Over three very special days at the end of April, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores staged one of the memorable retailing conventions of recent times, a thrilling and productive spectacle that brought together the leading retailers and suppliers in America and gave them both the stage and latitude to do what they do best: explore the many and varied business opportunities and possibilities a trillion-dollar industry has to offer.
The NACDS Annual Meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., was, in short, all that so grand an event is designed to be but seldom is.
It effectively brought together the senior executives of America’s — and, in some cases, the world’s — most important retailers and suppliers under generally sunny Florida skies to review and perhaps lament past business experiences, explore new opportunities and discuss possibilities many had not previously considered — all in a mood of optimism and comradeship not previously seen in this century.
Among the reasons the Annual Meeting succeeded on so grand a scale:
• The brilliant if underappreciated work of the NACDS meetings team, a group that toiled tirelessly behind the scenes to keep the meeting moving forward, guard against missteps and ensure its successful outcome.
• The presence and performance of CVS/pharmacy president Larry Merlo, the incoming NACDS chairman, whose aura of ease and self-confidence as a speaker and comfortable assumption of the leadership role provided the business program and the meetings that surrounded it with both a sense of urgency and a level of confidence in the possibilities ahead that were sorely needed and deeply appreciated. (As an aside, few industry first ladies have been so warmly regarded as Wanda Giancamilli, wife of outgoing chairman Andy. But Lee Ann Merlo, Larry’s wife, quickly and easily assumed that aura.)
• A business program that, while providing little more than a background to the meeting’s primary agenda, nonetheless served to frame that agenda and to properly position retailing as an integral part of a larger business-oriented — and politically oriented — global community.
• The character and constitution of the meeting’s attendees. This was not the largest Annual Meeting crowd that was ever assembled, but it was clearly among the most diverse — and impressive. It included the senior executives from America’s most important drug chains; several senior managers from Dollar General, the current darling of a quickly emerging retail trade class; Michael Luscombe, the chief executive officer of Woolworths, Australia’s leading mass market retailer, who set a record by traveling farther than any previous retailer to attend the NACDS show; and John Agwunobi, Walmart’s senior health care executive, who added to the luster and importance of the NACDS board simply by becoming a member of it.
• The successful attempts to put health care reform into perspective. Clearly, this issue, in all its implications, was the 2,000-pound gorilla in the room. But fear of the new law was not as prevalent as curiosity about its implications and a willingness to avoid the premature prejudgment that preceded the passage of the legislation and wait instead for more, and more significant, data before evaluating its implications.
• The buzz that coalesced around the nightly social functions. American Greetings clearly stole the social scene by displaying Taylor Swift, the 20-year-old music sensation who is the also the company’s newest celebrity spokesperson, at a Monday evening event. One evening earlier, Colgate and Time offered guests a performance by the Doobie Brothers, while Procter & Gamble introduced its guests to several Olympic medalists and their moms and had, as its featured entertainer, singer Colbie Caillat. On the final evening, the general assembly was entertained by Hall and Oates, a less-than-spectacular ending to the Annual Meeting, it must be noted.
• The thought that went into the selection of the association’s highest awards. Former senior supplier executive Stan Barshay, most recently chairman of Schering-Plough, got the Robert Begley Award, while Charlie Burnett, Costco’s senior pharmacy executive, received the Sheldon Fantle Lifetime Achievement Award.
In an added — and touching — surprise, several of Costco’s senior executives, including CEO Jim Sinegal and president Craig Jelinek, flew across the country from Seattle just so they could be on hand for the Burnett presentation.
Their presence was further indication, if indeed additional proof was needed, of just how special a company Costco is. For most other business enterprises, a video or congratulatory telegram would have served the purpose. For Costco, nothing less than a personal appearance would suffice when it came to recognizing the accomplishments of one of the retailer’s most valued and valuable staffers.
Of course, nothing’s perfect. And it would be a mistake not to point out some issues NACDS needs to address going forward.
Dollar General’s presence underscored the need to adjust the association’s bylaws to enable dollar store chains to participate in future meetings with full membership privileges.
The same should be said of such online retailers as drugstore.com, which, though allowed to participate in NACDS events, are denied full citizenship under the antiquated rule that insists that an NACDS member operate four or more brick-and-mortar stores.
No matter. On the grand scale of retail industry events, the 2010 NACDS Annual Meeting was clearly a triumph of major proportions, a business session that was marked by a willingness to explore the possibilities of doing business rather than dwell on the pitfalls and dangers in the difficult and perilous minefield that is the U.S. business community of the early 21st century.