Trade Association CEO of the Year
Taking risks, maximizing value for FMI members
CEO of FMI—The Food Industry Association says communication, embracing your board and trusting your gut are all keys to success
CEO Update: What’s your proudest achievement as an association leader?
Leslie Sarasin: I’m really proud that my colleagues were able to keep industry and customer needs on the radar of a wide array of different government entities, both at the federal level and at the state level. As a result of all of the efforts that my team and I put in, particularly during those early months of the pandemic, we were able to keep the vast majority of grocery stores open and keep the country fed throughout the entire national emergency.
CU: Can you talk about another crisis you’ve led through?
LS: When I joined FMI in 2008 … we were in a very difficult situation, financially and otherwise. I think there was a fair amount of skepticism among the membership as to whether or not the organization could actually survive. By year end of 2008, the bottom fell out of the stock market. And so from a financial standpoint, we truly were underwater. Beginning in early 2009, the team and I … put our nose to the grindstone. With a lot of support from the industry, and particularly from our board of directors, we had to figure out how to turn this thing around: how to cut costs, how to ensure that we understood what our value proposition was to the membership, how we could maximize that and regain their trust. In working closely with the board chair I had at the time, we were able to provide that leadership and that willingness to take some risks. We didn’t know, frankly, if they would work or not. But they did, fortunately. And we are today quite a different organization than we were then.
CU: What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken as an association leader?
LS: Canceling an annual trade show that had been wildly successful for many, many years. It was a tremendous resource, both for the industry and for FMI—until it wasn’t. I was able to work with the board and help them realize that … the value of the trade show had declined considerably. And so (in 2016) we just did away with it. It was risky. It was a tough decision. I look back on it now and think, “Wow, how fortunate I was that the board trusted that we would be able to generate enough revenue to keep the organization going without the trade show—and that we would be able to further develop our value proposition to the industry.”
CU: How do you make sure FMI’s voice gets heard amid so many voices competing for attention and influence?
LS: One of the ways you do that is you build a reputation over time for being an honest broker and a person of integrity that calls it like it is. I try—and we try at FMI—to focus our advocacy efforts on the issues where we have a unique perspective. … I find that because we don’t speak out on every single issue … and we focus on the ones where we have particular expertise, we are considered to be credible resources for information on those issues.
CU: What do you consider to be the essential characteristics of an association leader?
LS: I think the most important thing is to be a good communicator. …To me, a good communicator is someone who’s adept at communicating appropriately to all of the stakeholders … but also being willing to listen. And that is listening to all members—no matter where they are, what their size is or what their perspective is.
CU: What advice do you have for someone who’s new to the CEO role?
LS: It’s important to embrace your board … because they can be the CEO’s best partner and most vocal ally and advocate during difficult times. I also think it’s important to trust your leadership team. I think you have to surround yourself with people you have total confidence in, and you need to listen to them. One other thing I would suggest is following your instincts. The board hired you to be in this role because they have confidence in you. So, I think it’s important to have confidence in yourself, too, and trust what your gut’s telling you.
Staying power: Sarasin joined the American Frozen Food Institute as director of government affairs and staff counsel in 1989 and was promoted to CEO 10 years later. She became CEO of FMI—then known as the Food Marketing Institute—in 2008.
Legal legacy: Sarasin’s father and grandfather were lawyers. She married a lawyer (former U.S. Rep. Ron Sarasin) and their son is headed to law school. Sarasin received her law degree from the University of San Diego.
Fighting hunger: Sarasin is a board member of the Congressional Hunger Center, which offers fellowships and other programs. She is one of four people leading the Bipartisan Policy Center's Food and Nutrition Security Task Force, which launched in May.