Renewed Focus on Training and Development
Will Bridge Practical Learning with Strategic Thinking

FEDA members listen to Jeff Winters, CEO of Sapper Consulting, explain his One Call Close method during an educational lunch program at The NAFEM Show. The event was organized by the FEDA Education Foundation.

By Tim O’Connor
Associate Editor

Be curious. Of all the pieces of advice Jeff Winters, CEO of Sapper Consulting, had for distributors and dealers at FEDA’s Educational Lunch Program, that was the one that cuts across all aspects of their business. Winters spoke about curiosity from a sales perspective—reps that ask questions about their clients’ operations and requirements are more likely to identify the right product and make a sale—but companies that apply curious thinking to their technology, employee development, inventory management, and other initiatives are bound to lead to innovations that will make them more effective.

FEDA’s new education efforts are designed to encourage members to be inquisitive about how they can improve their operations and tactics—and to arm them with the tools and knowledge to succeed in an increasingly digital world. The idea is to not simply provide practical sales and product learning opportunities, but to create programs that will help members think strategically about the direction of their company and the industry as a whole.

“The topic of digital disruption and how to compete against it has been widely discussed in a number of forums throughout the industry,” says Stacy Ward, director of programs and research for FEDA. “In speaking with FEDA members, the general consensus is that most are concerned about it but few have a plan for how to revamp existing business models to thwart the onslaught. As an association, one of FEDA’s goals is to lead the change. That’s why we’ve made digital strategy the focus of our initial education and training efforts.”

The first experience many members will have with FEDA’s digital direction for education will come at the FEDA Annual Conference in early April. Each of the five morning strategic discussion topics will tie into the association’s four major goals—education, advocacy, technology, and young industry leaders – while the afternoon breakout sessions will serve as professional development programs covering some of the most critical issues facing the industry, including omnichannel, Big Data, and the customer experience.

Following the conference, FEDA will continue to build on its education initiatives with year-round programs and events. The association plans to introduce online education and training on two tracks: “Knowledge Lab” and “Technology Tools and Change.” Knowledge Lab will target sales reps while “Technology Tools and Change” will equip management-level professionals with the modern tools they need to move their companies up the digital curve. “While initial online education and training will be heavily slanted toward using digital tools to improve processes and enhance the customer experience, new topics in areas such as sales, product education, and inventory control will be introduced as FEDA works to expand its offerings,” Ward says.

Although the focus is on helping members develop a digital strategy, the content will address implementation from a practical perspective. For example, there are courses on how to market products online to provide maximum exposure, how to interpret user traffic and data flow, and tips on building the infrastructure needed for an e-commerce website.

All content for both tracks will fall under five key categories: digital strategy, data analytics, sales in the digital era, distribution technology, warehousing and inventory control. The education element of the courses will consist of 10- to 15- minute videos, podcasts, and other short materials. Meanwhile, the training programs will be more extensive, featuring programs that are at least one hour in length and are delivered through videos, testing, and follow-up exercises and activities.

Each of these learning methods is, by nature, easily digestible and flexible with a company’s or employee’s schedule. “In speaking with several FEDA members, we know they want to invest in more education and training but the day-to-day often takes precedence and the commitment to grow employees often gets pushed to the side,” Ward says. “That’s why our Knowledge Lab and Tech Tools for Change Tracks offer several training courses that are one hour or less.”

The wider scope of FEDA’s revamped training programs is a departure from the past, when the association primarily focused on sales education. “From new webinars to online course material and educational videos, what members will immediately notice about future programs is that the reach has broadened and now encompasses everyone—management, sales, marketing, warehousing, purchasing, and even IT,” Ward explains.

Facilitating these education tracks will be FEDA’s new learning management system, which will be provided by Maryland-based CommPartners. The association was impressed not only by the platform’s easy-to-understand interface, compatibility with FEDA’s existing database system, flexibility, future-forward technology, but also CommPartners’ superior customer service and its company history.

To tailor the program to meet members’ needs, FEDA had to understand where distributors were in their digital journeys. Enter DATAgility. Earlier this year, FEDA partnered with the data services provider to survey its dealers’ and distributors’ technology capabilities. The survey is intended to reveal how member companies are structured and how they define themselves; how they categorize their services and programs; and how they assess their digital readiness. Once responses have been complied, FEDA’s Technology and Education committees will review the key findings and use them to develop future programs, education opportunities, and set priorities.

In addition to its new digital focus, FEDA is continuing several of its most popular education offerings. Last year, the association formed Young Industry Leaders, a group for industry members under the age of 40 who are on track or already in leadership positions within their organizations. The group was created to help members cultivate their emerging talent and prepare the next generation of industry leaders. As part of that, YIL members were invited to attend two retreats in 2018 hosted by Metro CEO John Nackley and ITW Vice President Mihyar Mohamed to discuss the skills that make for a quality leader. Additional retreats are being planned for 2019.

This kind of talent development is one of the end goals of FEDA’s education push. Sometimes, outside organizations are an important piece of that overall development process, which is why FEDA will continue to distribute scholarships to courses such as the University of Innovative Distribution, ServSafe food handler certification and NAFEM’s Certified Foodservice Professional program.