Last updated on August 16th, 2012 at 12:08 pm
by Terrie Ellerbee/associate editor[gn_pullquote align=”right”]Next year’s IFBA Top to Top will be held May 15-17 at the Renaissance Chicago Hotel.
NARMS will hold its annual spring confernce April 14-17 at the Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, Fla., which is north of Tampa.[/gn_pullquote]Independent food brokers are, in many ways, the last people for whom a handshake means something.
That’s according to Ken McKenzie, executive director of the Independent Food Brokers Association (IFBA). When, in the early 2000s, there was something of a “shakedown” in the food broker industry, the National Association for Retailing Marketing Services (NARMS) gained 70 or so members “in one fell swoop” and IFBA was formed.
The nonprofit IFBA is trying get more manufacturers and grocers to understand the education-based group and “what its collective vision really is,” McKenzie said.
“These are folks who are dedicated to understanding their local markets. For many of them, they work where they live, so who better to really have that understanding of local/regional markets? Maybe they maintain business in multiple states, but they’re very close to the day-to-day operational traffic in those market areas.”
[quote]…the emphasis on local is just a homerun for all parties, including the consumer, because they’re going to have fresher product that has fewer miles to bear.”
— Ken McKenzie, IFBA
The IFBA has been able to identify second- and third-tier manufacturers who need the ability to go to the marketplace, he said, and link those up with brokers who can help them achieve their goals. Manufacturers may not have the personnel who understand the “rather complicated and rather expensive proposition of taking a product and making it available through the distribution channels and available in a supermarket chain,” McKenzie told The Shelby Report. “It gets to be a rather complex process, and that’s what our IFBA folks have dedicated their businesses and their lives toward. We’re real proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish over the years.”
‘Buy local’ gives brokers opportunities
Food brokers have held their own and even grown some, at least those who have been open-minded to new ideas and products, McKenzie said. Opportunities exist even in tough times because consumer behavior changes.
For example, many consumers have come to expect a “buy local” option at the grocery store. They want to know that the local retailer is making an effort in that regard, McKenzie said.
“I won’t use a specific example, but rather than a generic item that leaves you wondering where it originated, how many miles and how many days it’s been since it was in its rawest, purest form—that’s where the emphasis on local is just a homerun for all parties, including the consumer, because they’re going to have fresher product that has fewer miles to bear.”
As consumers continue to struggle with the waning recovery, the pressure for food retailers to offer value is as strong today as in 2008. In the Upper Midwest, where the IFBA is located, McKenzie said mills have closed and unemployment is “at levels that rival all-time highs.”
As businesses cut back on expenses, marketing was one of the first areas to take a hit. McKenzie said that for a while, people who perform marketing demonstrations or mystery shopping “were taking the brunt of it when programs were being cut from the manufacturer level. The phone didn’t ring. They didn’t get projects.”
That area of marketing is making a comeback, however small.
“We’re optimistic. It’s probably cautious optimism, but we’re seeing things turn a little bit,” he said. “Everyone is a little hesitant, and the dollar that you didn’t spend today is a dollar still available. We can kind of all understand that, but obviously at some point you have to get off the decision point, and if you’re going to move your company ahead, you’re going to promote your line of products. Whatever the case may be, you need to be a little bit bold,” McKenzie said. “You need to step forward instead of tremble and wonder what will come at you.
“Yes, the economy and where it’s been the past two and a half years has been painful in some ways, but we’re optimistic that we hopefully have been at the bottom and we’re starting to climb the other direction, but I guess only time will tell.”
Top to Top events draw hundreds
The IFBA has now held eight Top to Top Executive Business Session conferences.
“It gives a chance to small- to medium-sized manufacturers and supplier side folks to come in to be part of that,” he said.
“They’re most often the active partners in the marketplace with our broker representatives.”
He said some use the event to review their course of business, others to consider other representation or expand the scope of their geographic coverage.
“They can schedule different sessions and contemplate their future, whereas if they were left to find themselves trying to expand their business, somebody would be chasing over to the other one’s headquarters, and there’d be a lot of time and distance involved and probably wasted.”
The 200 to 300 people who attend Top to Top “self-schedule,” he said, “and we’ve been happy with that result.