A corporate culture with community service 'DNA'
A quarter-century ago, one of the most successful programs in corporate philanthropy — MDA’s Aisles of Smiles — got its start.
As of 2010, Aisles of Smiles has raised $75.4 million for MDA’s research and services programs, and the fundraiser is as powerful today as it was on day one, thanks to the support of Acosta Sales & Marketing, one of MDA’s largest corporate sponsors.
Simple idea, big success
Aisles of Smiles was the brainchild of Hank Lautrup, an employee of a Southern California-based food sales agency called Kelley-Clarke. In 1985, Lautrup — who had a son with muscular dystrophy — realized that large food manufacturers would gladly pay a participation fee if their retail products could be linked to MDA’s cause, and promoted through ads and MDA public service announcements.
When Acosta acquired Kelley-Clarke in 1999, it turned Aisles of Smiles from a regional to a national program, and an annual grocery store tradition was born. During August every year, Acosta encourages its manufacturer clients — such as Coca-Cola Foods, Kellogg’s and Clorox — to get involved. Manufacturers pay a fee to participate; in return, their products are spotlighted on grocery shelves by MDA Aisles of Smiles placards.
Based in Jacksonville, Fla., Acosta is the largest sales and marketing company in North America serving the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry. With more than 16,000 employees (“associates”), Acosta helps many of the largest CPG companies get their products advantageously placed with shopping chains.
Acosta’s services include “headquarter selling” (Acosta acts as the agent for selling its clients’ goods to retailers); assistance with marketing clients’ products; and providing manufacturers with detailed sales data about which products are selling best in which markets.
Rising to the top
Acosta’s success owes much to its visionary leadership. In the early 1990s, America’s five largest supermarket chains accounted for only about one-fifth of grocery store sales, but by the end of that decade, their market share had grown to 40 percent. Food manufacturers began to merge operations in order to maintain their bargaining power with those big customers.
The situation was a golden opportunity for Acosta and its leadership was quick to recognize it. The food manufacturers didn’t want to rely on a bevy of small regional food agencies to sell their brands to the big supermarket chains. They wanted representation on a national scale, and that’s where Acosta was ready to shine.
Gary Chartrand, recruited by Acosta’s then-president Del Dallas to be his successor, became Acosta’s CEO in 1996 and chairman of the board in 1998. Under his leadership, the company made even greater strides — including acquiring Kelley-Clarke and its Aisles of Smiles program.
At the turn of the millennium, Acosta operated in about a quarter of American markets. A few years later, under Chartrand, its influence spread across most of the country and into Canada as well.
Chartrand, also a volunteer MDA national vice president, explained his philosophy of corporate leadership and the value of corporate philanthropy in his book Unreasonable Leadership (2010, Dog Ear Publishing, Indianapolis, Ind.).
“Community service is incredibly rewarding, beneficial to everyone and fun. It’s made Acosta a more successful organization in every respect,” Chartrand writes. He cites research showing that 77 percent of Americans believe companies have a responsibility to support a cause, and 91 percent have a more positive image of a company that supports a cause.
In his book, Chartrand also describes Acosta’s corporate culture, which is based on seven values and principles: Treat people with dignity and respect, behave ethically, commit to success, be “passionate about honesty,” work collaboratively, innovate in the face of change, and maintain a balance between personal and professional growth.
Chartrand believes that the culture of an organization becomes the “DNA” of the organization. “The culture shapes the employee experience, which impacts the customer experience, the business partnerships and ultimately the success or failure of an organization,” he writes.
Acosta’s culture makes it easy for the company and MDA to maintain a close partnership, says MDA President & CEO Gerald Weinberg.
“Acosta has established an industry standard of charitable giving. The company’s respect for its thousands of associates across the country, and its commitment to helping them grow personally through their support of charities, is reflected in their commitment to making Aisles of Smiles work,” Weinberg said.
“We’re grateful to have Acosta as a partner in the fight against muscular dystrophy.”