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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Among friends

    Gathering in aid of the needy is what it's all about for consultant Bill Kies and his grocery industry colleagues.

    Supermarkets are often front and center when it comes time to help their communities become better places to live and work. According to a recent FMI survey, more than half of all grocers in the United States actively support a variety of charities ranging from local food banks, health-and-welfare initiatives, and education/scholarship programs, to nationally organized groups such as the Salvation Army, Children's Miracle Network, the United Way, Habitat for Humanity, and the American Red Cross.

    Providing thousands of volunteer hours, donated products, and financial support, the food industry's most devoted storeowners, managers, and executives understand that charitable giving is important to their customers, many of whom are simply unable to contribute funds to their favorite charities, because of financial constraints from today's rising costs of gasoline, energy, education, and insurance.

    Competitors united

    Enter Bill Kies, a man on a mission to help food industry players optimize their corporate philanthropic efforts. Kies, a former FMI s.v.p. and ex-president/c.o.o. of IGA, Inc., is now principal of Chicago-based Kies Consulting, LLC.

    Nearly eight years ago Kies, along with a colleague, Accenture's Mike Gorsche, co-founded a food industry fundraising event that is today recognized as the largest single gathering of senior executives in the trade, the Friends of the Industry Dinner, held each January at the FMI Midwinter Executive Conference.

    "What began as a simple dinner has evolved into one of the food industry's premiere events," notes Kies. "The 'Friends' dinner is a perfect way to kick off the year, with a true spirit of industry camaraderie. It allows our co-sponsors, even though some are competitors in the marketplace, to combine their time and resources to maximize networking time with as many trade executives and customers as possible in one evening."

    The dinner almost immediately became a focal point, as well as a way to get control of the networking chaos that ensued from too many social events. "We definitely viewed the dinner as a solution to a problem, in that it provided a much appreciated way for suppliers/service companies to interact with retail and wholesale executives. Prior to the massive consolidation that took place in our industry, there were many more retailers out there, and therefore plenty of execs to entertain them. Many will remember when it was common for a retailer to receive up to 15 invitations for dinners on a single night at FMI Midwinter.

    "Today there are only two other dinners at FMI Midwinter that are [alternatives] to our event. I give credit to Hallmark, Gillette, ACNielsen, ConAgra, and Nestlé Purina for being the first companies to combine their dinners into one joint event. The spirit of inclusive vs. exclusive has been a winning formula for everyone."

    However, "Friends" is much more than a "see and be seen" soiree. While the impressive by-invitation-only guest list includes industry leaders such as Ahold's Bill Grize, Dr. Tom Haggai of IGA, Hy-Vee's Ric Jurgens and Ron Pearson, and a host of other successful grocers, including Carole Bitter of Friedman's Markets, Ed Crenshaw, Stater Bros.' Jack Brown, the Marshes of Marsh Supermarkets, the Wegmans, the Skogens, and the Niemanns, Kies stresses that the charitable causes behind the event are what matters most to those who attend.

    "All net proceeds from the dinner, which to date total over $500 million, are awarded to charities selected by our guests," he says. "Recipients vary, and include groups whose work directly benefits the food industry, such as the Network of Executive Women and the FMI Foundation, and other community-based initiatives, among them scholarship funds, support of local hospitals and fire and rescue squads, and children's programs at local museums, to name just a few. In some instances retailers and wholesalers choose to combine their funds. For example, some members of the Western Association of Food Chains have for the past five years requested that their dollars be rolled into a full scholarship, and it's done so on behalf of members such as Stater Bros., Raley's, Unified Western Grocers, Haggen's, Associated Grocers of Seattle, Costco, Bashas', Safeway, Bristol Farms, and JAX Markets."

    Noble cause

    Kies gets full cooperation from his former employer, FMI. "Tim Hammonds and his senior team have been very supportive and actually collaborate on details of the dinner so as not to duplicate a menu from prior evening events, on selection of appropriate room space, and on coordination with the hotel staff and other logistics. FMI itself has been a recipient of over $25,000 worth of funds for its FMI Foundation."

    Rich Niemann Sr., a longtime FMI board member who, along with his family, operates Quincy, Ill.-based Niemann Foods, says that he's personally grateful to Kies and the event sponsors.

    "Each year, as a result of participating in the Friends of the Industry Dinner, we contribute money to a scholarship fund that we've established at the Quincy Notre Dame Foundation in memory of our daughter, Connie Niemann Wheeler, who passed away just prior to the 'Friends' group being organized," he recounts. "We've attended every dinner, and like many other independent retailers, we're presented with that special check. The concept of providing funds to worthy charitable causes is truly a noble one."

    According to Kies, more than 325 guests will be enjoying the next Friends of the Industry Dinner, which will be held on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006 at the plush Phoenician Resort and Spa in Scottsdale, Ariz. In addition to Kies Consulting, sponsors include Hallmark Cards, SPAR Group, Accenture, McCormick, Source Interlink, Kraft Foods, ACNielsen, Musco Family Olive Co., Storecast, the Hershey Co., PepsiCo, Diageo, Kimberly Clark, J.M. Smucker Co., Catalina Marketing, Nestle, Purina, Wrigley, and ConAgra Foods.

    Adds Kies: "I've been blessed to be surrounded by some of the best minds and talent that exist in the food industry to provide outstanding guidance and counsel. Together we've customized an evening that's nicely balanced with awards, scholarships, entertainment, and camaraderie. It just doesn't get any better than what the 'Friends' dinner stands for -- and delivers."

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

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