All Roads Lead To Richmond

12/1/2012

Bob Sears began his career on the retail side, but he enters the supplier wing of the CSNews Hall of Fame for his leadership role at Altria

When Bob Sears was earning his bachelor's degree from Syracuse University, the Massachusetts native had his sights set on working in New York City. And while he did land a job in the city that never sleeps, it was just the first step in his journey to the place he would call home for 16 years and counting.

Home since 1996 has been The Altria Group, where Sears serves as director, trade and state relations, sales training and compliance for Altria Group Distribution Co. It is for his work with the tobacco company and the convenience industry that Sears is being inducted into the supplier wing of the Convenience Store News Industry Hall of Fame this month. Also receiving Hall of Fame honors alongside him will be Dean Durling, president, CEO and chairman of Quick Chek Corp. (see Cover Story on page 26.)

When CSNews Editor-in-Chief Don Longo and Publisher Michael Hatherill contacted Sears to inform him of his induction, he said there was a sense of exuberance and at the same time, a sense of responsibility that goes along with accepting this honor.

"There is certainly a degree of humility. You don't necessarily think of yourself that way when someone picks up the phone and says we would like to honor you alongside Dean Durling," Sears explained. "Quite frankly, it's flattering."

It would not be far off to say that being inducted into the Hall of Fame was the furthest thing from Sears' mind in 1984 when, with a fresh sheepskin hanging on his wall, he took a job with Lord & Taylor in the retailer's executive training program — based in New York City, of course.

After several years of living in a basement apartment in Queens, Sears and his wife Suzette took the opportunity to move back home, so to speak, when he was offered a job with Filene's Basement in Boston. Sears stayed in retail for another few years before entering the consumer packaged goods (CPG) side with stints at Unilever and Revlon, the latter of which saw him temporarily relocated back to New York.

"I think that background gave me a very good CPG basis for understanding what the consumer products goods business was all about," he said.

That experience and understanding did not go unnoticed. In 1996, Sears was contacted by a headhunter with a career opportunity that piqued his interest — an opening with Philip Morris USA, as Altria was known at the time.

"It is quite rare that Philip Morris hired from outside. In our company culture, typically, everything is grown from within, particularly with sales," he explained, noting that people join the company right out of college and are brought through a series of training programs and development opportunities that help them and the company long-term. "I was an anomaly, as were a couple of others who joined the company with me."

A TIME OF CHANGE

Although he did not come with an existing background in tobacco, many sales skill sets such as communication, leadership and analytical skills are transferable, he said.

Sears does acknowledge, though, that any consumer packaged good has its own unique quality, and tobacco is no different. The 1990s also brought another level of uniqueness to the tobacco industry. "The company was trying to understand how it was going to align with what society was demanding of a responsible tobacco company," Sears recalled.

Despite the challenging times in which the industry found itself, Sears was drawn to Philip Morris for its incredible heritage and history of leadership in the tobacco category. "It had extraordinary fundamentals in place and the financials were strong — it had strong leadership and intellectual leadership," he noted.

"As I entered the tobacco industry, it was a time of change. The industry was adapting to what it understood to be societal concerns regarding tobacco developers and manufacturers," he said, adding that he believes it did so in a highly responsible manner.

Accepting the position of director of trade marketing, national accounts found Sears back in New York. Since this move would be more permanent than his temporary relocation with Revlon, Sears, Suzette and their two children (the family would eventually grow to three children) settled in Fairfield, Conn. But like his previous New York stints, this would only last a few years before he moved to Michigan to run sales and operations as a section director for the company.

Six years later, though, the Sears family finally found a place to call home when they were relocated to Altria's new headquarters in Richmond, Va., where they remain today.

While the route to his current position may have been winding, it is clear Sears feels the journey was worth it. When asked to pick highlights from his career, he does not point to the promotions or accolades he has received, but rather the accomplishments of others.

"Leading organizations and more specifically, assisting individuals in growing their capabilities and seeing them succeed as a result of that is a highlight," he said. "One of the responsibilities we have at any managerial level in this company is building individual and organizational capabilities, and it is an increasingly important responsibility as the scope and size of your organization grows. I have seen a lot of people I have been able to touch and assist in their growth, and help them achieve their personal goals."

TRUE PARTNERSHIPS

Sears is also proud of the relationships the company has forged with its trade partners through different processes and programs it has put in place. For example, each year, the company hosts a number of forums where retailers and wholesalers — at all levels — share their perspectives on the tobacco category in general and Altria's performance specifically.

"It is important for us to be able to grow our business, for us to be able to continue to have successes in the work that we do, [and] for them to enjoy success as well," he said. "It is important for us to do that, and it is critical in our thinking to understand the feedback that allows our trade partners to be successful."

Sears plays a key role in keeping the lines of communication open with the company's trade partners — retailers specifically. During the 2012 NACS Show in Las Vegas in October, Sears was named chairman-elect of the NACS Supplier Board for 2013.

"I think that is an important role. It is a role that needs to be taken seriously by those who have been given the opportunity to take it," he explained, adding that the chairman-elect role expands your understanding of what your trade partners' business interests are.

"The more you are able to be involved with trade associations such as NACS and others, the better you are able to understand what your trade partners are thinking about," he said. "I am delighted and excited, and at the same time, I understand the responsibilities associated with taking on that role."

Sears also understands that this responsibility comes at a time of change for the convenience store industry. Between ever-changing consumer demands and an inundation of new SKUs in all categories fighting for space, c-store retailers find themselves in a challenging environment right now, he acknowledged.

"I think the convenience store industry, much like any other industry right now, is evolving. It is a dynamic environment and [retailers] are having to evolve based on consumer need preferences," he said. "I see them answering those needs through the changes they are making, both how they go to market and how they interact with the consumer. I think this has been a significant focus of convenience store retailers for a number of years."

He points to innovation as a critical factor in the c-store industry's growth. "Much like for them, as it is for us, innovation will play a role in the future. I think from a supply side, as well as a trade perspective, we both recognize that innovation in all aspects — be it product or technology — will be an important component as we progress into the future," said Sears.

The industry also faces challenges from many external factors, he noted. But retailers, suppliers and manufacturers do not have to face those challenges alone.

"Proposition 29 is a great example where manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers and trade associations got together and said this isn't right. Retailers, manufacturers and distributors more than ever are coming together, and more than ever they need to come together," he said.

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