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Editorial Comment —January 2012

Weathering The Storm


The winds of change and Mother Nature blew up a veritable tempest around resale last year, and while these storms may yet again vent their wrath in other ways this year, or beyond, it doesn't mean that resale won't be able to weather them, adapt, and even thrive in spite of them.

After all, that's more or less what resale did in 2011 — and it may be worth it to pause for a minute and ask how come? Why did it manage the success and sustainment it did, despite all the obstacles in its path?

The short answer is because that's what resale does, and that's what resale people are doing. The resale benefit, while similar to, and also enjoying considerable expertise drawn from civilian retail, is NOT the same as civilian retail. Military resale's people, its suppliers, its distributors and its advocates intimately understand the value of resale's mission to the U.S. military, and go “above and beyond” to support that — that's part of what makes them a special breed.

When all the X's and O's of the “best business strategies” of the month are cleaned from the whiteboard; when all the budget pencils are put down for the night; and all the think-tank policymaking goes quiet for a few hours, resale remains steadfast to its purpose — to deliver its unique benefit to the U.S. military family and eligible patrons worldwide.

In the case of the commissaries, that's a 30-percent minimum savings to patrons — come reorganization, realignment, hurricane, earthquake, tsunami or nuclear emergency. In the case of the exchange systems, their dual mission is to provide authorized patrons with articles of merchandise and services at competitive prices, and generate nonappropriated fund (NAF) earnings as a supplemental source of funding for military Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) programs. This they do while going where the troops, airmen, marines, sailors, coastguardsmen, Guard and reserves go, even in — and, if you think about it, especially in (after all, who else does?) — harm's way.

It should come as no surprise, then, that in the aftermath of then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's Department of Defense (DoD)-wide “Track Four Efficiency Initiatives Decisions,” the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) emerged from its mandated restructuring a leaner, no less kind, and perhaps even stronger grocery machine.

The agency went to work on the third or fourth round of above-storelevel transformation in its history with nary a hiccup in service to its customers. Sales climbed, transactions rose, even as the changes went into effect, transparently to patrons. This was not without pain, however, as DeCA waved goodbye to some 50 or more of its most experienced executives, managers and operators.

The Army & Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) and the Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM), although NAF entities, were not immune to changes and cuts themselves, as they are being divested of their top general officer and flag officer billets, effective at the end of their respective commanders' tours.

In addition, exchanges and commissaries withstood a series of existential assaults, among them Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-Okla.) misguided — and ultimately tabled — amendment SA 1380 to the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), calling for consolidation of commissaries and exchanges into a single for-profit system.

Memo to Sen. Coburn: do you really want to wipe out resale benefits for military families, and jobs for the military spouses and veterans they employ? If you do, keep it up, because that's what making DeCA a NAF activity would effectively do. Without the appropriation, the commissary savings would be wiped out or eroded to the point of no longer being a viable benefit. In either case, the outcome is no commissary benefit and a domino effect on base. Without the savings, few patrons, if any, will bother to make the trip from outside the gate to the stores that anchor resale inside the fence. It's a poison pill that kills the entire resale and MWR system. Sometimes we wonder whether that's what some out there really seek.

Sen. Richard Burr's (R-N.C.) otherwise commendable bill (S.277), to provide needed healthcare for sickened servicemembers and their families affected by contaminated drinking water at MCB Camp Lejeune, also buffeted the resale system with similar consolidation proposals. Those affected need care, but funding for it should not come on the backs of servicemembers, military families and retirees.

As to what the President's budget will suggest in February, no one really knows at this point. Not everything in it will be approved, however, and no one can predict how either house of Congress will react; nor exactly how DoD and each of the services will be expected to implement any cuts handed down to them.

For that matter, no one really knows what global situations the military will have to adapt to at a moment's notice. It takes an “almost perfect world scenario” to even begin to predict what the future will bring, and what numbers of trained and ready servicemembers will be needed to respond. With that in mind, it's premature to jump to any conclusions about the fate, or number, of commissaries that will exist anywhere in the world.

In 2012, and beyond, there will be a lot of spaghetti thrown at the wall, and a lot of wondering how much will stick. There are also rays of sunshine in the picture. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said, “We're going to protect the quality of the benefits that are provided to our troops and their families ... that is key ... we're not going to break from that,” and Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel & Readiness Jo Ann Rooney has called commissaries the bedrock of the military community.

In the meantime, the military resale community, come rain or come shine, will do what it does so well: providing a return on investment and support on base that few, if any, organizations within DoD can match — receiving clean audits and unqualified opinions; growing sales, satisfaction and transactions; hiring more returning veterans and military spouses; adapting; thriving in adversity; responding to crises with expert assistance and courage, and making sure that taking care of servicemembers and their families and all eligible patrons is always job No. 1.

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