Interview With Greg Ferrara: What the Future Holds for Independent Grocery Stores

In September 2019, Greg Ferrara officially took over as president and CEO of the National Grocers Association (NGA) replacing Peter Larkin, who decided to retire after running the independent supermarket organization for nine years.

greg ferrara
Greg Ferrara (left) with Jon McCormick from Kansas Food Dealers Association and Retail Grocers.

Ferrara is an industry veteran and since 2005 he has worked with the NGA in various positions, primarily in government relations and public affairs.

Abasto Magazine interviewed Greg Ferrara to learn more about him as the new president and CEO of the NGA. Ferrara has had a close relationship with the independent supermarket industry throughout his life. He grew up in New Orleans where he helped with his family’s grocery store operations.

Abasto Magazine (AM): What is your story in the independent supermarket industry?

Greg Ferrara (GF): I grew up in New Orleans. I come from a family of Italian immigrants who came to the United States in the late 1800s. In 1906 they opened a small grocery store in a corner just outside the French Quarter in New Orleans. My family lived in the same building as the store, upstairs floors, and served the customers anytime they needed anything. We really grew up as an independent grocery store.

Throughout our generation, my great grandfather, my grandfather and my father opened different stores in the city. I grew up in the business, I worked from a very young age in the supermarket industry. At age 19, I had the opportunity to run the store as general manager while studying at Loyola University in New Orleans.

I ran the business until Hurricane Katrina struck and destroyed the store in 2005. After the incident, I had the opportunity to move to Washington D.C. where I was hired by the NGA as director of government relations. After two years I returned to the industry where I worked for Associates Grocers in Baton Rouge. During my time there I acquired valuable experience while working in the wholesale distribution area.

After a couple of years, my new family and I decided to move back to the Washington D.C. area, and I was fortunate to return to work for the NGA. I have been with them ever since. For 14 years, I have performed several functions, mostly in government relations and public affairs.

I was very fortunate to be named president and CEO of the organization after a very competitive selection process.

AM: What did you like most when you ran your grocery store in New Orleans?

GF: What I liked most about the store was the customers. It was not uncommon for us to have customers who had been shopping with us for 40-50 years, and visited the store every day. It really was a neighborhood supermarket. We were also very close to the University of New Orleans that had an extensive international program of graduate students, so I think we had one of the most diverse customer groups in the city. I also liked to work in the produce department because every day I had to start with everything fresh and prepare something beautiful using my hands.

AM: During your career at the NGA you have developed the art of establishing great relationships. What advice can you offer to establish contact with people who can help someone’s business?

GF: I can’t stop emphasizing the value of relationships. It is very important to establish them. It could be very easy for store owners to do everything based on monetary transactions, but I don’t believe it will be successful for a long time. The reason why the NGA has been so successful for almost 40 years is that we are in the relationship business.

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We treat our members as they treat our clients, with compassion and respect. They know that when they need us we will always be there to support them, just like when a community needs their independent grocery store, they will always be there for whatever they need.

AM: What plans does the NGA have for the beginning of the new decade?

GF: We want to explore growing a couple of different areas. One will be in the area of advocacy and government relations, where we have always done a good job, but we have an opportunity to improve the NGA brand and its presence in Washington D.C. We want to reinforce our main objective which is who we support, the independent local grocery stores. We will work harder to improve our ability to represent this key player in the communities of the country.

Another area in which we are going to work on, and that today we are doing well, is to allocate more resources in education. We have many excellent educational initiatives and tools at the NGA Show. We offer education year-round through online seminars and other events. We will review what the needs of our members and the industry are, and how we can help them to continue with their education and personal growth.

One of the mistakes that commercial organizations or store organizations can make is that they trust themselves too much, believing they know what their members or the industry want, and they stop listening.

We will follow the legacy of Peter Larkin, who always listened to the members of the NGA, we will implement mechanisms to constantly stay up to date on what is happening in the industry so we stay relevant and can react in time to the trends that arise to support our members.

AM: On February 23rd, the NGA Show20 begins. What are your recommendations for people planning to attend the event?

GF: The most important thing is to get involved. You should take advantage of all the training/coaching sessions, the networking, the resources that are available on the floor Expo. There will be hundreds of companies that will be present to demonstrate how they operate.

My message to independent Hispanic store owners is that you are the leaders of the future, you are doing a phenomenal job serving your communities, connecting with your customers at a level that the competition has failed to achieve. I hope you attend the Show and take advantage of all the resources we offer so that you can use this experience in your business to help you continually grow in the future.

AM: In one of the NGA Show sessions, you will lead an important discussion with future industry leaders. What will be your message?

GF: During this session, we will discuss different topics, but one of them will be about having a ‘succession plan’. Ensuring that the leaders of our new generation, who are presently climbing positions in their businesses, are preparing for success in the future. We will discuss the resources they need, the connections. Why the support of their families and leadership of the company it’s important in developing the skills they need to grow and take their companies to a higher level.

Grocery store customers are changing and we need to give new generation leaders the resources and freedom they need to help transform our industry with a vision to create the stores of the future. This is the way we ensure that we remain relevant and bring value to the market.

I believe that, in the future, independent grocery stores could be one of the most important community businesses across the country. The reason being, our industry has been successful for more than a century due to succession. Parents have passed their businesses to the next generations. Historical company leaders have done the same. We want to make sure we create an environment where the next generations are ready to take the baton and succeed.

AM: How should the NGA evolve to better serve its members?

GF: As an association of independent traders we need to be at the forefront, be bold, we need to listen and be close to our members, and we are committed to doing so. It seems to me that the NGA Show is an excellent resource and something new that we have this year is the “Next-Gen” inscription. The idea is to bring young leaders in the industry to the show by offering them discounts so that they have the opportunity to connect and network.

AM: What efforts does the NGA make to meet Hispanic independent supermarket owners?

GF: We continue to bring new members to the NGA, not only Hispanic but from the other ethnic communities we have in the country.

This year we integrate the NGA to independent supermarkets in Puerto Rico and we are working on several projects with them. We need to be an association that can serve the entire independent supermarket industry and that involves being an inclusive organization that supports Hispanics and other ethnic supermarkets.

We continue to make approaches to expand our resources. For example, this year at the NGA Show we offer several sessions in Spanish. We are evolving the show to make sure we involve the whole spectrum of supermarkets in the country.

AM: 2020 is a crucial year for the presidential elections in the United States. How will the NGA focus its lobbying tasks in Washington this year?

GF: Washington is a disaster right now. The elections this year certainly represent a challenge. The NGA is a bipartisan organization and regardless of whether the Democrats or Republicans have control, we see it as an opportunity to support our members by working with Congress or whoever is in the White House.

We did it during the Obama administration and now with the Trump administration. We’ve done it in the past and we will in the future.

Yes, it is complex, but we have relationships with both parties. For over 40 we have dealt with the political aspects of the business. Good results will continue to come in future years.