EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Dodge is president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA). He joined the association in 2007 as vice president of communication and held various public affairs roles before becoming the COO in 2018 and then president in January 2020. Prior to RILA, Dodge worked in the office of Massachusetts Governors Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift, as a legislative assistant to US Representative Jack Quinn, and as a lobbyist with Cassidy and Associates. He is a Massachusetts native with a BA in political science from the University of Connecticut.
This interview was conducted in late June prior to RILA’s cancellation of their asset protection and supply conferences due to a steep rise in coronavirus infections. We’ve left those references in this article to keep the continuity of the discussion.
JIM: Thank you, Brian, for joining us for this interview today. And we are very excited about RILA’s upcoming August asset protection conference and supply chain conference where we will be able to see people in-person again who we’ve not seen for literally over eighteen months. Let’s start by asking you, what is the Retail Industry Leaders Association?
BRIAN: First, let me thank you again for the invitation to be a part of this interview. I’ve spent a lot of time with the loss prevention professionals in the last year, given the prominence of their role in the pandemic, and have a deeper appreciation for the scope of work that this group is responsible for.
To your question, RILA represents the largest retailers operating in the United States, and probably the simplest description for what we do is—we help our members solve problems. Those problems oftentimes are operational challenges that are common across our membership, and they are, at times, public policy issues, and we work with them to resolve those problems in a variety of ways. Over the last year, that has been really on display, in the sense that there were so many problems generated by the pandemic.
One of the key ways that we identify and then resolve problems is through the forty-plus communities that we maintain. These are not only heads of asset protection but also human resource leaders, supply chain leaders, heads of stores, CEOs, and CFOs. Working with these communities, we identify issues and then bring the right resources together to address them.
JIM: As the president of RILA, what functional leaders do you have reporting to you?
BRIAN: I have seven total direct reports. The four major functions are retail operations, which Lisa LaBruno leads; public affairs, which is led by Michael Hanson; legal and compliance, which is led by Deborah White; and member services and conferences, which is led by Jenny Keehan.
JIM: How long have you been president?
BRIAN: I became president in January 2020, but I’ve been with RILA for almost fourteen years.
JIM: How has RILA changed from what it was fourteen years ago?
BRIAN: RILA has grown considerably in these last several years, doubled our membership in the last five years. The number of communities that we maintain has grown probably by at least a third over that time period. And perhaps most importantly, the depth of engagement across each of our member companies has gone up significantly.
The number of retail executives from each member company who engaged with our various communities is the highest it’s ever been. Now, in part, that is a reflection of the extraordinary circumstances of last year, but as the focus has turned to the future, engagement has held steady.
JIM: Do you report to RILA’s board of directors?
BRIAN: I do. We have about twenty-five directors on our board, made up primarily of the CEOs of our member companies. They are a very engaged board. I am lucky to be working directly with our current chair, Mary Dillon, from Ulta Beauty, who has been an exceptional partner to me as the new CEO dealing with such a crisis.
JIM: How often does the board get together?
BRIAN: The board meets twice a year, and the executive committee, which is eight members of the board, meets four times a year. We are excited to be hosting our first in-person meeting with the board in a year and a half in early July.
JIM: Now that we have almost gotten out of the pandemic, what are the issues ahead that you and your team believe you are faced with?
BRIAN: I’ll break them into two categories—operations and public policy—but there’s a lot of overlap between the two. While we have been thankfully finding our way out of the pandemic as a nation over the course of the last several months, retailers have been focused on the post-pandemic world now for quite some time.
Looking to the future, we are focused on the contribution of digital to the retail experience, not just e-commerce, but how digital will continue to play a much larger role in the shopping experience online and offline.
We are also working with members around how supply chains will need to change to serve customers more, with higher expectations for speed and accuracy of delivery, and tailored product assortments nearer to the ultimate consumer.
Relatedly, we are focused on addressing the enormous issues that are plaguing global supply chains, where port congestion, container misalignment, and insufficient ocean-carrier capacity are greatly delaying shipments and increasing costs.
We are focused on ESG (environment, social, and governance) in a more robust way, recognizing that consumers have become even more focused on the impact that their purchases have on the world around them, on the environment, and on their communities. How are retailers showing up around those issues?
On the public policy side, we have a considerable focus right now on organized retail crime. We know that this is an issue that has become more problematic, not less, over the course of the last eighteen months, and we are working hard, both on the operational side and public policy side, to advance solutions that will hold online marketplaces accountable to police the products that are sold on their sites.
We are also watching, very carefully, how some of the infrastructure proposals that are moving through Congress are taking shape. We support wise investments in the country’s infrastructure networks but feel strongly that this spending should not be paid for by an increase in the corporate tax rate. As an industry, retailers are full freight payers of corporate taxes and it’s our perspective that it’s grossly unfair to ask retailers to pay more while other corporations pay little to nothing. We are working hard to make sure the infrastructure package makes the right investments without burdening retailers with an increased tax bill.
There are many, many more issues, but those are a few of the tough ones we’re addressing.
JIM: Since we are a magazine that predominantly focuses on retail asset protection and loss prevention, I would like to hear your view, as the president of RILA, of the weekly calls that the APLC (Asset Protection Leaders Council) and Lisa’s team held over the past eighteen months.
BRIAN: I must first start by saying that the AP function has always been critically important to retailers, but over the course of the last year and a half, that community has really shown up and delivered for their companies. It has been remarkable to see that function even further elevated during this challenging time. They were tasked with incredibly complicated issues; first, of course, with developing and putting into place safety protocols within stores at a time where information was imperfect and rapidly changing. They did this well within their own businesses, but then shared information willingly with peers in order to make sure that the best practices that had been developed were available and known to everybody to put into place. That was the case for large retailers sharing with other large retailers, but also making that information public, so that other businesses could put into place similar protocols. I think that was really remarkable.
Then the same leaders were responsible for dealing with months of civil unrest. Again, the community came together to share information around safety in communities, in-store, and protecting stores and associates, and, once again, the sharing was exceptional.
I can’t say enough about how the communities came together last year. The interest to learn and share came from the retail executives themselves. But credit for executing upon that interest goes to Lisa LaBruno, who has fostered an incredible culture of openness and sharing within those communities. Those regular calls were an incredibly valuable opportunity for RILA and for the participants to understand what was happening on the ground, on an ongoing, frequent basis. The level of participation was very high because these professionals had an opportunity to share and hear from others about what was going on. They came away from those conversations better informed about what the challenges were and what they needed to do to address them. It’s a great case study of the role that RILA plays within the industry during times of crisis.
JIM: RILA produced a great bonding among retail AP and LP organizations.
BRIAN: We are lucky that we have relationships with executives from all the major functions within retail, but I have to say that there seems to be a natural predisposition within the AP community to share, and kudos to them for that, because they see the opportunity in every call. I describe it this way. On a single call, each participant has the opportunity to be a student and a teacher. The AP leaders seemed to really embrace this, and they all took advantage of it, which is terrific.
JIM: Diversity and inclusion is another issue I’d like for you to address, because the magazine is closely involved in it as well.
BRIAN: We launched our diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiative in the summer of 2018, a little bit ahead of the curve, and thank goodness we did. We had a couple years’ worth of work under our belt before the murder of George Floyd and everything that followed. This positioned us to have thoughtful discussions with the right leaders across the industry, from D&I practitioners to CEOs, and help companies take meaningful internal and external actions.
But as you know, the importance of D&I is far greater than knowing what to do in a crisis. Instead, the fundamental point here is that businesses perform better when they have a diverse and inclusive workforce. Achieving that is not easy. Businesses need to recognize that a diverse workforce, where people are encouraged to bring their authentic selves to work, is a key component to business success.
I think of it this way. While often said together, diversity and inclusion are two distinctly different things that each require a devoted focus. Diversity, for lack of a better definition, is changing the class photo so you have people from different walks of life. Inclusion is allowing those people to bring the richness of their life experiences to work. If you have one without the other, you haven’t achieved much. If you have both, that’s when you have magic.
As I think about these issues, I think about the things that show up in resumes and the things that don’t. Oftentimes a person’s greatest contributions in the workplace come from things that are not traditional credentials. For example, our judgment and instincts are shaped by more than just the academic and professional experience that shows up on a resume. Instead, our full life experience shapes how we interpret information, make decisions, and react under pressure. So having teams made up of people with varying life experiences means that varying perspectives will inform decisions. Team members complement one another, and you can better avoid blind spots. This is important in all settings, but the importance to retail, an industry that aims to serve a diverse customer base, is all the more pronounced.
It is an incredibly important focus for RILA and the industry, and it has become a passion of mine. I’ve learned so much, but recognize that I’ve likely only scratched the surface.
JACK: There’s another initiative that’s getting a lot of media play right now, called the Buy Safe America Coalition. Tell us about this initiative.
BRIAN: The Buy Safe America Coalition is a group of like- minded organizations that have come together to address the problem of stolen and counterfeit goods that are sold online. It is a diverse group of businesses from a variety of sectors that feel that the online marketplaces need to do much more in order to make sure that illicit products aren’t sold on their platforms and consumers aren’t put at risk by these counterfeit and stolen goods.
It’s not a new issue. Unfortunately, this is an issue that predated my time here and was one of the first issues I worked on when I came to RILA. Many online marketplaces simply don’t seem to place much value on ensuring that the products that are sold on their sites are not counterfeit and not stolen.
JACK: Do you believe the coalition is making headway with these issues?
BRIAN: Yes, the coalition is working. As you mentioned, it communicates publicly about these issues but also directly with lawmakers in an effort to advance legislative solutions that will bring greater accountability to the marketplaces. We have gotten legislation introduced in both the House and the Senate that we think is good. There’s been progress made in a handful of states, where legislation has been introduced and advanced, and I think we have raised the profile of the issue publicly to media and other sources.
It’s important to note that these types of campaigns are rarely linear, though. There’s a buildup period, and then oftentimes, you wait for opportunity to present itself before you can actually achieve whatever your ultimate goal is. So, while we feel good about the work that’s been done so far, we’re not nearly at the end of the road. But we do feel like we’ve made great progress and are poised for success when the opportunity presents itself.
Another sign that we’re having success is evidenced in how hard our opponents are working against us. Amazon, in particular, is pushing back hard against being held accountable.
JACK: Let’s talk about supply chain for a moment. Right now, supply chain delays are causing a lot of issues with retailers. What is RILA doing to try to solve the problem of goods not getting to your members?
BRIAN: Unfortunately, these challenges, while they are particularly acute right now, are persistent ones that have existed for a very long time. In some respects, it is a reflection of the broad ecosystem that makes up the supply chain, the various players that exist within it, and their historical financial strain. Unfortunately, not everybody in the supply chain is beholden to the shippers. So the lack of accountability to shippers and retailers is a source of frustration and a key element of the long-term issues with the supply chain.
Right now, the challenges are big and particularly acute as products are very slow to make their way to the US. We’re seeing spikes in shipping rates. We’re seeing a severe misalignment on cargo containers. All these things are contributing to substantial delays and problems for retailers right now.
Our communities are coming together to talk about what those challenges are, and where appropriate, we are communicating with policymakers—with the Federal Maritime Commission—to make sure that they understand the impact of these issues. Of course, we are communicating directly with the ecosystem partners to make sure they understand the problems that are playing out here. Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution, and persistence in this is important. We are helping businesses think about creative ways to move product while we try to deal with the knot that is in the system right now.
JACK: This year’s AP conference is colocating with the LINK supply chain conference. I imagine that this topic will be front and center at the conference.
BRIAN: It will indeed. It is front and center in all of our community discussions right now, and it will be prominent while we’re together. The nice thing about the conference is that it does bring together members of that ecosystem. That means, in addition to the topic being discussed in the sessions, there will be discussions, I’m sure, on the side with representatives from the ports, from the shipping companies, and so forth. That’s another benefit of having an in-person event.
JIM: All these important initiatives we’ve talked about today brings me to this question: as the president of RILA, how do you measure your personal success and the success of your association?
BRIAN: There are the hard metrics, which are engagement, membership growth, and revenue, but I think the way that we are properly evaluated is how effective we are in helping our members solve the biggest problems that they face. Last year, we had a lot to be proud about in bringing our communities together and helping them navigate those big, complicated problems very well. We also achieved public policy successes throughout the year and made advancements on others that will lead to success in the not- too-distant future. These things are ultimately why we exist. But the ability to solve problems is really how we’re evaluated.
JIM: Well, you should be commended for the work you and your team have done, historically, and especially the past eighteen months.
BRIAN: Thank you for that. But I have to say that while I’m really happy to have the opportunity to be the president of RILA and the opportunity to work with our members, as is the case with all great things, the work is done by the team. Great accomplishments require a great team, and I’m lucky to work with an exceptional group of leaders. I can’t say enough about the work that the team has done over the course of the last year in the face of considerable personal and professional challenges.
JIM: Well said, Brian. Thank you again for your time today. We look forward to seeing you and your team and the magazine’s many friends in Orlando in August.