When Geoff Freeman took the helm of the Grocery Manufacturers Association last summer, he came to the trade association with relatively little experience in CPGs — but a wealth of experience leading diverse associations through tough times.
In part 2 of Freeman's interview with Food Dive, he talks about how his experience at the American Gaming Association and the U.S. Travel Association set him up for what he calls the "ultimate challenge" of leading GMA. He also delves into the group's new focus on the supply chain, how it needs to do a better job telling the CPG industry's story, and a big rebrand — which could very well change the 111-year-old association's name.
Part 1 of this interview can be found here.
You were talking about some of the big changes that came in federal policy when you were at some of your previous positions. What are some of the big policies and some of the things that you're hoping to get done for GMA?
FREEMAN: I think you look within those four pillars that we outlined and I think each one of them will have ... their own nuanced issues that need to be addressed. And I'm not prepared ... to go into any detail about specific things that we'll be pursuing.
...Let's take one of the pillars and talk about what we're highlighting. ...In the case of packaging sustainability, there is a considerable amount of attention on our industry. There's a considerable amount of attention on packaging waste that's left behind. You see the label that's there, and it's very easy to point to the consumer packaged goods industry. And you know and I know when it's easy, then policymakers oftentimes tend to think that the solution is easy. ...We'll somehow punish this one sector of the industry, when things are actually much, much more complex than that.
I think we have a responsibility when it comes to packaging ... to drive the issue in terms of how it is perceived, how it is understood. The complexities of the issue are realized by all parties. And I think you see our ability to do that with the report we put out about 10 days ago now, that documented the massive consumer confusion in this country when it comes to recycling. This is a truly complex issue with a broken down recycling system that operates on a municipality by municipality basis. The fact that what I do in Arlington [Virginia] is different than what Falls Church [Virginia] does, is different than what McLean [Virginia] does, is different than what Alexandria [Virginia] does, is different from what [Washington] D.C. does. You know, let's be honest with ourselves. This is a disaster.
The easy solution of pointing to the people at the label isn't going to work. All right, we've got to get the right people around a table and figure out what a long-term solution is. Could that mean something as a as bold as a federal approach to recycling? Maybe it should. Maybe that is the [TSA] PreCheck parallel here that needs to be considered. That's the type of conversation that we'll be driving.
By no means am I offering that [policy change] up today or committing us to that, but that's the type of question we need to ask and answer. Let's acknowledge that the system as currently constructed isn't going to work. It isn't working, and needs a vastly different approach.
We will bring that same perspective in supply chain. One of the things I'm working with some of our partners to do right now is map all of the costs within the supply chain. Map all of the regulations within the supply chain. Let's understand — particularly when looking at from manufacturing facility into the consumer's hands — what are all of the ways that government inserts itself in that experience? Where are the costs? What are the costs? What is antiquated and what is unnecessary? What could consumers and industry benefit from leaving behind? What are opportunities that could help streamline a lot of this? What is the PreCheck of the Tide detergent, the bag of Cheetos' path from facility to the consumer's hands?
"Let's acknowledge that the system as currently constructed isn't going to work. It isn't working, and needs a vastly different approach."
President and CEO, Grocery Manufacturers Association
Those are the questions we're going to be asking. Those are a couple of examples, that in asking different questions, we're going to get vastly different answers that we would've ever gotten before, and we're going to have a vastly different agenda than we've ever had before.
In mapping out those costs, are there specific areas in supply chain or specific components where there's a lot of costs that could be reduced?
FREEMAN: I think we're early in it. ...The obvious one that everyone will turn to right away is transportation capacity and right now, a shortage of drivers. That's obviously one area of focus, but there have to be countless others. And that's where I'm pushing the team and some of our partners to really identify what those other components are, so that we can build an agenda around that, that people can get excited about. And I will say that the second that agenda has the word "infrastructure," I think there'll be an inverse relationship between excitement and the number of times the word "infrastructure" is used. So we've got to find other aspects of this that we can own and drive results in.
... Just today I was reading about some regulations around drones and you combine that with what I was reading yesterday about more and more manufacturers looking at direct-to-consumer options. That's our world. That's where we need to be focused. I talked before about growth. I talked before about the big picture. All those times that we're fighting the fight down here in somebody else's vertical is time we're not putting into "Wow, what is happening with autonomous vehicles? What is happening with AI? What is happening with drones?" All things that will make a meaningful difference in the future of this industry, and all things where today, the industry is by and large not represented in that discussion.
What is your top priority for 2019?
FREEMAN: My top priority in 2019 is getting this industry united, is getting the industry aligned. And to an extent, we have a little bit of a gift right now in that we don't have a lot of front page issues ... that we have to be in crisis mode and deal with. We've got a little bit of time, ... which means we need to capitalize on this time to get the industry united to build an agenda that captivates the industry to put in place the right pieces, the right people, the right strategy so that we can really execute on this in the years ahead.
...The way to prevent departures is to show momentum, is to give people confidence, is to demonstrate capabilities in some of these areas. Those capabilities don't have to be about legislative issues. They come in a lot of different forms. I talked before about the work we just did on packaging sustainability. That's not a silver bullet report we did. That's not a one off. That's one of a hundred things we're going to do on packaging sustainability. And as the leaders in the industry see that, ... you develop momentum, you develop an association that they want to be affiliated with.
... Something that has shocked me coming into this is that this is an industry that on the one hand is filled with the greatest brands that every one of us know, and we allow into our homes every single day. They've sold us on their stories. They've connected with us, they have built in our minds something that is captivating. And yet, as an industry, we don't even have basic data about economic impact, about jobs, about wages, about tax revenue, about where every one of our manufacturing facilities is located and the investments they're making in their local communities. We don't even have that, let alone a compelling story about the industry.
That to me is shocking, right? The greatest branders, the greatest brands, the greatest marketers. And they've done such a good job telling their company stories, and yet we've fallen short telling the industry story. So where you're going to see a massive focus this year and for the foreseeable future is on telling the story of this industry. That's table stakes for the industry today. We've got one hell of a story to tell.
You're going to see us come out early summer with the first ever comprehensive ... down to the congressional district level, look at the economic impact of a consumer packaged goods industry. You're going to see us ... throughout the fall [go] into local jurisdictions, doing events with members of Congress and others, celebrating what this industry is bringing into those communities. You're going to see a massive focus on promoting the value and the story of this industry in a way that it's never told before.
"Where you're going to see a massive focus this year and for the foreseeable future is on telling the story of this industry. That's table stakes for the industry today. We've got one hell of a story to tell."
President and CEO, Grocery Manufacturers Association
... It's not always about an issue. It's not always about legislation. Those are the type of things that can make any industry feel proud and ... makes them want to be affiliated with the organization.
... We have a whole regulatory affairs team that that's working. We have a legislative affairs team that's working on some things with cleaning ingredient disclosure and other things. I mean, there are certainly activities going on, and then that should be expected. But ... that lack of a front page issue is giving us some needed time to get our house in order, and I think building a foundation that is going to position us for long term success.
Coming from working in the gaming industry and moving to GMA, with these products everybody knows and loves, some people might think they can't be more different. What are some similarities that you've found?
FREEMAN: I think there's so many more commonalities across industries then people realize. Every industry is dealing today with millennials. Every industry today is dealing with transparency. Every industry today is dealing with greater expectations on the part of the consumer for the companies. ...There's so many commonalities when it comes to how associations tend to be used, what works, what doesn't, and how you really capture the imagination of the C-suite.
... One thing I joke about with people is, obviously there's been a lot of talk about transparency and disclosure. People wondering what effect is that gonna have on consumer behavior. And one of the things I joke about with people is, there is at the end of every row of slot machines, there's one very prominent thing. ...And that is the odds. And the odds clearly say you're not going to win money here. Right? I hope you enjoy the experience, because the odds are you're going to be leaving the money behind.
And yet, people are playing it every single day. The transparency, the act of providing information has not been an obstacle. It's actually enhanced trust. It makes people feel the games are fair. They know going in what's happening.
And the same is true across our industry. Providing that information, of course, is a transition for every industry. But providing that information can enhance trust. It can build more confidence in the system.
Tell us about your focus on supply chain.
FREEMAN: I've been trying to hire the head of supply chain for six months. I'm struggling to find people in town [Washington, D.C.] who really get the big picture, who understand all the various components. I can find plenty of people that do trade or transportation or the individual components, but who sees the big picture? We're getting pretty close and we will announce ... in the not too distant future, a new head of supply chain. You don't see many associations around town with that kind of focus. ...I think we're ahead of the game, to a degree. I think we're all behind the game, but we're ahead of others in terms of realizing the importance of looking at it that way, number one.
Number two, where I think we can make a difference. Our brands — and I've said this to people in the transportation sector — you can rely on trucking companies to try to fight these battles, or you can try to use the brands that GMA represents and what our brands are associated with. Think of the driver shortage. And [we] are able to then personalize what's going on: what it means to access, what it means in terms of waste, what it means in terms of costs. Are we able to tip the scales in ways that trucking companies on their own aren't as persuasive? My gut says yes.
I saw that in the travel industry, where you saw a lot of times the airlines make issues about themselves. But they're the most vilified industry there is, right? Nobody gets on a plane for the sake of getting on a plane. You get on a plane to go to Disney. You get on a plane to be at this resort or to be at this meeting, this event. And it was when the rest of the industry said, "Forget letting the airlines take the lead. We're going to take the lead. We're going to start driving this."
"We're going to have to earn credibility over time, and we're starting with a little bit of a handicap. ...We've got some companies that have watched what GMA went through and they're here for the long haul. They're here to give to this change a chance. They bought into the agenda. I'm grateful for those who have stuck around because we couldn't be doing this without them."
President and CEO, Grocery Manufacturers Association
They saw real results, and I think we'll see that here when we really start associating our brands with these issues and helping people better understand ... the magnitude of the problems. I think that's going to pay some big dividends.
... As I look at the individual verticals, none of them could tackle that on their own, right? That screams the need for who looking across the board. And that's what's convinced me in this process, that this opening, this blank canvas is what we need to seize.
Do you see these brands uniting behind the fact that supply chain is essential and that they need to be a part of this?
FREEMAN: I think that's a relatively easy lift. They've never seen anyone do it effectively. And maybe they question whether or not GMA, the GMA they've known, can do it. So we've got to prove that we can and give away our secret. ... Our strategy is not to swing for the fences. You're going to see single after single after single after single. To develop credibility. To show that, wow, these guys do know what they're doing. These guys can make some noise. They can make a difference here. They can earn a seat at the table.
We're going to have to earn credibility over time, and we're starting with a little bit of a handicap. So that's OK. ...We've got some companies that have watched what GMA went through and they're here for the long haul. They're here to give to this change a chance. They bought into the agenda. I'm grateful for those who have stuck around because we couldn't be doing this without them. ... There's going to be a lot of pride as we put the points on the board, and people see our ability now to operate in a different way. To prove ...this strategy out.
And then I think as you see the industry become more, you see people joining, you see that unity taking place, there's going to be tremendous excitement.
Do you hear a lot on tariffs and trade? Is that a big issue for members?
FREEMAN: I do. I think in this environment they just don't know what the heck to do about it. This is, on many levels, a different environment than anyone has operated in before. And the typical levers of power, the typical way confront some of these issues may not be available to you. So I think a lot of people were at a loss and unsure how to proceed.
We're working with a number of different coalitions of the tariff issues. We're partnered with a lot of people to ensure that our issues get the attention they deserve. There is no doubt this is an area where things have really been shaken up in town. ...And no one has really figured out how you drive a positive outcome. The jury is still out. So I work hard on those discussions.
But that's a great example. There's so many voices at that table that we need to contribute. We don't need to pretend to own it, right? ...We can participate.
And I think that that's a critical thing for every association. It certainly was for us in the gaming industry, in the travel industry. Draw a clear line between what you need to own and where you need to partner. And I remember in the travel industry, we used to talk a lot about it: ... where would we be the head, and where are we the tail.
And I think one area where GMA struggled in the past was in identifying issues where it didn't have to be the head. It felt the need to, as best I can tell, lead on everything, even when it pretty obviously belonged more appropriately to some other organizations. I think that's a strength, not a weakness, to say, "We don't need to lead on this." We'll be tightly focused on what we need to lead up.
Where do you see GMA and the industry in five years?
FREEMAN: I see this organization as united. I see a lot of excitement around it. Enthusiasm. New members joining. A substantially greater revenue base for the organization. ...The last couple of years have been defined as frustration, and the current phase is defined as a tepid enthusiasm. And, you know, right? The jury's still out. They haven't seen it yet.
"One area where GMA struggled in the past was in identifying issues where it didn't have to be the head. It felt the need to, as best I can tell, lead on everything, even when it pretty obviously belonged more appropriately to some other organizations. ...We'll be tightly focused on what we need to lead up."
President and CEO, Grocery Manufacturers Association
When I look at five years from now, I imagine excitement. I imagine what GMA having done being a model for where others need to go, and a lot of people asking, "How did they get there, what did they do and how do we learn from that?" That's what I imagine.
I imagine that when they asked that question, they're not talking about GMA. They're talking about wherever that this organization is called at that time. As a part of this process, ... we're taking a hard look at the brand, taking a hard look at who we are going forward, what that needs to be. And I imagine when we hit early 2020, you're seeing a new representative of the consumer packaged goods industry, and I'm excited about that. That's part of our pivot.
To be clear, you're thinking that this time next year, it won't be called GMA anymore?
FREEMAN: (Explains no, and there's actually an internal contest to guess the new name.) ...It's a really interesting challenge. What is that entity that represents the consumer packaged goods industry? I think that none of us know where that's going to go. We've got a process going on right now. We've got a partner working with us right now and we'll see where this leads. We're doing a lot of research. We're trying to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the current brand. I just imagine, based on what I know today, that to make this pivot, we're going to have to be represented in a different way.
Why did you leave the American Gaming Association for GMA?
FREEMAN: This is the ultimate challenge. This is an association that fell on hard times, and in a very public way, and that presents the ultimate challenge. Not just for me but ... for everybody we brought into this team. And it's really exciting to go to work every day and have probably 15 new staff who were never affiliated with the old GMA, but who all embrace the day they walk in the door. We've got a turn around on our hands, and have so many people working hard. No one's feeling sorry for themselves. To recognize that's what we're doing, and we're doing it together. It's really neat to be affiliated with it.
Leading these organizations is not rocket science, but it's a hell of a lot of hard work. ...To keep your members aligned, to create a vision that they can get excited about, it means a lot of time on the road with members, constantly communicating. When you're saying it for the tenth time, they're just hearing it for the first time. Understanding those things, it's exhausting. But as I said, it's not rocket science. And when it begins to pay you back in terms of the momentum and the excitement, and then getting some legislative accomplishments, that's such a great feeling that it makes all of this worth it.