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Upon learning the news that Mike Eardley, most recently director of deli, cheese and prepared foods for Texas-based HEB, was selected to lead the IDDBA as its new president and CEO, I couldn't help but smile. Not only am I ecstatic for Mike on this well-deserved appointment; I'm also equally pleased for IDDBA's staff, board, general membership and the industry at large, all of which I'm certain will benefit tremendously from the many qualities he will impart when he takes the reins of his new role effective Aug. 25.
A true gentleman, industry scholar, exceptional merchant and inspiring team leader, the wise decision on the part of IDDBA's search committee to choose the talented, personable Eardley as the successor to the late Carol Christison – who died this past March after leading the association for 31 years – found me smiling that much wider, given my personal knowledge of how very fond Carol was of Mike.
During a lengthy conversation we had about his forthcoming journey from seasoned retailer to association executive, Eardley reflected on the close, 25-year relationship he had with Christison, a dozen of which were spent as an IDDBA board member. "The more critically I thought about it, the more I realized there was a karma-connection," he says. "The first time I visited an HEB store – and San Antonio, for that matter – I was with Carol." At the time, Eardley was working for D&W Food Centers in Grand Rapids, Mich., and recalls Christison "taking an immediate interest in me – in what I thought, how I evaluated products, and where I saw the industry going."
Shortly thereafter, Christison invited him to join the IDDBA board, where he began to learn the ropes of the association from the ground up while interacting closely with fellow board members and staff. "Carol was a good friend and mentor for a number of years; as much as she pushed and taught me, I think I also did the same for her as our friendship evolved."
Industry Student, Passionate Leader
When asked what he expects to enjoy most about leading one of the industry's most well respected trade organizations, Eardley pinpoints building a more robust deli/bakery community as mission critical. "Although I've been a retailer all my life, I've also been a student of the industry, trying to learn all that I can. When I go to a trade show, I walk the floor through the eyes of a consumer. I expect to take that same mental attitude to IDDBA, and think about how the association can continue evolving in new and different ways to best serve our members."
While Eardley is confident his experiences as a retailer will prove invaluable, he's quick to admit he's "got a lot of learning and research to do, which will begin with the feedback of our tremendously talented board and staff," whose collective knowledge and input he plans to use to the fullest. One of the first orders of new business he intends to embark on is reconstituting IDDBA's long-range strategic plan, which was firmly in place when he was on IDDBA's board more than a decade ago.
When Eardley first got involved in the deli segment, he remembers his former boss telling him they needed to hire "someone who loves food. Clearly I was a good fit, because I love food, but that's what deli and bakery are all about. I want to bring that same passion with me to IDDBA, and I want the board to provide clear direction about where they want the organization to go. I still believe it's a people- and customer-driven business, and will move in that direction with an open, transparent agenda that focuses closely on industry outreach, building closer connections, and celebrating the great things happening around the country's love affair with food."
'Part of Something Bigger'
When asked about the many issues unfolding across the industry, and which ones strike a chord with him the most, Eardley identifies food safety; consolidation at every level; technology; competition at the retail, manufacturer and trade association levels; the lack of young people seeking jobs in the food industry; and of course, "building a sense of community and connection, to make our members feel they're part of something bigger" than merely part of an insular association. "If we allow things to go down a straight path," he affirms, "we're not creating solutions, and we'll run the risk of becoming irrelevant."
As for what he believes are the requisite characteristics of a highly successful deli and bakery merchant, Eardley says: "The love of food is a starting point; it must begin there." But going forward, he'd ideally like to see more team leaders "focus on continuous improvement. Deli and bakery folks work hard, but in the future, must learn to be better managers and leaders," the new tools and additional infrastructure for which he says will be integral to his companion goals when assuming his new role. With his own son an HEB deli clerk who's learning the business from three top-shelf professional managers, Eardley believes in practicing what he preaches. "We must teach folks not only to be managers, but also leaders, which will help create a wave of new young people our industry desperately needs."
As he prepares for his new role, Eardley is quick to point out that he'll forever cherish his 13 years at HEB, along with the many professional and personal friends he's made in a city he's come to love. "I don’t think there was any another job but at IDDBA that could have ever pulled me away from my job down here. But I felt I answered a call, and I can't wait to get started."