Closing Thoughts from Sandy Kennedy

Sandy Kennedy RILA president
Sandy Kennedy

Sandy Kennedy, president and CEO of the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), retired effective December 31, 2019. During her seventeen-year tenure, the industry has changed dramatically. Kennedy shared her thoughts with LP Magazine on the retail industry, RILA as it stands today, and the asset protection profession.

The RILA we know today is quite different than the association back when you first took the helm. Walk us through some of the changes over the last seventeen years.

My philosophy has always been to embrace change as it comes. RILA has evolved right along with the changes in retail. When I came aboard, we were known as the International Mass Retail Association. Our members included national legacy retailers like Macy’s, Federated, and Walmart, but our primary source of revenue was our merchandise convention. In evaluating our role as an association, we eventually made the decision to shift our focus to our membership. Over the course of several years, we ceased hosting the convention, rebranded as the Retail Industry Leaders Association, and established a premier membership tier. We also notched our first major public policy win in that time with the RILA v. Fielder case in Maryland, which signaled to our board that we could successfully advocate for our members where it matters most.

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Since then, we have grown our membership tremendously—we now represent more than 200 retailers, product manufacturers, and service suppliers—and are a strong voice for retailers in Washington. In 2010, we launched the Retail Litigation Center, as an independent membership organization focused on advancing the industry’s policy goals in the judiciary. Just last year, we successfully launched a new brand and website as well as moved our headquarters from suburban Virginia to DC, just blocks away from Capitol Hill.

We have such a talented team across the board, from the government affairs side of the shop to supply chain, asset protection, legal, sustainability, and all our success is a testament to their hard work and commitment to serving our members. And we are still growing. Just last year, we successfully launched a new brand and website as well as moved our headquarters from suburban Virginia to DC, just blocks away from Capitol Hill.

As you reflect on your time as president, what are some of the moments that stand out to you?

The people. I’ve had the privilege of working with truly impressive professionals and am so thankful for the opportunities I’ve had to advocate on behalf of the retail industry.

I’m also very proud of the public policy victories we’ve secured for our retail members. We have had a series of major public policy wins, driven by our advocacy work for robust marketplace competition, industry growth, employee flexibility, and empowered consumers. Leading business allies, we advocated against card check unionization and forced the measure to be dropped—a win for both employers and employees. We also helped get vital debit card swipe fee reforms over the finish line as part of the Dodd-Frank Act, and we continue to fight to protect those reforms that save consumers and retailers billions.

In 2017, we led the industry-wide effort to ensure that a proposed border adjustment tax would not be implemented, paving the way for the industry to support the historic tax reform package that ultimately passed. And just last year, the industry saw a huge victory at the Supreme Court in the South Dakota v. Wayfair case, leveling the playing field for all retailers and restoring free market competition. Together, these wins have had a real impact on how our members operate and showcase the strength of our industry and what we can accomplish when we work together.

How has asset protection transformed during your tenure?

Huge technological advancements have drastically changed the way retailers approach asset protection. Everything from inventory management to store safety has been completely transformed by technology, and as a result, retailers have unprecedented insights into their stores, including the key pain points and opportunities.

AP is a great example of how the industry has handled disruption more broadly over the last several years. True retail leaders aren’t running from change; they’re embracing it and helping drive the transformation by investing in innovation and collaborating with the disruptors.

Asset protection has always been such an important part of retail operations, and it’s such an incredibly supportive community of professionals across the industry that really work hard together to keep our stores, our employees, and our customers safe. As we’ve seen the advent of organized retail crime and the increasingly sophisticated activity that takes place online, the role of the AP practitioner has evolved to address those needs. And the AP function within retail companies has become much more integrated across the business and central to overall success.

And how do you think the role of AP practitioners has evolved?

Asset protection has always been such an important part of retail operations, and it’s such an incredibly supportive community of professionals across the industry that really work hard together to keep our stores, our employees, and our customers safe. As we’ve seen the advent of organized retail crime and the increasingly sophisticated activity that takes place online, the role of the AP practitioner has evolved to address those needs. And the AP function within retail companies has become much more integrated across the business and central to overall success.

RILA hosts an annual conference for AP professionals. How has that conference evolved over the years given the changes you just mentioned?

Our Retail Asset Protection Conference is developed each year with input directly from AP leaders. So in that sense, the sessions and speakers are always reflective of the topics and challenges retailers are dealing with year to year. But over the last few years especially, we’ve made it a point to incorporate more innovation-focused content and provide attendees an opportunity to engage directly with what the future of AP may look like.

What leadership lessons have you learned over your career?

Listen to others. Leadership isn’t about knowing everything. Know what you don’t know and hire smart people to do great work.

Best of luck in your retirement and thank you for your contributions to the retail industry.

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