By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
Robert Thompson, managing director and general manager of MARTA Cooperative of America, and Thomas Balistreri, chairman of the group’s board of directors, discussed with TWICE the group’s plans for the future, how its members are dealing with the challenging economy and the state of the relationship between MARTA and its parent group AVB/BrandSource. The conversation took place during a meeting of MARTA members at International CES.
According to Thompson and Balistreri, this was the first MARTA-only meeting that the group had held since it became affiliated with AVB/BrandSource. Balisteri said he viewed it as an opportunity to “renew vows.”
The two said the relationship has been advantageous for both parties. “We are a much stronger group today than we were three years ago,” said Thompson.
Balistreri explained that AVB/BrandSource, too, had benefitted from the pairing because members of both organizations enjoy the benefits of the other. Also, Balistreri said MARTA helped its parent expand the CE side of their business and helped them develop new programs with vendors like Toshiba.
Despite the mutual benefits of the relationship with AVB/BrandSource, Thompson and Balistreri said the group has no plans to merge completely and give up the MARTA identity. Essentially, they felt that to forgo the established MARTA identity would be to forgo the structure of the group — a structure that many of its second- and third-generation customers have become particularly accustomed to. Balistreri said the primary structural difference between the two groups has to do with geography in that MARTA operates as a national group but AVB/BrandSource divides its members by region.
The men said that AVB/BrandSource is not interested in absorption either. “They want us to operate as a successful subsidiary,” said Balistreri.
As for how the group is faring during the economic upheaval, “I was struck today by how optimistic our members are in light of the situation,” said Thompson.
Balistreri reported that many of the vendors the group does business with have reported fairly positive returns despite a generally challenging situation. He also said many of the group’s members ended 2008 up in many categories and that “in some cases we were down less than other groups.” In all, he said, “we’ve done very well, considering.”
Looking ahead, Thompson and Balistreri expressed cautiously optimistic expectations for its members’ financial futures.
“It will be a challenge, but we’re not intimidated,” said Balistreri.
“Many of our members are second-generation — they’ve been through tough times before,” said Thompson. “Yes, this is different, but people still need to wash their clothes and run their refrigerators … There is money out there — you just have to pry it out of their hands with a crowbar.”
That crowbar, according to Thompson, should be a compelling offer. “Extras are opportunities,” he said.
On a separate note, Thompson and Balistreri told TWICE that it will be awarding long-time MARTA member Duane “Cotton” Christiaansen with a lifetime achievement award for the many contributions he has made to the group and to the industry over the course of his life. They explained that the award, to be known officially hereafter as the Duane “Cotton” Christiaansen Lifetime Achievement Award, will be awarded annually to a member who best manages to live up to Christiaansen’s legacy.
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