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The Shelby Report of the Southeast • MAY 2015

Georgia food industry leader has successfully helmed state association for 25-plus years


athy Kuzava is the first to admit that, when she began her career with the Georgia Food Industry Association (GFIA) more than two decades ago at just 27 years old, she was “very naive…with no political experience.” “I was totally over my head”…but “so excited,” she recalls. “The group of retailers who hired me took a huge risk, and I will be forever grateful to them,” she says. Despite her inexperience on the legislative and lobbying front, Kuzava had passion and grocery experience. She started in the grocery business in 1978 as a junior in high school, working for Food Giant as a cashier. She continued with Food Giant as a student at Georgia State University, working in the back office and backing up the store manager. When Food Giant went out of business, Kuzava went to work for Supervalu, where she stayed for three years before the opportunity with the GFIA came her way. While Kuzava says she had to prove herself, both to the board that hired her and to herself, she quickly learned the ropes, recognizing first that the association was in bad financial shape and that some drastic measures were needed for it to survive. Additionally, and as importantly, there were many legislative and regulatory issues that the group needed to address that had not been handled in the past. She got to work and, with help from her board, members and team, turned the association around. Today, the GFIA is among the preeminent food associations in the U.S. As its president, Kuzava is one of the most respected leaders in the industry. “I work with an unbelievable GFIA team that provides a fantastic convention and industry events for the members to come together,” Kuzava says. “I certainly could not have imagined being here 26 years, but this is truly the perfect job for me,” she adds. “I am passionate about protecting our members through a strong association. I get to represent a wonderful industry at the Capitol and work with a terrific board and great members. I tell legislators that they will never see me lobbying for anyone else. When I am talking about an issue, I want them to see the face of our members."

“What makes Kathy such a treasure is that she truly cares—not just about GFIA as an association, but also about each of us on staff, our members and our industry. In my 25-year career, I have never worked for someone who cared so much for me as an employee and as an individual. She works tirelessly for the people and the industry she loves. There is no substitute for that kind of dedication.” —Kim Peterson, director of operations, GFIA

Kuzuva recently chatted with The Shelby Report about her long career with the GFIA, discussing some of the challenges she and the food business in Georgia have faced over the years. She also talks about being a woman in the business as well as some of the obstacles that are ahead for the state’s grocery industry. What do you know now that you wish you would have known that first day on the job? I wish I had been more politically astute. I had the grocery background, but no political background. I do think it was actually refreshing for legislators to hear from someone with industry experience, but it was tough walking in the Capitol with absolutely no idea of how to lobby. I started this job right after a very confusing tax bill was passed, creating potential havoc for front-end systems. Before I started with the GFIA, I was training cashiers on new register systems. I knew nothing about lobbying, but plenty about what could be programmed in most systems. I remember telling the governor, "A law could be passed to make a cash register do a cartwheel, but someone needs to tell you when this cannot happen." I have learned to be a bit more diplomatic over the years. You were faced with a number of challenges when you began. How might that compare to a young person’s first weeks on the job in 2015? The job would be much different today. The association has grown and evolved. There is a clear mission and direction to provide strong legislative and regulatory representation. We are financially sound, with a strong leadership in our board of directors and foundation trustees. There would be new challenges, many of them due to the changing landscape of the industry. As many of our members experience mergers and acquisitions, it gets harder to raise the dollars needed to accomplish the goal of representing the industry.

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You are a walking billboard for why young people ought to consider a career in the food industry (or an allied industry). What are some of the top reasons, in your view, that the food industry should be an employer of choice for them? First of all, the food industry is an excellent start for every young person, but it is important for all of us to share the amazing career opportunities that are available. I talk to so many grocery executives who started as a part-time cashier or bagger. The opportunities for growth are tremendous. Whether you want to manage a retail store, or have an interest in pharmacy, social media, food safety, advertising, merchandising, sales or logistics, the food industry has something for everyone. We need to be better about promoting the career potential that is out there. Tell us what a typical day is like for you today. There is no typical day, which is why I love my job. If it is during the legislative session, I will be reading bills, meeting with legislators, working with coalitions, attending meetings and writing testimony. I also spend a lot of time handling member issues with agencies that license and regulate the stores, working with our board of directors and trustees, planning board and committee meetings, working with the WIC agency leadership, traveling to meet with legislators and members, writing our publications and working with the GFIA team. What does your to-do list look like these days—what are some of the big issues facing Georgia grocers? One of the biggest issues for Georgia’s retailers continues to center around the Georgia WIC program. We worked hard to lift the moratorium, but WIC continues to be a challenge. During the most recent legislative session, the GFIA successfully worked bills to allow pharmacists to increase the amount of immunizations they provide, renew a tax exemption for donations to food banks, prevent a GMO labeling study committee and eliminate onerous alcohol policies. We

Kathy's full plate and smile speaks volumes— she loves her job.

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The Shelby Report of the Southeast • MAY 2015


"When I see any state legislator and mention Kathy Kuzava they immediately let me know how well our industry is represented at the Capitol, and with it also Ron and Kathy always mention what a great individual she is. I happened to be on the board and was one of the ones responsible for hiring Kathy, and every one of us that were on the board at that time are proud to say that we had a part in hiring her.” —Ron Edenfield, Wayfield Foods came close, but were unsuccessful at passing a preemption bill to avoid the local plastic bag bans. On a national level, healthcare, data security, menu and GMO labeling, swipe fee reform and tax reform are big issues to all grocers. What lessons would you like to pass on? No. 1—Joining the association that represents an industry is vitally important to every business. I never understood this before I came to the GFIA. We are advocates that truly care about the food industry and work hard to represent our members. I am proud of the tremendous amount of money we have saved our members over the years; and No. 2— Helping others helps keep your perspective in the right place. Choose a cause and volunteer some of your time on a regular basis.

Kathy, right, has long been organizing the GFIA's popular golf tournaments. Tell us about the habits of highly successful women executives. What has been most challenging for you? I think most successful executives are organized, not afraid of change, driven by results, not afraid to fail, know how to find balance in their lives, surround themselves with a team of great people, focus on their strengths, have a mentor and always want to

“Kathy is unlike any other boss, because she cares so much… not only about the association, but about us. Her passion for what we do makes all of us strive to make GFIA the best it can be.” —Michelle Boyer, director of

meetings and events, GFIA

Kathy with current and former GFIA staffers, including Mallie Bragg, Kim Peterson, Jacqueline Byrd and Michelle Boyer.


learn and evolve. My biggest challenges are organization and finding balance. Running a small company means that our team wears many hats and there is never enough time in the day. But since I love to learn and evolve, there may be hope for me yet. If you could change one thing about the grocery industry, what would it be? I would love to see the industry have more career options that are family friendly. The retail business is tough on families and hard to manage a store while having young children. Job sharing might be a possibility for young mothers. Any regrets? Anything you’d like to go back and do over? I am very satisfied with my career choice and wish everyone was as lucky as I was. If I had to pick a regret, I wish I would have started to play golf when I was younger. I don’t have the patience to start learning now.

Kathy and Michelle

piggly wiggly


piggly wiggly Congratulations to GFIA’s Kathy Kuzava, ®

2015 Southeast Woman Executive of the Year! 508 Bellevue Avenue • 478-275-0231 • Mike Wheeless, Owner

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The Only Certified Angus Beef Retailer in Laurens County

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MAY 2015 • The Shelby Report of the Southeast

“Where would one start with Kathy Kuzava? She is certainly one of the most respected leaders in every arena that she participates in; I would also say that it is a well-earned respect that only comes with hard work and long hours, and a reputation of honesty and sincerity. The more time I spend with Kathy the more I realize she is one extraordinary person. She genuinely cares about her GFIA membership and has helped so many often times without their knowledge.”


Mike, Kathy and Verlin

—Mike Coggins, Sherwood Foods

“I’ve known Kathy for more than 20 years and she never ceases to amaze me. Her love for, and hard work on behalf of, Georgia’s food industry is valued and appreciated. She is well known and respected, not only in our state but across America. She’s a tireless fighter for this industry and her GFIA membership.” –Verlin Reece, Quality Foods

Did you know that Kathy Kuzava… ♦ has outlasted all the senators in Georgia? That’s right. Kuzava has been a fixture at the Capitol building longer than any of the Peach State’s legislators.

Heineken USA would like to congratulate

♦ was among the first women working at the Capitol? There were, in fact, only three women in the country working in Kuzava’s capacity when she began her job with the GFIA. Kuzava not only helped pave the way for women in the grocery business but also in the government sector.

Ms. Kathy Kuzava President of The Georgia Food Industry Association

2015 WomAn ExEcUTIvE oF THE YEAr Kathy with Georgia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black.

♦ did not have a mentor when she first started in the business? She gained one, though, in Barbara McConnell, who ran the New Food Jersey Food Council. McConnell took the job after serving as a legislator for eight years and following an unsuccessful run for New Jersey governor. As Kathy said of McConnell in a 2006 interview with The Shelby Report, “She was a fantastic lobbyist and knew politics inside out, so she could give me insights on how best to get my message across on a certain issue.”

cheers from all of us from Heineken.

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The Shelby Report of the Southeast • MAY 2015

ConGratulations to

KathY Kuzava!



exeCutive of the Year You are GeorGia Wise! From

reGion Wise. nationWide!

“I have had the great pleasure of knowing Kathy for over 20 years. She is unquestionably one of the most dedicated, capable, effective leaders around, and through her leadership the GFIA has become one of the preeminent food industry organizations in the United States. Simply put, Kathy cares, and it shows in everything she does. Kathy has great respect at the Capitol and this enables her to be very effective in representing our industry with our legislators. Congratulations to Kathy for this well-deserved recognition as The Shelby Report’s Woman Executive of the Year!” —Jeff Downing, Foothills IGA Market

Family, travel, books and church among Kuzava’s other passions

It’s little surprise that, considering Kathy Kuzava began her working life in the grocery business, it’s also where she met her husband, Al. In fact, the two met as teenagers when they were both working at Food Giant. “He was the head stock clerk—very impressive to me as a 17-year-old cashier,” she says, laughing. The couple has been married for more than 30 years and have two adult children. Their 26-year-old daughter, Kristen, got married last year and works as an occupational therapist. Kristen’s older brother, Kevin, currently is on a three-month trip to New Zealand and Asia while working remotely. As her children have gotten older, Kuzava reveals Kathy and Al have been married for more than three decades. she and Al have started traveling. “We loved our trips to Italy, France, Alaska and Hawaii—and want to do more,” she says. Kuzava also loves to read and says she’s always looking for suggestions on great books, particularly about leadership and political thrillers. Additionally, she’s been involved in the youth ministry program at her church for the last 26 years. “I enjoyed working with teens as Food Giant’s training director, and put that experience to good use at church,” she says. “Apparently not many people volunteered to work with teenagers, so they started me right away and I’ve been at it ever since.”

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Kathy received the GFIA Legacy Award in 2014. She is pictured with her family, from left, son-in-law and daughter Wes and Kristen Clackum, husband Al and son Kevin.

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2015 Women Executive of the Year - Kathy Kuzava  
2015 Women Executive of the Year - Kathy Kuzava