CEO Update: Downs sees sweet success in steering candy group to focus on advocacy

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CEO UpdateJune is National Candy Month, and John Downs wants to make sure people know it—especially people who work on Capitol Hill.

Since becoming CEO of the National Confectioners Association in August 2014, Downs has focused on swiftly transforming the organization into an advocacy machine. One key component of that strategy is delivering targeted messages during “candy moments” such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day.

NCA’s amped-up celebration of National Candy Month—which had not gotten so much attention in the past—includes social media and “random acts of sweetness” in Washington, D.C. The association kicked off the month by giving away 3,000 packages of Haribo Gold-Bears gummies at the Capitol South and Union Station Metro stations June 1. Each package was attached to a colorful card with information about the economic impact of the candy industry. More giveaways are planned with other brands.

Downs succeeded Larry Graham, who retired after leading NCA for 22 years. In February 2015, six months after Downs’ arrival, the board approved a new strategic plan. The following September, NCA changed its governance structure, raised dues and launched a new website, logo and the “Always a Treat” tagline.

“It was a fast-paced bullet train around here in terms of the change agenda,” the longtime Coca-Cola executive said.

Downs outlined some of his strategy for steering NCA in a new direction.

—Getting buy-in: Like many new CEOs, Downs immediately started visiting some of the 650-plus members around the country. He said he quickly found that NCA was driven more by its meetings and events, but companies of all sizes were saying that they wanted a mission-driven advocacy organization.

This was also a recruiting tour for Downs. He sought to raise the caliber and gravitas of NCA’s leadership by persuading more company CEOs and senior executives to be board members rather than lower-level staffers. He sought out thought leaders in different segments of the industry and asked them to help develop a new strategic plan.

Consultant Jim Meffert of Tecker International was hired to help facilitate the conversation around the plan.

“I was very inclusive in terms of the process of putting the plan together,” Downs said. “That served us well. It created a sense of energy and engagement around the plan.”

The new document is far shorter and more focused than NCA’s previous plan; a colorful graphic summary of the key elements fits on two sides of a one-page “placemat.” The vision: to create a world where the public understands and appreciates candy’s unique role in a happy, balanced lifestyle.

Next, Downs looked at finance and governance. Dues had not been raised in more than 10 years. The increase approved in September will raise another $3 million a year, giving NCA total revenue of about $16 million. A governance task force came up with a plan aimed at reducing duplication and confusion on the board and advisory councils.

—Collecting data, measuring results:Everything NCA does will be examined through a holistic “Candy 360” view and start with research, Downs said. To determine whether the campaigns to influence public attitudes about candy are having an impact, NCA commissioned Public Opinion Strategies to do a baseline survey on favorability. That survey will be refreshed every 12 to 18 months.

NCA also did a baseline digital analysis, to measure conversations about the industry in social media and elsewhere. Finally, NCA worked with a consulting firm to research the economic impact of candy, a $35 billion industry with 55,000 employees. Results were released at a “Power of Sweet” news conference in September.

—Telling the story: Downs said he inherited a strong team with a great work ethic, but needed to boost capacity and capability in the communications arena. New hires included Chris Gindlesperger (from the American Beverage Association) as vice president of public affairs and communications, and VJ Mayor (from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association) as senior director of communications. (Executive Vice President Alison Bodor left NCA in March to become CEO of the American Frozen Food Institute.)

Communications and advocacy goals focus on improving the candy industry’s image and reputation and gaining more influence among policymakers. NCA was one of many organizations that persuaded Congress to repeal a country-of-origin labeling law at the end of 2015, a provision that could have cost chocolate candy makers hundreds of millions of dollars, he said.

Meetings are still important, and the annual Sweets & Snacks Expo is a key communications asset, Downs said. The event held last month in Chicago attracted a record 17,000 attendees and 750 exhibitors.

The origins of National Candy Month are somewhat mysterious, but it has been attached to June for many years, possibly even decades. Other events planned by NCA include putting Big League Chew bubble gum in the dugouts at the Congressional Baseball and Congressional Women’s Softball games later in June.

Downs said the month has never been marked industry-wide before. “We’ve got lots of different activities highlighting the faces and voices of our industry, as well as great products.”

By: Lori Sharn