IGA. In my mind, his greatest challenges will be communicating to all retailers the direction he's taking IGA, and to create value in belonging to IGA. Mark is an outstanding choice, and I am committed to helping him succeed."
Batenic concludes: "IGA is now being led by two seasoned professionals who clearly understand their mission: to go to market as one IGA across the world. Granted, we may not have all the answers right now, but we're going to figure it out and make it work.
"When the time comes for me to leave IGA, I hope to have made IGA the clear business choice for entrepreneurs who long to own their own businesses -- a system supported by Red Oval manufacturers, distribution centers that support only the IGA banner, a system that provides independents with buying and marketing power, and a sense of community. Open communications will be key."
Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at JanieOT@aol.com.