Local Supply Initiatives

Risk Management Mentors

National grocery chains are creatively supporting small produce growers and packers.
By: | October 1, 2014 • 7 min read

Small is beautiful in terms of locally produced food. It is also big business, and grocery-store chains are making their supply chain and risk management process more flexible and innovative as they compete against street-corner markets and local retailers.

A report from the Food Marketing Institute indicates that between 2012 and 2013, three-quarters (76 percent) of all supermarkets added more locally supplied items. Interestingly, for independent grocers an even greater percentage, 92 percent, said they did so.

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It was several years ago, said Rod Parker, general manager for E.A. Parker & Sons in Oak Grove, Va., that big grocery chains began “the push” to have local produce in their stores. Parker Farms processes, inspects and ships fresh-grown produce to major retail and wholesale outlets.

At that time, he said, “there was a big question about who would be able to play and who would not among growers. We decided early that we wanted to play, so we did what we had to [related to insurance and risk management programs]. It was expensive and difficult, but we did it.

“Our liability insurance has gone up from $2 million to $5 million to $10 million,” he said, noting that the organization did not need much help in attaining the insurance it needed.

“Grocery stores and the big-box retailers, especially those with a house brand, want to push the recall exposure down as far as possible.” — Florian Beerli, senior vice president of product recall, ACE Westchester

Citing competitive reasons, Safeway — widely considered a pioneer in this area — declined to talk about its local supply initiatives or the risk management programs behind them.

So, too, have other large grocery companies.

Industry experts said that Publix and Kroger have also made strides in this area, but both companies did not respond to inquiries. Whole Foods, another heavy promoter of local supply, has a policy of not talking to the trade press.

Walmart, in contrast, is considered a laggard in local-supplier outreach. That company made reference to an in-store merchandise-tracking device, but refused to discuss its supply or risk management.

The irony of the official reticence is that supply-chain and risk managers at several of those chains are reportedly exceedingly proud of how their companies have retooled after their initial efforts met mixed results.

“When we and other groups first wanted to stock local products, the supply-chain methodology at the time led us to say ‘no’ a lot,” said a food industry risk manager who asked to remain anonymous.

“Now, our methodology and those of a few others is to find a way to say ‘yes.’ ”

Formalizing Procedures

Sam Lefore Fruit Farms, a family owned farm in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, has been supplying tree fruit to Safeway grocery stores for more than half a century.

10012014_12_supply_chain_chart_1“We also work with some independent buyers, but mostly Safeway,” says farm owner Sam Lefore. “We have always had a very low rejection rate, and we carry all the levels of insurance that they prefer.”

Over the past few years, Safeway has formalized its insurance and safety practice requirements, he said. “They got very serious and very organized. We pay for the auditors that they send, and meet with them annually and go over the score sheet.”

Safeway’s website provides some details about its local produce initiative as well as some supplier profiles.

In April, the company released its “Supplier Sustainability Guidelines and Expectations For Safeway Consumer Branded Items.” Those guidelines require, in part, that suppliers will:

• Favor domestic/local production where feasible;

• Implement measures to secure the supply chain;

• Comply with all applicable environmental regulations and laws in the areas they operate;

• Practice humane treatment of animals;

• Strive for “grass-fed,” “cage-free,” “no antibiotics administered,” certifications; and

• Focus on environmental health and safety internally and externally.

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Initially, experts said, most big chains demanded the same high levels of insurance coverage and third-party auditing that they did for their major suppliers. Few local suppliers had the time, money, or staff to comply, and were shut out.

At the other extreme, some chains took local suppliers at face value, and accepted any liability as their own.

Neither situation made anyone happy, so a new collaborative approach evolved.

“Some products are inherently safer than others,” said the risk manager. “Salsa is one thing, spinach is entirely another. We first determine what is the inherent risk, then see what insurance and risk management the supplier already has. Sometimes, they are good and sometimes they are short.

“Next, we see what would it take to bring the supplier up to the proper levels, and if it is worth our while to work for that. If so, we consult on their processes, and may even recommend them to a broker to place additional coverage. It’s all very individualized,” the risk manager said.

Product Recall

Florian Beerli, senior vice president of product recall, ACE Westchester

Florian Beerli, senior vice president of product recall, ACE Westchester

“We are starting to see more of a thought-out approval process that includes insurance minimums, in which we have been helping the suppliers or co-packers,” said Florian Beerli, senior vice president of product recall at ACE Westchester, the company’s U.S.-based wholesale business.

While he couldn’t discuss specific grocery-chain referrals of suppliers, he said that product recall was a big emphasis and that “business in the recall market [is] being more and more contractually driven.”

“Grocery stores and the big-box retailers, especially those with a house brand, want to push the recall exposure down as far as possible,” but he noted there are practical limits to such an approach.

“There are various solutions. The most common recall limit is $5 million, although some stores do require $10 million regardless of the size of the supply contract. Some of the well-known brands buy their own coverage and require their co-packers to buy coverage to the self-insured retention (SIR).

“Others buy coverage on behalf of the co-packers, then have them cover the SIR. And recently, some big brands are trying to put together group coverage for their suppliers,” he said.10012014_12_supply_chain_chart_2

For its own part, ACE focuses on the first-time buyers, so it is at a good vantage point to see the quick evolution of this sector.

“We have adopted a tailor-made approach in which we have base wording in the contract, and then everything else is added by endorsement,” Beerli said.

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That puts the onus on the carrier’s underwriters, but “holding hands with the first-time buyers” is what Beerli said his firm does.

It also enables the company to conduct the education that he believes is also necessary.

“There is still work to do about recall protection,” he said.

Reputational Risk

Balance is the word used most often by Thomas Pegg, deputy director of casualty risk control at the Willis Group.

“Grocery stores are attempting to work more closely with local suppliers,” he said.

“They have found they need a bit more flexibility on contractual risk transfer, but that is very product specific.”

The need for balance in risk management is not just external, based on what is feasible with small suppliers, it is also an internal challenge, he said.

“I know of no other area of concern to these companies above brand protection from reputational risk,” Pegg said. “They have very high standards.”

10012014_12_supply_chain_chart_3That mandate could be most easily met with heavily processed, hermetically sealed products from other large corporations.

But consumer buying habits prove that they want knobby heirloom tomatoes and corn with clods of dirt still on the stalks.

More to the point, they are willing to pay more for local produce. Hence, the need for a nuanced approach.

Pegg said that some grocery-store clients have supported their local suppliers in Pennsylvania to achieve the food-handling certifications offered by the state department of agriculture for workers and suppliers.

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He also noted two other factors that play into the local produce trend: “Some of this is being driven, literally, by transportation costs.” Less expensive logistics are important to businesses with razor-thin margins.

At the other end, more customer loyalty programs make it easier to track purchases, which greatly aids in recalls or at least tracing and isolating problems.

“That is a very important development,” said Pegg, “and a critical piece of the supply chain.”

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now an where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]