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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Giving thanks

    Independents and the folks who work with them inspire endlessly. Here are just a few.

    It's hard to believe that December is here and a new year is just weeks away. What's more, it seems impossible that I've been working with my colleagues at Progressive Grocer for over six years. Time has passed more quickly than I would ever have imagined.

    Thankful for the storeowners and professionals with whom I've collaborated since joining the ranks of PG, and for the valuable lessons they've shared with me and our thousands of readers around the world, I continue to be inspired by this industry.

    Can I say that any one interview, or a specific column that I've written over the past few years, is a favorite? Not really. Each has provided a timely and unique perspective on our business, on its challenges and opportunities, and on the independent supermarket owners whose cause I seek to champion.

    In this month's Independents Report, allow me to reflect upon just a few meaningful interviews and words of wisdom that have been shared with me by a number of high-profile executives, family business advocates, and storeowners across the country. While their types of companies and years of experience in the industry may vary, it's their passion for the food business -- and their desire to share that passion with others -- that I respect so much.

    Empowered to succeed

    Nearly three years ago I filed for our January issue a column featuring Dr. John Eldred, president of Ambler, Pa.-based Transition One Associates. An adviser to family businesses around the world, including the growing Sheetz fuel stations/convenience stores, DuPont, Alcoa, Johnson & Johnson Foundation, IGA, Campbell Soup Co., and others, Eldred has long been one of my favorite family business resources.

    "A good leader inspires, informs, educates, and influences by being the best questioner in the room," he said. "He or she gets people to focus and discover the things that they're good at. The most important question a leader should ask is, 'How would you like me to manage you?'

    "What's really being said," explained the co-founder of the Wharton School Family Business Program, "is that in designing this relationship, you, the employee, get to be the co-author."

    Independent thinking

    At age 75 he was busy writing a white paper on the future of independents. That's when I last spoke to Al Lees, the popular single-store operator and former FMI board member. He was hoping to publish the document through Progressive Grocer one day. Unfortunately for all of us, that never happened. Shortly after our last meeting in 2004, PG published Lees' obituary instead.

    I truly miss Al's invitations to meet for coffee during the FMI convention, and I hold close many fond memories of the ageless wonder making his way around the FMI show floor in search of ways to better serve his customers. But most of all, I still hear his words.

    "When those operating the store at, let's say, 7:00 on a Sunday evening are trained to think and make decisions that help the company, not only will the store survive, chances are it will also thrive," he said.

    With regard to big-box competition, he noted, "I often recall the old African saying, 'When elephants battle, the grass gets trampled.'"

    Yet another intriguing independent thinker from our industry is John Lucot, e.v.p. of Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, whom I once profiled along with Lees.

    Of the outstanding independent operators with which his company does business Lucot said, "So many of them go above and beyond the call of duty and are entrenched in the very fabric of their communities. They're active, visible, and involved for all the right reasons -- not just some of the right reasons. In my eyes, they carry badges of honor and serve as the unofficial mayors of their towns."

    State of the unions

    Union yes? No thanks. On the highly debated subject of organized labor, about which I often share strong opinions, renowned labor attorney Glenn Olcerst from the Pittsburgh-based law firm Marcus & Shapira once advised, "Labor law, and responding to an organizing drive especially, is analogous to a multilevel game of chess. You must understand and anticipate the full range of tactics in the union's arsenal and never underestimate your adversary."

    He added: "It's essential for grocery store owners to go all out to defeat a union organizing drive. That's the only way to get the unions to turn their collective energies toward Wal-Mart -- and leave the small grocery store owner alone."

    Charitable works

    Our industry is full of caring people, and a former director of marketing at Microsoft and Golden Grains Co. is living proof of that.

    It was during 2003 that I met Trish May, cancer survivor and founder of Seattle-based Athena Partners.

    Through her 501(c)3 corporation, May donates 100 percent of the profits from the sale of its Athena Bottled Water to early-stage cancer research. In so doing, she is providing consumers with an opportunity to make an important difference in the cause.

    During my interview with soft-spoken yet driven executive, she remarked, "With the kind of money we plan to raise, we believe we can really move the dial and help find a cure for a disease that touches us all."

    As 2006 comes to a close, I'd like to express gratitude to my many food industry colleagues, especially independent supermarket owners, who have shared their time, talents, and good advice with our readers.

    Whatever you do in this industry, the key to success is passion.

    One executive summed it up best, when I visited his Indianapolis-based produce company for the first time four years ago. "When you love what you do," said Philip Caito, chairman of Caito Foods, "You never have to work a day in your life."

    I give special thanks to all of those who've made it possible for me to love what I do.

    Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].

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