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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: A leader for challenging times

    NGA's new chairman is investing his wealth of experience and leadership skills on behalf of independent grocers across the country.

    Mike Needler is known in board rooms across the country as an industry leader, so it came as no surprise last year when he was elected to serve as vice chairman of the National Grocers Association. What surprised Needler was his sudden rise to the top.

    When Chuck Pilliter resigned as NGA chairman at mid-year, Needler was next in line. The independent wasted no time taking charge of the organization and establishing an agenda he feels will benefit all family-owned supermarkets.

    A 36-year veteran of the food industry, Needler is c.e.o. of Fresh Encounter, Inc., a supermarket management company that owns 29 stores in Indiana and Ohio. Operating eight banners in six geographic markets, Needler and his team compete effectively against Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Meijer, to name just a few. And while his company isn't the biggest around, it's recognized in the Midwest as one of the best.

    Last month, I spent an afternoon with the new chairman to discuss his NGA agenda. Our conversation spanned a variety of topics, including trade associations, the family business, and a subject close to his heart, the future of the independent grocer.

    When leaving Needler's office, I found myself missing life as a retailer. His enthusiasm and passion for the business are contagious, and NGA and its members are lucky to have him on board.

    NGA president and c.e.o. Tom Zaucha agrees. "There are certain characteristics that epitomize the successful independent, in that they're personally dedicated to serving their associates, customers, and their communities. Mike Needler has that sense of entrepreneurism and creativity that ultimately give him a conviction to win. All of us at NGA are honored to work with him," says Zaucha.

    While the new chairman's agenda includes several challenges, three have surfaced as top priorities: membership, competition, and the estate tax.

    "Obviously, my goal is to grow membership in all sectors," says Needler. "More members will give NGA a stronger voice not only in Washington, but with lawmakers across the country. Independents have so many concerns today, and we must band together to be heard."

    Perhaps the biggest issue facing Needler and his constituents is fair competition. "As companies like Wal-Mart, Kroger, Safeway, and Ahold continue to dominate, competing wholesalers and their retail customers are definitely at risk," he says. "The presence of the independent has always represented diversity in the marketplace and that's good for consumers. Our goal at NGA is to fight for a level playing field that will allow all retailers, regardless of size, to compete."

    Cost concerns

    How does Needler define a level playing field? "It all has to do with the cost of goods. When Wal-Mart, for example, demands exclusive packaging like blister packs and other offerings that significantly reduce the cost per ounce on a product, and that same package is not made available to smaller retailers, the big guys have a distinct advantage. They're demanding special consideration from manufacturers based on their size."

    He continues, "We believe that any and all elements of cost must also be made available to the independent."

    Zaucha concurs. "One of the key challenges facing independents is the need and ability to reinvest in the business," he says. "When independents look at large corporate competitors who have major sums of money, they find that most aren't worried about re-capitalizing existing stores because they're busy looking at future development. In terms of ingenuity, responsiveness, and the ability to change with change, independents have the maneuverability and agility. But when the playing field isn't level, they can't afford to open their doors in the morning knowing that they are already 'x' percentage points behind."

    Besides battling for fair competition, Needler says he will continue to push lawmakers for a permanent repeal of the estate tax, which he feels "penalizes American families for hard work and a lifetime of sacrifice."

    "Large public corporations don't have to worry about paying estate taxes if and when the chairman passes away," Needler says. "In many cases, family-owned businesses are forced to liquidate assets just to meet those tax obligations."

    He adds, "Over the years, NGA and its counterparts have worked hard to get the death tax abolished and we've made tremendous progress. But for now, the repeal is only in effect until the year 2010. It needs to be permanent."

    While his experience as a retailer and commitment to family businesses make Needler well-suited to lead NGA, he realizes that the road ahead is a tough one. He seems ready for the challenge. "As chairman, it's my job to serve the independent grocer and provide a sense of direction for the NGA staff. I'm prepared to do whatever it takes to make our members successful," he says. "That I guarantee."

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

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