by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Southwest
The National Grocers Association (NGA) surprised Joe Williams with the NGA Spirit of America Award on July 23 at the Texas Retailers Forum in Fort Worth.
Williams is the former VP for regulatory and member services of the Texas Retailers Association (TRA). He currently serves as a consultant with the TRA’s Texas Food Council as well as the Texas Retailers Education Foundation (TREF).
The Spirit of America Award is one of NGA’s top honors and recognizes dedication and service to the independent supermarket industry.
Williams was speechless when he received the honor.
“I’m never usually without words. I couldn’t say a word, and I was humbled,” Williams told The Shelby Report. “I couldn’t believe it. I was a little shocked.”
At the presentation, NGA’s Greg Ferrara, SVP of government relations and public affairs, held off until the end of his remarks to name Williams as the recipient, describing only “a very special individual to everyone in the room. This individual has dedicated his life’s work to the supermarket industry and its members.”
Ferrara praised Williams’ work on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children).
“I think most of us know that he’s a national expert on SNAP issues and, in particular, WIC. Many of us fondly refer to him as ‘Mr. WIC,’ and that is something that we might say in jest, but it really is the truth that he is a national expert,” Ferrara said. “Numerous times, his efforts have actually saved his members sales, but probably more importantly, they ensured that consumers who use those benefits were able to use those benefits in-store.”
Ferrara said that as vital as the programs are to grocers, “too often we talk about SNAP and WIC and forget there are real people behind those programs that we serve every single day. He’s also been one of the leaders, not just in Texas, but across this country, in rolling out WIC EBT.”
Williams has been an exceptional resource because “there is sometimes a lack of knowledge amongst some of the regulators of the program. And this individual has been key in explaining what has worked, what doesn’t work and where do we need to go,” Ferrara said.
Williams said he was “blessed” to have gone through the conversion of paper food stamps to SNAP on EBT cards, and then helped take WIC even further—to a chip card.
Williams also worked with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott when Abbott was the state’s attorney general to get child support garnishments off of paper and out of the town courthouse.
“We went from where the child support was handled at the local level, and they’d send out these 8 x 11 sheets of paper,” Williams said. “Everything was paper-driven and there was no telling how many trees were being cut to try to get that out. And still, kids weren’t getting their child support on a timely basis.”
Williams helped eliminate all that paper, setting it up so that garnishment payments and court documents were transmitted electronically.
“It just speeded up the whole process,” Williams said. “The end result was the children got their child support, which they needed, so much quicker. There’s a lot of kids out there that depend upon that for everyday life.”
There are many more accomplishments that will forever be traced back to Williams.
Plans to retire
Ferrara said that when retailers need help, Williams is often the first person they call.
“He often needs to be their only call, because he is there to serve,” Ferrara said at the Forum.
Williams served as the president of the Gulf Coast Retailers Association beginning in 1994 until it merged with the Texas Retailers Association in 2006.
Williams officially retired as a full-time employee from TRA in December of 2015. He was then brought in as a consultant to handle grocery liaison functions and food industry regulatory issues, as well as management of TREF.
“We went ahead and renewed that contract at the end of last year with focus almost exclusively on the grocery piece,” TRA President and CEO George Kelemen told The Shelby Report. “He wanted to start to scale back, so we brought the management of TREF in house. Joe will be gradually phasing out over the course of the spring, and we’ve got good plans to maintain continuity. We’ll be announcing those probably later this year or early next year. I think everybody in the industry, particularly the grocery industry, is going to be very, very pleased and be very happy with that news.”
Patriot, Texan, mentor
The NGA Spirit of America Award that Williams received was established in 1982 to honor key industry and community figures that have provided leadership in the areas of community service and government relations on behalf of a free and independent food distribution system. NGA has given the award to more than 550 people, including former Presidents George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford, as well as former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm from Texas.
Williams said the pride he felt in receiving the Spirit of America Award came from feeling that what he did meant something, was of value and helped people.
“And that’s probably the best thing for folks like us is if we can be of value,” Williams said. “If we can help our members get through issues or get to a better solution or situation, that brings satisfaction for us.”
Ferrara said that Williams “exemplifies the importance of state associations and how vital they are to the supermarket industry, why they are so important.”
Williams said he understands how hard it can be for independents to belong to an association like the TRA. They have their hands full with their business. But he also offered an example of a small grocer he’d met at the Grocers Supply show. TRA was able to connect the retailer with an affiliated insurance carrier. The grocer had been with his previous carrier for more than a decade, but the insurer was about to double his rates. With help from TRA, the retailer now is paying less than what he was before and enjoying more coverage to boot.
“That’s the best thing, is when you can provide that value,” Williams said. “It sure makes you feel good.”
At the Forum, Ferrara added this about Williams: “Probably most importantly, he’s a patriot and he’s a Texan. He’s a family man, and he’s a man of faith. He’s also been a mentor to many, including yours truly, and many of us are lucky to be able to call him a dear friend.”
To say he was speechless upon receiving the NGA honor isn’t completely accurate. Williams was able to communicate, but only just a bit.
“I’ve been in the food industry my whole career,” he said upon receiving the award. “You guys are family.”
Williams will retire “at least for a little while” next May.
“I’ve got a bucket list that is going to keep me busy for a year,” Williams said. “And then if I get antsy, I may step back in.”