CBA Freeman’s parting advice mirrors his strategy for turning around the trade group: Listen, learn and proactively evolve

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/	Klaus Vedfelt
Source: Getty/ Klaus Vedfelt

Related tags Consumer Brands Association

As Geoff Freeman prepares to step down from his role as president and CEO of the Consumer Brands Association next month to pursue a new opportunity, he offers the CPG industry the same advice that he gave when he joined the trade group four years ago: focus on the big picture, play offense not defense, always move forward and most importantly place the consumer at the center.

“There is a tendency to defend the status quo, whatever the status quo is. But it assumes that you can stay constant. And the truth is, you’re either moving forward or moving backward, and I think the more we’re emphasizing moving forward, the more we’re emphasizing changing with the consumer, the more we’re emphasizing that defending the status quo is merely a strategy to lose slowly, the better off we are,”​ Freeman told FoodNavigator-USA after announcing earlier this month his impending departure from the trade group.

He added that today’s industry leaders understand this, and unlike their predecessors who took a hard line, authoritative stance with the consumers they serve, this generation is embracing the idea that the only way to succeed is to constantly change and that consumers are leading the change.

“The consumer is only going to get more empowered. We know this. And we know the consumer is in charge. So, let’s make sure we can keep up with them,”​ he said.

This attitude has served the industry well during Freeman’s tenure, especially as it navigated the challenging early days of the pandemic – pivoting quickly to redirect products through different channels to meet consumers where they were – frightened and at home – to ensure that they didn’t go hungry and that they had the essentials they needed to stay safe.

“What I am most proud of today, is the small part we played in ensuring this industry’s ability to deliver throughout a pandemic, through a stress-test like it had never faced before, each and every day. This industry ensured people didn’t go hungry and that people found access to the products they needed because of the work that people in this industry did – the people who went to work every single day, who never stayed home. It has been remarkable,”​ he said.

Placing the consumer at the center of everything

And while serving consumers and placing them at the forefront of everything the industry does may sound obvious for the consumer packaged goods industry, which literally starts with the word ‘consumer,’ this approach was not always a guiding principle.

When Freeman took over as CEO at the Grocery Manufacturers Association the consumer seemed, to some, as almost an afterthought of the trade group, which advocated in a way that Freeman described at the time​ as appearing to promote interests that were distinct from the consumer by conducting business “in the dark of night in smoke filled rooms”​ and in a way that left the impression it was being “sneaky”​ or trying to pull one over on the people.

Prior to Freeman taking the helm, this approach prompted many high-profile companies, including The Campbell Soup Co., to dramatically and abruptly leave the trade group​ – stating publicly that they no longer shared the trade group’s values.

“To know that Campbell’s … thought that disassociating from the organization would enhance their place in the market was a really stunning learning, and to reverse that, to build an organization where people felt that being associated with us is going to strengthen their place,”​ was a massive undertaking and required a significant shift in mindset, Freeman said.

Which is why when he joined GMA and assembled a new team around him of professionals pulled from other industries who were not wed to one way of thinking, they together adopted a “go big or go home” principle to rebuilding the trade group.

He explained that ‘go big or go home’ meant the trade group needed to rebuild the trust of and unite the biggest companies in the CPG industry in order to enact meaningful change that helped consumers and businesses of all sizes across a diverse industry.

Rebuilding and rebranding around four pillars

The first step in executing this strategy was to have an open mind, ask questions and listen, Freeman said.

“It is not like we came in knowing what the solution was, knowing what the strategy would be. There was a lot of asking questions, a lot of listening. … And what came out of those discussions was a trend of common concerns”​ about managing all the complex components of a consumer packaged goods business, be it as a cereal maker, personal care company or home goods business, he said.

These concerns became the four key pillars ​on which Freeman and his team rebuilt and rebranded​ GMA as the Consumer Brands Association, including ‘smart uniform regulation,’ enhanced packaging sustainability, building a frictionless supply chain and building trust among members and the industry and consumers.

In the years that followed, these pillars would take on new meaning, but would remain central to CBA’s mission, Freeman said, adding that he is proud that the trade group and its members identified the need to reinforce the supply chain, identify more sustainable packaging solutions and standardize regulatory oversight before the pandemic shined its harsh light on their flaws and created a new sense of urgency.

Of the four pillars, Freeman says he is proud to have made progress on and reinforced three – supply chain, sustainability and smart regulations. The fourth, it turns out, was not appropriate as a pillar but rather a necessary foundation to create a stable overall framework, he said.

With this framework in place, Freeman said the trade group has steadily reinforced the CPG companies’ and consumers’ trust so that membership has increased 35% and revenue has increased 50%.

This growth and additional resources allowed the trade group to tackle tough topics and facilitate learnings among competitors that helped the industry as a whole, such as through regular CEO exchanges hosted every six weeks during the pandemic when executives came together in a safe place to share learnings, or the trade group’s CPG Executive Summit in December which will be repeated in September, Freeman said.

Through this work, he added, “there is a general sense that the Consumer Brands ​[Association] today is an organization with the wind at its back. It’s an organization with momentum. It’s an organization you can be proud to be associated with.”

‘This industry is at its best when it’s elevating its focus’

While CBA has come a long way since Freeman joined, he says it still has a long road ahead and even though he is leaving, he says, the trade group will remain focused on the big picture and he urges its members and other industry stakeholders to do so as well.

“This industry is at its best when it is elevating its focus, when it is focusing on the big picture,”​ and executing positively and proactively against a consumer-centered agenda.

This includes continuing to reinforce the supply chain and holding the federal government accountable for its role in spotting and avoiding future “hiccups,”​ he said.

“We have all learned the supply chain is resilient, but it can be stronger, and we need the government to help us make it stronger,”​ Freeman said.

“For example, the federal government has no line of sight into the supply chain. … It could be a better partner as we seek to deal with the trucking problems we have in this country, the fact that 34-40% of all trucks are driving around empty. We need the federal government to be a better partner in coordinating backhaul logistics with the data they have,”​ he said, noting CBA has long advocated for transportation solutions​ and FDA to establish a control tower for the supply chain.

With regards to CBA’s sustainability pillar, Freeman added the federal government needs to standardize recycling.

Improving industry’s relationship with FDA, and the agency’s oversight role

Beyond these issues, Freeman sharply criticized the FDA as simultaneously being the industry’s “greatest obstacle to success in the years ahead”​ and potentially its biggest advocate – if it adopts a few changes.

He explained in frustration that in recent years CBA and other industry stakeholders have repeatedly sought guidance, clarification and policies to enhance oversight, but despite FDA’s acquiescence that it would take necessary steps, it has yet to follow through.

The way FDA currently is run is like a “black hole,”​ Freeman said. “The silence we get today, only creates uncertainty. Predictability is preferable to uncertainty,”​ and even flawed policy would improve predictability and is preferable to where we are today.

A call to action for FDA

Earlier this week Freeman and the CBA joined other trade groups and stakeholders to meet with FDA Commissioner Robert Califf and Principle Deputy Director Commissioner Janet Woodcock to explore ways to improve the food program.

Among the recommendations advocated by CBA and others ​were to appoint a deputy commissioner for foods – and idea that has been floated many times before, increase stakeholder engagement and transparently account for agency expenditures within the food segment so that appropriate future funding can be assessed and allocated.

These are big issues that likely will take time to parse and advance, but Freeman said he is confident that the CPG industry can help guide the conversation – and even apply some of the lessons it has learned over the past four years – to better enable FDA to understand and quickly adapt to changing priorities.

To ensure CBA continues to advance the industry’s working position with FDA and other priorities, the trade group is working closely with Freeman to create a transition plan ahead of his Aug. 4 departure and identify a successor.

As Freeman does this, he added, “the Consumer Brands Association is a great place, and while there is never a great time to shake things up, there are certainly worse times, and we are in a really good place. The internal environment is supportive and collaborative as it has ever been, and I am excited to watch CBA and excited to see where it continues to take the industry.”

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