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Just ahead of Grocery Innovations, an interview with Tom Barlow

After years with Coke in America, Tom Barlow is home with a new mission: put some fizz into CFIG

I love change,” Tom Barlow says with a generous smile. Good thing, too. As the new head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, Barlow is supposed to shake things up at the venerable organization, which represents thousands of independent grocery stores across the country and runs two major trade shows.

Barlow became president of  CIFG is June, taking over from longtime president John Scott. Canadian Grocer spoke with Barlow about what brought him back to Canada, after years working for Coke in the U.S., and his vision for CFIG. Edited excerpts from our interview:

What are your immediate plans at CFIG?

For the first 60 to 90 days, I’ll be listening a lot to members, manufacturers and other key stakeholders. Then I’ll start formulating the outline of a strategy for the association. My goal is to share my initial thoughts on the future of CFIG during Grocery Innovations Canada . I’ll be able to say, “here’s what I’m hearing” by fall, and then, by early 2014, lay out a long-term plan.

CFIG is doing a lot of great things that people don’t want us to stop doing. But there are opportunities for us to do some things differently. I’m committed to making sure that the organization takes the necessary time to look at where we are today, who we are and where we want to be tomorrow.

What excites you most about this job?

The opportunity to create and implement change. Every job I’ve had with Coke where I’ve been successful has been where I’ve gone into a business that’s needed to change. My philosophy is, once we get enough facts, let’s move forward. At CFIG, we are going to have to take some risks, and the organization is going to have to decide how much risk it’s willing to take.

What are you hoping to achieve?

CFIG just finished its last five-year strategic plan. Now it’s time to go back and look again at the strategy. There was a gap in the industry after the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors disbanded . This board will look to see if there’s an opportunity for us to do something different. Right now what’s missing is the consolidated voice in the grocery business from the retailer side.

What key areas will you focus on at CFIG? There are four key areas I’ll be looking at:

1) Advocacy. I want to ensure we have a strong voice with government, industry and the public.

2) Education. Specifically we want to ensure that we arm our members with knowledge so that they can continue to be successful. Areas that we will be looking at include research, food safety and leadership development.

3) Networking–both in share groups and with manufacturers and key stakeholders. We have two great events to build from: Grocery Showcase West and Grocery Innovations Canada. How can we reenergize these events to increase connectivity between suppliers and retailers? As well, I believe that there is an opportunity to connect education with networking through channels such as social media.

4) Organizational effectiveness. I want to ensure that we are held accountable to our members, supplier partners and other key stakeholders. We need to do what we say we are going to do.

How do you plan to grow CFIG? We need to increase our membership base. We can do this by ensuring that we have a well-defined “value bundle.” How do we provide significantly more value for our members than the cost of their annual membership dues?

To expand membership we need to become more diverse. Diversity attracts diversity. It’s not a choice if you want to be in business in Canada for the long term. You have to make sure you look like the profile of the community you’re in.

We’re looking to reach out to the diverse communities in Canada and better understand them, to show them there’s value in joining an organization such as CFIG. Right now we’re researching how big the market is and what percentage of that we have as active members today. We need to know how big the pond is out there.

What’s the state of independent grocers at the moment?

Consumers are looking for variety and innovation. This puts the independent retailers in such a great position because they’re able to adapt to change more quickly than the larger guys. When I was on the manufacturer side, working with independents allowed us to bring new products to market faster. There’s a saying: “It’s not the big that eats the small, it’s the fast that eats the slow.” That’s where the independents have the ability to make an impact in the market.

What’s new at the Grocery Innovations Canada show this fall?

There will be more opportunity at both shows, Grocery Innovations Canada and Grocery Showcase West to do more networking between suppliers and retailers. GIC this year in particular will focus on the issues and opportunities that are relevant to retailers today, and those ones they might not have thought of yet. For example, what will online shopping mean to retailers in Canada? On Tuesday at GIC, we will have a panel discussion with key subject matter experts who will give us their thoughts on this topic.

Anything Canadian grocers can learn from their U.S. counterparts?

In the U.S., they’re moving quickly to use technology to their advantage. For instance, they are using customers’ e-mails for more targeted insight and marketing. The big difference in the U.S. compared to here is one-stop shopping; I could get my food along with my wine and beer. We have to figure out how this would work in Canada.

What will define “success” for you as CFIG’s president?

Five years from now, if this industry is in a position where it’s growing and outpacing the rest of the retail market, then I would have been successful.

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