“New phase for the retail industry”: Major changes at the ARA

Long-time executive director of the Australian Retailers’ Association (ARA) Russell Zimmerman is making way for a new leader who has “the energy, youth and wherewithal” to take the ARA into its next phase following a fresh injection of support from major retailers that have become new members.

Zimmerman announced his upcoming retirement last week at the same time as the ARA revealed that Woolworths, JB Hi-Fi, The Good Guys, Bunnings and Dymocks all have become members of the industry association.

Zimmerman told Inside Retail the new members would be supporting the ARA in “varied and many ways”, but declined to provide specifics.

“I think it’s fair to say that the major retailers have got some thoughts and ideas on how we should promote the industry. They’d like us to get involved in terms of talking about [retail] being a great career, and a lot of those career jobs come from the major retailers,” he said.

The announcement follows the failed merger between the ARA and the Queensland-based National Retail Association (NRA), a move that many major retailers had been pushing for to give the $300 billion industry a unified voice in government.

Previously, the Retail Council served as a single point of contact for the industry and counted many of the country’s biggest retailers among its members, but it disbanded after CEO Anna McPhee passed away in 2017.

JB Hi-Fi CEO Richard Murray had been leading merger talks between the ARA and NRA for nearly a year before the NRA called the merger off in August, citing concerns about the ARA’s finances and the impact the merger would have on its member base, which is primarily small and medium-sized retailers.

The AFR reported that the NRA lost $645,980 in 2018, down from $807,301 in 2017, and had cash of $2.9 million. The ARA reportedly lost $846,373 in 2018, after a profit of $326,804 in 2017, due to costs associated with its campaign for a reduction in Sunday penalty rates. Zimmerman said at the time that the not-for-profit was on track to turn a profit this year.

But the need for a single, unified voice in the retail sector hasn’t changed since the merger talks fell apart, and it appears major retailers are determined to achieve it one way or another.

“Woolworths supports a strong, single voice for the Australian retail industry. Retailers of all sizes will benefit from a better resourced national representative body,” a spokesperson for the retailer told Inside Retail.

Murray noted in a statement issued by the ARA that large retailers once started off as single stores, and made a case for the needs of large and small retailers being largely the same.

“Small business is the cornerstone of the Australian economy and many great Australian retailers started out with one store and grew from there,” he said.

“All retailers, no matter the size, want to ensure government policy encourages employment, sustainability, safety in the workplace and retail careers.”

Retail as a career

According to Zimmerman, the ARA going forward will have a sharper focus on promoting retail as a career to government.

“We want to keep government aware of what a great employer we are, of the opportunity in the sector and how we can ensure people coming out of school see retail as a great way to start their careers, whether as an HR manager or a buyer or planner,” he said.

Bunnings’ chief operating officer Debbie Poole said this would benefit the DIY retailer.

“The focus of the ARA on promoting retail as a career of choice and implementing new technologies to increase productivity is a win for everyone,” she told Inside Retail.

With major retailers throwing their weight behind the ARA, it’s unclear where that leaves the NRA.

Zimmerman’s replacement has not yet been named, but he said he would stay on to help them transition to the new role.

“I’ve been at the ARA for over 10 years […] and I leave the role – when I do go – in a very strong position,” he said.

The ARA had roughly 2500 members when Zimmerman took the role in 2009 and now has around 9500 members.

Additional reporting by Dean Blake

You have 7 articles remaining. Unlock 15 free articles a month, it’s free.