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Editorial Comment — July 2017

150 Years …

Congratulations, commissaries!

Thank you for providing a vital benefit to servicemembers and military families for the past century and a half!

Without the support and perseverance of generation after generation of dedicated commissary directors, managers and workers, and the continued collaboration of concerned suppliers, the families of the nation’s fighting forces would not possess the first-class quality of life they enjoy today.

… And Counting.

So where do things go from here?

Though the modern commissary, looking a bit like a Kroger store or a Lidl outlet, bears little resemblance to the 19th-century military subsistence storehouses that were its predecessors, the mission has not materially changed in all that time: to provide a non-pay benefit that significantly helps defray the servicemember’s cost of living.

The mission, of course, is what differentiates the commissary from the supermarket; and as in the past 150 years, the future of the commissary system depends on how well it fulfills that mission.

At this juncture, in the midst of unprecedented change, success may well rest upon the executive selection process: will the Pentagon be able to find a qualified candidate with the knowledge, experience, and energy to lead the Defense Commissary Agency into its tentative new role as a bona fide competitor in the retail arena?

The job description finally released on USAJOBS.gov does not offer much promise of that. Though respondents must be U.S. citizens, able to pass drug tests and obtain Top Secret clearances, there is no requirement that applicants have ever set foot inside a grocery store, let alone oversee management of a benefit delivered through a large group of such stores.

Though one of the Senior Executive Service candidates considered for the position in the months before it was announced to the public may turn out to be the best qualified applicant, it would seem that best business practices for finding a qualified contender would have called for the services of an executive talent search agency.

For one thing, besides the patriotic satisfaction of providing sustenance to the nation’s military families and the challenge of solving a hydra-headed set of problems, with a government SES pay package, DeCA doesn’t have a lot to offer the new director candidate compared to the commercial world.

With only $5 billion a year in sales, the agency no longer makes the cut as a Fortune 500-level operation; and although the $187,000 top salary offered to the new DeCA chief executive officer is higher than that of a rank-and-file senator or congressman, it is many miles away from the neighborhood of comparable supermarket chain CEO paychecks.

Last year, the CEOs of two major publicly owned $4-billion retail grocery corporations received more than $1 million each in compensation.

Setting aside the question of reward, the true problem may lie in the role itself. Will the director in fact be in charge of the direction in which the agency moves?

The lucky candidate will inherit a commissary system with a slate of complex transformations under way and a worrying decline in transactions and sales, at the same time confronting the changes in relationships with suppliers and pricing competition that going commercial entails … all while a pitched battle to the bottom for lowest supermarket pricing honors rages outside the gate.

The tests DeCA is currently engaged in shift the focus from logistics to marketing, demanding quick-response competitive pricing and “wow!” promotions. DeCA has always counted on its vendor partners to provide “wow!” promotions, with considerable success, but with SKU cuts reducing the pool of vendors, and with vendor prices cut to the bone, the same level of support cannot be considered a certainty.

Will the new director be allowed to bring a fresh perspective to apply real-world retail experience in assessing the progress of the current experiments in transformation … or just be expected to push forward in a direction already locked in stone?

Will the new director be permitted to run the agency without outside interference? Or has the use of management consultants become so ingrained that it has become an essential aspect of agency operations?

As a new horse in the middle of the stream, the new director must move forward with one eye always on the mission, resisting the current’s force when need be, to keep from being swept away … along with the entire wagon train.

By the time you read this, a new director, whom we wish well, may have already been named. It is our hope that the Pentagon and Capitol Hill will trust and pay attention to whoever is selected, and that he or she is not locked into an already-sewed-up straitjacket of trying to satisfy the widely diverse tastes of commissary patrons with a limited selection and on the cheap.

One thing is certain: the next 150 years — especially the next few — are not going to be easy.

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