Way back in 1992, the Pundit received a call. Would he be willing to come to Australia and give the Keynote Address at the Australian United Fresh Conference in Newcastle?
As the trip developed, it wound up including many other speeches, tours of early fresh-cut facilities and wholesale markets. For the most part, as Woolworths, the largest supermarket chain in the country, was increasingly buying direct, our job was to explain how growers and terminal markets in the US had survived the transition to direct retail buying.
The trip also included several regional workshops for the staff at Woolworths — not surprising since they paid the bill. The man behind the trip was a fellow named Peter Pokorny, who ran produce for Woolworths back then and was wise enough to see calming the waters in the grower-shipper and wholesale communities, communities deeply concerned by the implications of direct procurement, as a form of enlightened self-interest for Woolworths.
Yet showing that what goes around comes around, when Coles/BI-L0, the Number Two competitor in the market, whose produce operation was then run by a fellow named Martin Kneebone, asked if we could do a workshop for them as well, Peter said yes.
Now, some 16 years later, Peter sends an e-mail:
Trust this e-mail finds you well and in good spirits.
While it has been many years since we last met up, I must admit I feel like I have kept in contact as a regular reader of the “Perishable Pundit” — I really enjoy it!
I am writing to let you know that I am joining the Wesfarmers Group — owners of Coles Australia — as the General Manager of the Produce operation.
I left Woolworths in 2006 and spent the last 18 months as Chief Strategy Officer with a family company called Harris Farm Markets — a terrific independent produce retailer.
I hope to be in the States this year and trust we might renew our friendship at that time.
Woolworths has become enormously dominant in Australia. So accepting this kind of position with Coles is a sort of “ultimate challenge,” but the Australian press is full of reports of new hires for Coles — people who have worked at ASDA, Tesco and Sainsbury’s. The plans for fresh produce and thus the importance of Peter’s new position is hinted at in these lines:
WESFARMERS has hired the former boss of fresh foods at Woolworths to help turn around its newly acquired Coles supermarkets business.
Peter Pokorny, formerly general manager of fresh foods at Woolies, will join Coles in an identical role next month.
Wesfarmers has flagged an increased focus on fresh food as it seeks to close the performance gap between Coles and Woolies, which has been steadily expanding market share at the same time as earnings margins.
Wesfarmers chief executive Richard Goyder said Mr Pokorny had more than 30 years’ experience in Australian retail.
“Peter’s great experience in this area and his intimate knowledge of the Australian fresh food market will be invaluable in improving the Coles offer now and in the future,” he said.
Fresh food was key to the turnaround at British retailer Asda which was engineered in the early 1990s by then-boss Archie Norman, who has now been hired by Wesfarmers as a consultant to help transform the Coles business.
And so it goes around the whole world today. As we said at the founding of the Perishable Pundit:
“…that perishables are, and for the foreseeable future will be, the crucial arena for differentiating competition in the food marketing business.”
We wish Peter good fortune and know our many friends at Woolworths realize nothing helps the great stay great than a vigorous sense that the competition is catching up.
As Intel’s Andy Grove said: Only the Paranoid Survive.