After serving as president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association since 2002, President Sandy Kennedy plans to retire at the end of this year. Taking her place as president is Brian Dodge, who has been with the organization for 12 years and currently serves as RILA's chief operating officer.
Dodge, who begins in the role Jan. 1, joined RILA as vice president for communications at a time when the organization was building out a more robust communications and government affairs operation.
He takes over the organization — which represents some of the largest retailers and brands in the world, including Walmart, Target, Nike and The Home Depot, among others — at a critical juncture both for retail and the policy environment around it.
Retailers large and small are weathering rapid-fire turns in tariff policy while trying to adapt to an industry landscape that shifts almost as quickly. They are also investing money and resources into keeping pace with e-commerce giant Amazon, which is not a RILA member.
Earlier this year, after federal competition enforcers indicated they would take a close look at large tech platforms, RILA filed a letter with the Federal Trade Commission looking at Amazon's market power in both product search and online third-party marketplaces. The letter was a signal that RILA aimed to be an active participant shaping antitrust policy as multiple branches of government examine Amazon's power and practices.
Retail Dive sat down with Dodge on Friday to talk about his time at RILA so far and his priorities for when he assumes the top leadership spot in 2020.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RETAIL DIVE: Tell me about your path to RILA and through the organization?
BRIAN DODGE: I have a pretty common D.C. resume in the sense that I worked for two governors right out of college, came to Washington to work on Capitol Hill, loved that experience, and then lobbied for a couple years, and then was drawn back to Massachusetts to do more political work as opposed to policy.
When the elections were over, I was eager to get back here and find something. I was inquiring about opportunities, and somebody flagged this organization for me, a trade association, which really wasn't on my radar screen. ... I didn't really understand what they do. And he said, 'Well, this one's pretty interesting. It's got a narrow set of members. It's pretty young, the team, and they move fast. You should talk to them.' And I did. And I loved the people.
I came naively with an expectation of working on a relatively narrow set of issues and immediately discovered that given the scale of the retail industry, the size of the businesses that we represent, and the fact that they operate in every state, that there is no issue that wasn't relevant in some way. And all the big issues were relevant.
Aside from just the sheer number of issues that retail covers, what else surprised you along the way?
DODGE: The rapid pace of change. So I came in in 2007. I got here and you were seeing big brick-and-mortar retailers really starting to ramp up their investment in e-commerce. And within a couple of years, we started hearing the term omnichannel. Smartphones really burst on the scene in 2009-ish, I think is when we saw a real uptake. And so omnichannel meant something. And then we've seen enormous focus and investment ... such that the consumer shops in incredibly different ways now, and that is fascinating to watch. The pace of change surprised me and it's kept me incredibly interested because I need to see what's next.
Did your appointment to president come as a surprise or were you being groomed for this?
DODGE: This has been kind of in the works for a while. I wouldn't be going into this position without the support and mentorship from Sandy Kennedy. Without her, I'm not here, and this organization is not where it is. And then of course the board has been terrific.
What do you expect to be the main changes to your job day-to-day in the new role?
DODGE: Operating without Sandy. She has been my sounding board and in this role, she's had so many at bats on the kinds of issues I'm dealing with the first time. She'll be on board as a consultant for the next year, and I'll certainly rely on that.
But it's exciting. I have seen this organization change. ... We learned how to utilize the operations side of our organization. ... We built communities of peers from all the different parts of the retail business and leveraged their expertise. We've maintained 40 or so different communities. That's the heads of supply chain, the heads of the asset protection, labor, workforce, HR. And so for example the ability to reach into the organizations and convene a group of experts around the issue that you perceive as a threat or an opportunity and really game out the multiple scenarios with communications and public affairs practitioners means you can develop a really strong plan. You can evolve quickly as details change, and you're in a better position than most to be successful.
For the next year or so, what do you expect to be spending most of your time on? What do you want to get done?
DODGE: I should back up just one second and again talk about Sandy. In the last year, we have moved our offices from Rosslyn to just blocks from Capitol Hill. We've launched a new website, we've launched a new brand. And Sandy has led us through that. It puts us in a great place. We want to really clearly align all of the work that we do around our new mission and our key goals, to elevate leading retailers by transforming the environment in which they operate. The way that we can be successful is by ensuring a playing field upon which retailers can play their best game and win. That means looking at the environment in which they operate and removing barriers to their success.
Policy-wise, what is most important for you to get done in 2020? Or just to watch?
DODGE: Trade is obviously very high. We want to get to a place where we're removing the tariffs that have been applied in the last year and a half, and ideally get to a place where we're looking at how we can expand our trading relationships around the world.
There is a lot of discussion right now around competition and technology platforms. We are very active in that discussion. I would [hesitate] to put a date on what point there will be actual action taken, but we will be an active participant in that debate and pushing it hopefully to the point where action can be taken.
What does that mean? Are you talking about lobbying, public messaging, legal action?
DODGE: We want to be a contributor to the debate wherever it's happening. And right now, it's happening in the legislative and regulatory space. So the FTC, attorneys general, DOJ, Congress and the administration, they're all trying to understand — the baseline question is, 'has technology changed the way that we should look at antitrust law and antitrust enforcement?' Our belief is the answer is yes. We haven't got to the point where anybody is really talking in great detail about what the solutions are. Nor do we yet see consensus around the practices that violate the central tenets of antitrust law, and so we are talking about what we think those practices are.
Do you see any antitrust risk for your own members? Looking at some of the categories that you represent, some of those categories are pretty consolidated.
DODGE: First, the way that competition and antitrust law is enforced right now is designed to ensure that these kinds of businesses are operating in a competitive environment. They look at the consumer welfare standard. Does the consumer get a better price? As we think about the debate that's happening right now, it's about: Has technology and access to information about that best price changed? I don't think that sweeps the traditional retailer into it.
Our members embrace competition. That's what they want. In the FTC letter that we submitted [this summer], we said at the top that our intent is not to just level criticisms against businesses that have been successful in a truly competitive market. Businesses will sometimes do things better than other businesses, and they'll admire them for it. It's when the practices are viewed as being outside the bounds. So if you are suppressing access to information about competitors' prices that perhaps are even better, if you're utilizing information in a way that's self-dealing, if you're doing things that that really are unseemly and problematic from an antitrust standpoint, then that's what we should be focused on.
Any other big policy priorities?
DODGE: I think the workforce issues are huge, trying to understand what are the needs of retailers so that they can access the gig economy.
Like using an Uber model to staff stores?
DODGE: That's kind of only in concept. But last mile deliveries, the distribution center, that is a place where you can kind of leverage that now. A lot of things would need to be done to really move [contingent work] into stores. It's the same talent pool for retail associate positions as Uber and Task Rabbit. And [we're] trying to understand what those people are looking for when looking for work, and they really want autonomy. They want to wake up in the morning and decide I want to work today or I don't want to work today. And retailers generally are not able to take advantage of that right now. So we are thinking through those things and aligning policy to it.
One non-policy thing is diversity and inclusion. This is something that was flagged for us as a focus when Brian Cornell from Target became our chair at the beginning of last year. He tasked us with developing a program. We've built a community now of 35 companies that come together to talk about what are the unique attributes of [diversity] for retail, what are the things that they can be working on together, and how do we bring the lessons of that group to other key communities.