California Grocers Association President and CEO Ron Fong was named one of the 10 best CEOs of 2022 by C Level Focus. The following feature article was published in the January 2023 issue of C Level Focus.
Maintain Open Lines of Communication
The California Grocers Association has been active since 1896, representing grocery retailers, wholesalers, and suppliers. “It’s a challenging and ever-changing industry that requires a constant refresh of how we represent the state’s grocery community, and also the reinvention of the Association from time to time,” says Ronald Fong, CEO of CGA. Every year we seem to tackle a different issue— whether that’s COVID, inflation, or recycling—because the food system is so complicated and multi-faceted.
Fong’s mentorship has been both familial and professional. He attributes much of his career growth to his work at the California Credit Union League, where he learned under CEOs Dave Chatfield and John Annaloro. Since becoming CGA CEO, he has sought advice from and learned from respected individuals. He admires former CGA Board Chairs Kevin Konkel, Raley’s, Phil Miller, Coremark, Jonathan Mayes, Albertsons, and Hee-Sook Alden, Gelson’s, and he checks in with them often. He was influenced as a child by his grandfather, Dan Fong, who founded a small Northern California supermarket chain. His grandfather’s admiration for American politics and culture brought him to the United States. Even after his death 20 years ago, Fong has continued to practice the hardworking ethic he learned from his grandfather.
Alongside his duties as CGA’s chief executive, today, Fong serves on the California State University Foundation Board, which keeps him connected to his alma mater. He believes it’s important to explore new experiences and perspectives, and he appreciates that the board brings him exposure to issues he wouldn’t normally examine, such as student food insecurity. This has also allowed him to mentor young students and build relationships with the University of Southern California and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. As a function of these relationships, he and the CGA Board Chair visit students interested in the grocery business each year, which he finds fulfilling.
People think CEOs live a rich and famous lifestyle, but that’s not true, explains the CGA President and CEO. It’s about leadership and hard work, and that sometimes requires getting your hands dirty — literally. Representing a great industry is an honor, and Fong loves that grocers are the heart and soul of communities. Educating elected officials, who don’t always understand the industry or how hard it is to run a business in California, is the least fun part of the job.
Fong is still a traditionalist who believes in face-to-face interactions. He enjoys going into the office and talking with his team, instead of relying on email or texting. One-on-one sit-downs and monthly staff meetings are hugely important to maintaining the company culture and keeping communication flowing across the organization.
Fong advises seeking as much information from multiple sources as possible before making important decisions. He suggests leaders listen to both sides and decide on the merits and paradoxically, be swift.
The pandemic was a politically volatile time for the grocery industry. CGA and its members worked hard to keep stores open during the pandemic while keeping customers and employees safe. Fong believes leaders must be adept negotiators, part of which involves understanding what’s acceptable before entering negotiations. A little suffering on both sides often means a fair compromise has been made.
When offered feedback, the CGA President and CEO seeks precedent. He wants the facts and reads deeply — seeking information, ideas, and legal background. In Association administration, he believes it’s vital to listen to members and not have a prepared solution for board members. Realizing one’s favored solution may not be what people want requires humility, he adds. Board relations require a profound understanding of people. It is important to understand who influences whom and who can be relied on when the going gets tough.
Attracting new members is a constant endeavor for the organization. It has a strong base of traditional retail members, but it is always actively recruiting nontraditional members. The association’s membership is diverse and offers many perspectives. CGA has recently added technology start-ups and new grocery upstarts to its membership portfolio. “Find the decision-maker and figure out what will resonate with them,” suggests Fong. He and his team don’t take “no” for an answer and maintain the long view.
In the near future Fong would love to launch a statewide, multi-channel pro-grocery campaign outside of election years. He wants Californians and lawmakers to recognize how important the grocery industry is the grocery community feeds and develops communities. He also wants to continue making in-roads with technology companies and nontraditional grocery retailers as CGA must continually identify new players, he adds. Its strength is governmental advocacy due to the organization’s role representing the grocery industry’s legislative and political aims. Finally, in the next five years he intends to grow membership by also pursuing mergers with or acquisitions of related associations.