GMA CEO offers tasty vision for food group's future    

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GMA CEO offers tasty vision for food group's future    

By Mike Troy - 08/17/2018
Geoff Freeman assumed his new role as President and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association on August 1.
Just 16 days into his new role as CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Geoff Freeman offered a bold vision to revitalize the more than 100 year old trade association that serves the $2.1 trillion food, beverage and consumer products industry. Freeman shared his philosophy of GMA’s role and plans to elevate the group’s advocacy, research and collaboration efforts during his first public comments at GMA’s annual Leadership Forum on August 16.

“My promise to you is that we are going to build an organization that you are remarkably proud of. An organization that is indispensable to the industry and that everyone in the industry wants to be part of,” Freeman told a gathering of 300 of the food and consumable industry’s most senior executives who gathered at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs.

During a question and answer session with Billy Cyr, CEO of pet food company Freshpet and head of GMA’s search committee, Freeman was quick to address what he identified as some of GMA’s biggest challenges even though his first official day of work was August 1. In doing so, it was clear why he stood out from what Cyr said was a large and highly qualified group of executives interested in the CEO job.

For example, Freeman described how GMA under his leadership would work to grow the size of the industry so the entire industry can thrive and he pointed to several examples from earlier in his career of what that looks like. Prior to GMA, Freeman spent five years leading the American Gaming Association where a key initiative was to expand legalized sports betting by overturning the Amateur Sports Protection Act. Prior to that, in his role as COO of the U.S. Travel Association Freeman campaigned for creation of the federal program that created the TSA PreCheck program. In both cases, members of the gaming and travel industries benefitted because markets expanded.

One of the ways he expects to grow the grocery industry is through increased advocacy, but not in the traditional sense with lobbyists running around Capitol Hill, although he concedes there is a role for lobbying.

“We are in a different environment now and advocacy to me is more about a campaign. You have to put your issue on the radar screen because if you want something solved you have to convince people there is a problem.” He described taking a highly integrated approach that involves government relations, communications, compelling research and allied development. All are components of a successful campaign. “What you will see from GMA is a very integrated public affairs approach that is aggressive and active. You will see us quite publicly have a point of view.”

GMA took positions in the past, but often they were narrow and reflected the interests of a portion of the industry. That is a fundamental challenging going forward because the food industry has changed dramatically during the past 10 years with ways of eating and viewpoints that were once considered fringe now mainstream with vocal advocates. Meanwhile, smaller companies with niche items and direct-to-consumer business models are creating new competitive challenges for big brands and retailers. The new dynamics of the industry can make achieving alignment on issues challenging to say the least.

“You can’t represent the industry if you don’t represent the industry,” Freeman said, a reference to focusing on issues of importance to all players regardless of size or market positioning. “You have to have an inclusive and transparent organization that accurately and effectively represents the totality of the industry. The first thing we have to do is bring the industry back to the table.”

GMA needs more people around the table to achieve consensus because an organization can’t thrive if it doesn’t focus on those things that bring the industry together, according to Freeman. That’s why GMA will also be focused on being a great partner and leader with other related organizations, mentioning Leslie Sarasin, CEO of the Food Marketing Institute, who was in the audience, by name. GMA will work with other groups and independently to improve perceptions of the overall industry.

“One area where this association has come up short is driving an accurate, and therefore favorable, perception of the food and beverage industry,” Freeman said. “We just haven’t been out there with the economic impact data, the social impact data and information about the contribution that our industry is making every day.”

As a result, Freeman noted that critics have been more effective at shaping the narrative, adding, “the policy we get is a direct result of the perception that has been created.”

Other things to expect from GMA under Freeman’s leadership include a heightened emphasis on research, which is a critical component of advocacy, and a reprioritization of activities by streamlining GMA’s roughly 100 working committees.

“We may need to pull back a bit and get some focus and prioritization to be more effective,” Freeman said.

While Freeman appeared to say all the rights things during his introduction to the industry, striking the perfect balance between recognizing he has much to learn against a desire to move with speed to address many pressing issues, the devil will be in the details in the months ahead.

“My focus right now is developing an action plan for 2019 that builds a good organization and prepares us to be a great organization in 2020 and beyond,” Freeman said. “You are going to see some subtle and not so subtle changes in short order.”