Don McLemore and the New NCGA

“I sense a shared vision for the organization and a great deal of cooperation from the membership."

I briefly interviewed Don McLemore in late November, two months after his hiring as the CEO of the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA). Don McLemore can be reached via email at [email protected]. —D.G.

Are you settled in your Alabama office? Has hiring been completed?

DM: Yes, the office is now set up and staffed, we currently have three full-time people in the Alabama office: myself, Jodie Larson, our finance director, and recently hired Joyce Watson. Joyce is providing administrative support and bookkeeping assistance. Because of Ben Nauman accepting the development director position for the Central Corridor we must continue to evaluate our administrative requirements.

We do still have some hiring needs for NCGA as we plan for 2005. As identified in the reorganization plan we will have a full-time bookkeeping position and also a data manager; however, we are not budgeting those positions until at least mid-year.

We may also be looking to add more support in the purchasing area. Annie Hunt requested that we budget two merchandisers, another CAP coordinator, and potentially a HBC coordinator. All of these would be new positions to provide assistance with the heavier workload and success of the various existing and anticipated programs.

You will be introducing those as you are able?

DM: Yes, as we find qualified people and have the ability to bring them on, the open positions will be filled. We’re also revamping our administrative staffing, following Ben Nauman moving to the Central Corridor position. Ben did a lot more than just administration—he helped with finances and HR also. Now all of the HR coordination is handled by Jodie Larson in the Alabama office.

We’re looking to eliminate redundancies where we can, and also want to make sure NCGA staff people have all the support needed. We’re also trying to provide the support needed by the board of directors. We’re making good progress but recognize that some needs will continue.

What has your first two months with NCGA told you most clearly?

DM: I think that my being familiar with the reorganization plan helped me a lot in understanding the NCGA direction. I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of people in the organization over the last few weeks, and I sense a shared vision for the organization and also a great deal of cooperation and support from the membership.

Another thing is the need for communication. This is challenging with such a decentralized organization, and we are dependent on email and telephone. I’m more used to face-to-face meetings and a more centralized office. Travel has also been extensive in my attempt to attend meetings, to visit co-ops, and staff. The companies I worked with had higher concentrations of customers in a given area, whereas our membership now is much more dispersed.

You had 25 years in grocery distribution and retail. What aspects of your industry experience do you feel are most relevant?

DM: I’ll mention a couple things. I have come from a different food industry background and have knowledge of practices that may be transferable to the natural foods industry. The majority of customers in my career were independent, and our focus was on independents. People may think that scenario was entirely influenced or controlled from the central office, but really it was determined by what the retailer asked for—through retailer meetings, advisory councils, staff, and so on.

If you look at where the independent grocery retailer was a few years back, now there is a lot more consistency in operations, merchandising, and advertising. I don’t think our co-ops are that far away from that now. The branding initiative we have outlined will give us more consistency without taking away the independence and the need for the co-op to meet their local community.

In addition, I have a lot of experience with reorganization of separate or allied companies and divisions.

What are the leading organizational priorities for 2005?

DM: One of the primary ones is to improve communication and to get member input and be focused on what they think is important. The other side of that is that we’re in the process now of rolling out programs that have already been identified. Our role is to provide and execute those programs. There also are the reorganization plan goals of more efficient use of resources and improving the branding effort.

Another priority is aligning NCGA management staff, who must understand their changed roles. We’ve become a national organization, and even if someone’s title is the same as before, the scope of the position has changed. We’re also part of a bigger team. In terms of the people, it’s a very mixed team!—but that’s a good thing. We’re learning to work better together and to accept changing roles, being fluid, and able to adapt.

What do you hope to see take place at the February Assembly of NCGA members?

DM: Several things: I’d like to leave with the membership having a good understanding that the NCGA management team understands the members’ needs, that we are providing plans and programs that will meet those needs, that we have enough talent in our staff to take a leadership position. We will make recommendations and allow members to prioritize and choose what is important in their area.

Secondly, I’d like to leave the General Assembly with the membership having confidence that management staff will deliver on those priorities and be able to position the organization as a leader in the natural foods industry.

One more important thing I want to do there is to be exposed to other ideas that NCGA members have. I want to stay focused on member needs, and to be aware of changes in their area. For example, as more chains get into natural foods, we want to stay in front of that. There are things we want to do better because of threats our members may experience from that type of competition.

*** Dave Gutknecht is editor of Cooperative Grocer ([email protected]).

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