A Reflection on European and US Business Practice

I recently returned from a business trip to Brussels. Following a couple of days of meetings, my wife joined me and we took a week of vacation time. Our holiday centered around an organized biking trip from Bruges to Amsterdam spread over the course of a week. Our small group for bikers from around the world slept and ate on a lovely canal boat and every day would ride 35 – 40 miles across the beautiful (and flat) countryside of Belgium & Holland. The weather was almost perfect, the people we met were delightful and we had a wonderful time.

One interaction during our week really grabbed my attention and made me think about how different cultures approach the idea of work a life.

One afternoon, our small band of hardy riders pulled up to a small café & store in rural Belgium. We had already come 30 miles that day so we were tired, hungry and thirsty. Not only that, we all had money spend.

We walked into the café to find the only person inside to be the proprietor, a middle-aged woman. She was quite friendly and told us in Flemish that while she appreciated our interest in doing business with her, she was sorry to say it was impossible as she was just going to lie down for a nap. So off we went down the road to look elsewhere.

To summarize; its 3 PM on a Tuesday afternoon at a small business in a rural area with no customers in sight. In walk 25 motivated customers looking to spend a lot of Euros. It’s practically a gift from God. Yet the business owner would rather take a nap.

I try not to generalize about societies and cultures so I don’t want to make more of this episode than it warrants. But as we rode on I couldn’t help but reflect on how a similar interaction would likely have gone in the US. It’s probable that a store owner in this country would not only joyously welcome a group like ours, she would have tried to see just how much other things she could have sold them. It’s doubtful an American merchant would rather take a nap.

So which continent has the superior business ethic? Both, probably. It’s been said that Europeans work to live (or sleep) and Americans live to work. That seemed to be the opinion of my fellow bikers, the Europeans chuckled and shook their heads but understood. The Americans including myself were astonished.

I would like to think that I could work to live but it doesn’t seem to be in my nature.

A reflection.

Whole Foods, Amazon and Reality

Two years ago, I wrote a piece about Whole Foods Markets in which I noted their innovative move away from selling only organic products toward “responsibly grown” items. This approach struck me at the time as a refreshing policy to position the company in way that would appeal to customers while giving the company a way to broaden their offerings and hopefully lower costs.

At the time, I recognized the problem for the company was that, true to form consumers were starting to place prices above purity. The entry into the organic marketplace by retail giants such as Costco and Walmart was putting increasing pressure on Whole Foods and the company was looking for ways to continue to be the retailer of choice for a certain type of shopper.

There was something that I didn’t fully anticipate at the time I wrote my essay. The cut throat rivalry between traditional retailers such as Walmart and online retailers like Amazon would come to encompass groceries.

While online ordering and delivery of grocery products has been a reality for over a decade, it was not fully embraced until very recently. This has much to do with our increasing dependence on mobile devices and most definitely hinges on the rapid adoption of artificial intelligence systems such as Alexa and Siri.

While astonishing, last week’s announcement of Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods should not come as a shock. For Amazon, it’s a major power move aimed squarely at Walmart. In one move, the world’s largest virtual retailer took possession of over 400 brick and mortar stores located in affluent neighborhoods; essentially some 400 plus new and local Amazon distribution centers.

But what does it mean for Whole Foods? I’ve been on the inside of multi-billion dollar corporate acquisitions. Really big companies spend billions on slightly smaller companies because they like them and what they stand for, not because they want to destroy them. Acquiring corporations don’t usually want to mess with a formula that is working, they are looking to leverage a positive consumer image.

It’s not likely that Amazon will want to do anything to turn off Whole Foods’ rabid customer base. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said as when announcing the acquisition by stating, “Whole Foods Market has been satisfying, delighting and nourishing customers for nearly four decades—they’re doing an amazing job, and we want that to continue.”

For their part, Whole Foods management also sought to reassure by releasing a statement addressed “Dear Valued Customer” which read in part, “We will continue to operate our stores and deliver the highest quality, delicious natural and organic products that you’ve come to love and trust from Whole Foods Market.”

Two years ago, I wished Whole Foods well on its effort to maintain its image while trying to cut costs, but the Amazon deal shows that they did not succeed. Positive social images notwithstanding, this was Big Corporate Business. One big shark devouring a smaller shark.

John Mackey, Whole Foods Market’s CEO, was quoted as saying, “This partnership presents an opportunity to maximize value for Whole Foods Market’s shareholders, (emphasis mine) “while at the same time extending our mission and bringing the highest quality, experience, convenience and innovation to our customers.”

Not only that, but the “Dear Valued Shopper” statement said that the agreement, “presents an incredible opportunity to take Whole Foods Market’s mission and purpose to new levels and will create significant value for our stakeholders” (emphasis also mine).

Two things of note here; 1) in corporate speak this means that this is all about investors, 2) nowhere is there any mention of employees. In this era of increased labor costs driven by rising minimum wages coupled with increasing automation, Whole Foods team members and those who care about them should be rightly concerned about the future.

For the rest of us consumers, it’s a win. Prices for responsibly grown products will go lower, new and innovative marketing practices will likely amaze us and Whole Foods will maintain its positive public image.

Just look at a company with a similar image – Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. Years ago, that scruffy Vermont company was purchased by Unilever, one of the world’s largest corporations. At the time, lots of hand wringing took place as their fans assumed it was the end of the company’s progressive political activism, but that didn’t happen. The brand is still outspoken and still delicious but it now enjoys the marketing and distribution heft they didn’t have before. I expect a future like this for Whole Foods.

This multi-billion-dollar acquisition confirms the trend I recognized two years ago. To maintain profitability Whole Foods needed to find a way to reduce costs and maintain their customer base. But in the end, they did the old-fashioned way, via a shareholder focused corporate takeover. 

Everything new is old again.

CQ Rollcall: 70 Experts Share Their Best Advocacy Planning, Strategy, Skills and Training Tips

 

I was proud to be asked to share my experience with other professionals in CQ Roll Call:

How would you like to have your own personal government relations or advocacy mentor on speed dial?

Even, if you’d been in the business for years?

Well, we’re about to give you the next best thing.

We conducted 70, (yes, 70!) interviews with some of the leading minds in the worlds of government relations, nonprofit, advocacy, public policy, and fundraising, and asked them four pertinent questions:

  • What advocacy skill have I learned over time, or do I wish I had my first day on the job?
  • Having tried a bunch, the best advocacy strategy I rely on is …?
  • When I’m planning an advocacy campaign, the first thing I always do is … 
  • What would be the most useful advocacy training?

Just FYI, we asked them a bunch of other questions too, and we’ll give you the full picture of what they had to say soon (including epic campaign fails and successes) – but more of that good stuff later.

For now, here’s a taster of some of the best advocacy strategies, tips and tricks they’ve learned from many collective years toiling in the world of legislation and advocacy.

And when you’ve finished reading, don’t forget to download our great free eBook: The Advocacy Planning, Strategy and Skills Guide.

Finally, to everyone who took part, a big thank you!

And to everyone reading, this is one you’ll want to bookmark!

What’s the greatest advocacy skill I’ve learned over time, or what advocacy skill do I wish I had had the first day on the job?

The importance of remaining calm, no matter the circumstances. In any situation, there is often more time and more chances to succeed than may appear – Dan Colegrove, President, ACME Public Affairs

Some people take naturally to planning and organizational skills. I was not one of those people when I was younger. In my case, I simply outworked everyone else so that I succeeded without any problems. But I probably could have saved myself some of that work if I had been a little more methodical. – Dan Colegrove, President, ACME Public Affairs

Food Fight! Inside the Minimum Wage War

Food Fight! Inside the Minimum Wage War

You’ve probably noticed a lot of media attention swirling around calls for a higher minimum wage lately. Groups such as Fast Food Forward and Fight for 15 are demanding a $15 per-hour minimum wage for fast food workers and organizing employee walkouts in cities across the nation. Meanwhile, employers and their business group allies are doing everything they can to resist these demands, pleading that their margins are already slim and higher labor costs will cripple them.

Read More