I didn’t go into my first Food & Grocery Council conference this month with any doubts about the passion and knowledge members have for their work and the greater good they are involved in, but if I had any, they would have been well and truly dispelled. Beyond all shadow of a doubt.

What has struck me since meeting members in my time with FGC, and was strongly confirmed as I met and got to know members at conference, is their single-mindedness and focus on the job at hand, be it bringing me up to speed on the issues of the day – the Grocery Market Study, the status of sustainability progress, supply chain – or making sure I’m across aspects of the industry.

It was great to be among people who care so much about what they do – to put the best products on supermarket shelves and at fair prices for consumers.

The networking opportunities and breakout sessions being a never-ending feast of great discussion, and the camaraderie in the industry is palpable and clearly enduring through the slings and arrows of recent tough times.

OneVoice was the theme and it was very apparent everyone was indeed aligned about wanting to make the industry better so all players benefit and get a fair go, be it suppliers, retailers or consumers.

One of our speakers used the phrase “make a decent profit – decently”, which originates from the founding mission of Harvard Business School back in 1908. There was some light-heartedness about business school graduates, but this mission for the leaders Harvard trains really resonated, given the big issues of the day.

The 200 or so who attended were treated to a mix of entertainment, advice, and usable industry information they could take back to their workplace. It’s a mix I intend to keep and to even improve on, if that’s possible, at forthcoming conferences.

Celebral palsy sufferer and international speaker Cam Calkoen set the scene with an inspiring, tear inducingly poignant and funny presentation. Then there were the tales of entrepreneurship marked by persistence and perseverance by 42 Below, Ecoya, and Trilogy founders Geoff Ross and Justine Troy; Nick Ashill’s story of incredible endurance and overcoming the odds to run across the US; Sacha Coburn’s delightful and deeply wise takes on leadership potential and extreme ownership; and Theresa Gattung’s invaluable tips on business innovation and governance.

It was great to have two of the three supermarkets there after another eventful year. Foodstuffs couldn’t make it due to a number of existing commitments but wished FGC all the best for the conference, while Countdown and Costco gave delegates some great insights.

Jody Farrell gave a rundown on Costco’s operation, and she and Anton Ramshak gave delegates guidance at one of the breakout workshops on how to present them with new products. I think with their big splash in Auckland and their expansion plans, we can start talking about Costco in terms of being a third player.

Countdown’s Steve Mills and Pieter De Wet took us through their thinking around interactions with suppliers, emphasising they want to be much more responsive, and how their future focus will be on digital transformation and sustainability. They said they will follow parent Woolworths Australia in changing their product review process to take in an entire department or portfolio, allowing them to focus on what is on-trend with customers and resulting in leveraging shelf space more effectively. This would give them more opportunity for product ranging to vary from store to store. No doubt members will be watching this with interest.

Data company IRI gave an exciting preview of their upcoming State of the Industry update, with Craig Irwin and Debbie Simpson-Pudney running delegates through how the surge in online spending since Covid has taken online forward 5 years, and how sustainability is such a big thing for consumers “it’s critical industry starts to own this”.

I’m aware FGC members really look forward to the type of information to be gleaned from such presentations and we’ll see if we can’t amp them up at future conferences.

Similarly for FGC’s breakout sessions, which are always among the most popular on the programme, no matter the subject. This year was all about industry relations, where members had the chance to discuss with our Industry Relationships Working Group what they would like the focus to be on with each retail­er. It’s the sort of feedback FGC needs to help us advance some of these issues and work in the best interests of members.

Another popular session was an update by MBIE’s Deputy Chief Executive Paul Stocks on the Code of Conduct and Grocery Commissioner, both of which are contained in the Grocery Industry Competition Bill to be introduced to Parliament next month. The Q&A session that followed and the informal discussions Paul had over morning tea were also extremely insightful to members, and I’m confident left him appreciating the strength of feeling in the industry about these measures being effective.

Conferences are all about members, and because I’m new and still getting to know most of them, FGC Chair Mike Pretty and I decided we needed a way for them to get to know me better. We wanted them to feel at ease approaching me with issues and also to get a feel for my background and motivation for taking this role. It’s a priority for us that members keep me as informed as possible.

So, Mike took on the role on interviewer and I sat in the hot seat. I emphasised that understanding what members wanted and how they work is key. I also shared I’m keen to look at how we do our work at FGC, including how we communicate with members, what services we offer, and whether we should widen or refine what the working groups are doing. But I want to do this in a considered way after I’ve deepened my understanding of the industry and got to know members better.

I also spoke about how impressed I’ve been with how FGC has been operating, and how genuine members are to find good outcomes around sustainability and consumers getting fairer prices. Our challenge is to get across these things and to represent them really well. The real exciting challenge for me is working with the membership, the Board, and the Government to make sure the market changes will be truly effective – for everyone.

I’d like to thank members for their warm welcome and their generosity of time and expertise. I look forward to working with them to take this great industry on to even greater things and to make sure FGC is the most valuable support to them and their businesses it possibly can be.

(originally published in Supermarket News)