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03/18/2021

Honoring ‘Mr. Private Label,’ 2021's Private Label Hall of Fame inductee

Brian Sharoff is — rightly — the only inductee to the Private Label Hall of Fame this year. Here's what people who knew him had to say about his legacy.
Seth Mendelson
Publisher and Editor in Chief
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Brian Sharoff always managed to stand apart from the crowd.

As the president of the Private Label Manufacturers Association for roughly 40 years, Sharoff was a driving force behind the rise of the private label industry. Serving as a voice for the overall store brands industry as well as someone who called for dramatic changes to the way products were manufactured, packaged and marketed, Sharoff was an advocate for improving the image of the category.

As we all know, Brian passed away after a short illness last May.

This year, the committee that selects the annual entrants into the Private Label Hall of Fame made the correct decision to induct Brian, and only Brian, this year.

To honor and celebrate Sharoff, Store Brands asked key industry officials, as well as PLMA colleagues, to reminisce about Sharoff. Here is what they had to say:

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Anthony Aloia, corporate vice president, PLMA
From its inception in 2006 it was inevitable the day would come when the Private Label Hall of Fame would welcome the induction of Brian Sharoff, the man known to the industry throughout the world as Mr. Private Label.

His induction so soon after his passing, and as this year’s only honoree is, I believe, most appropriate. Brian’s powerful vision and leadership, often displayed through wit and humor, took a fledgling industry and association in 1980 and built it into a worldwide trade organization characterized by the growth and influence of its members and their retail partners.

“Whether meeting in his office, in a conference room, or the PLMA booth in Chicago, he inspired members and retailers alike to innovate and then share the experiences of their successful private label programs.”
Anthony Aloia, PLMA

His accomplishments will be felt by generations of consumers to come, and for the many fortunate to know him personally and professionally, his influence will endure a lifetime. There are so many reasons Brian had an outsized impact on the industry and the people he encountered. One less heralded was his thirst for learning and teaching. Whether behind the podium teaching private label history at PLMA’s Executive Education Program in Philadelphia or lecturing on private label around the world to eager suppliers in Athens, he truly enjoyed talking about store brands.

Spreading the good news about store brands was a passion. Brian spearheaded the launch of PLMA’s video news channel PLMA Live!, and later PLMALive.eu, to provide information and insights as directly and as widely as possible to all who are involved in the industry. The creation of PLMA’s Idea Supermarket at the trade shows here and abroad taught the industry to learn from itself by displaying the year’s best product ideation, merchandising and packaging ideas.

Whether meeting in his office, in a conference room, or the PLMA booth in Chicago, he inspired members and retailers alike to innovate and then share the experiences of their successful private label programs. His love of travel and discovering new foods and cultures were sources for much of his inspiration. Sharing a table with Brian over Lebanese Tabbouleh or Chinese Dim Sum or Kansas City BBQ ribs was just as often an education itself to dispel pre-conceived biases consumers might have about more exotic fare.

Brian Sharoff’s most unshakable conviction was that innovative, high-quality products are the keys to private label success, and that store brand manufacturers are able to innovate quicker and better than their branded counterparts.

a group of people posing for a photo

Tim Simmons, former vice president of communications, PLMA and former editor-in-chief, Supermarket News
It’s obvious that Brian Sharoff had an enormous impact on private label, retailing, trade associations, and the hundreds of people he knew and worked with. The big question is: what made him so special?

One answer is that Brian was a visionary. He was always looking five, 10, sometimes 20 years ahead for new opportunities. In the 1980s, he was way ahead of his time in recognizing the importance of constantly communicating the message to the media and retailers that quality products, packaging and innovation were crucial to the success of private label. Brian was perhaps the only person who saw the potential for a European trade show for private label. The result: PLMA’s World of Private Label is now the world’s largest private label show. Nearly two decades ago, Brian foresaw the potential of video streaming and built the in-depth PLMA Live! programming that today is the envy of other trade associations.

Another key to Brian’s success was that he had the personality of an entrepreneur. He had little interest in organizational flowcharts, but was intensely interested in people. He was very loyal to the people who worked with him and that loyalty was happily reciprocated. Brian’s entrepreneurial personality was a perfect match for the scrappy small businesses that play such a large role in supplying private label products.

And, lastly, Brian had a real appreciation for the various constituencies within the PLMA membership; whether they were big or small, food or nonfood, or located in different regions. Brian started out his career as legislator representing a polyglot Brooklyn neighborhood full of people from around the world. He understood how important it was to listen to each group and try to meet their diverse needs. This communication skill proved invaluable in building a cohesive trade association.

It’s not often that someone comes along who is a visionary, an entrepreneur and a great communicator. That’s what made Brian so special.   

Clay Dockery, CEO, Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA
Leadership. Vision. Compassion. There are many attributes to describe Brian Sharoff, but these three always stood out to me. His leadership was evident in the constant engagement that he had with all stakeholders in the private label industry.  His staff was extremely loyal to him and he was extremely loyal to his staff.

From Brian’s appointment as president to his passing, the private label industry underwent dramatic changes. Brian not only kept up with the torrid pace of change, but he had the uncanny ability to see what was around the corner.  He was always willing to explore and invest in what he saw coming, but with recognition that it had to benefit the membership of the association.

It is not an overstatement to say that PLMA was an extension of Brian’s family. His stewardship of the association was exceptional. Brian’s wit and intellect is sorely missed.

 

Clay Dockery, CEO, Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA
Leadership. Vision. Compassion. There are many attributes to describe Brian Sharoff, but these three always stood out to me. His leadership was evident in the constant engagement that he had with all stakeholders in the private label industry.  His staff was extremely loyal to him and he was extremely loyal to his staff.

From Brian’s appointment as president to his passing, the private label industry underwent dramatic changes. Brian not only kept up with the torrid pace of change, but he had the uncanny ability to see what was around the corner.  He was always willing to explore and invest in what he saw coming, but with recognition that it had to benefit the membership of the association.

It is not an overstatement to say that PLMA was an extension of Brian’s family. His stewardship of the association was exceptional. Brian’s wit and intellect is sorely missed.

 

“Brian had a special talent in bringing together people from retail and manufacturing to help share best practices and to understand each other’s needs and requirements.”
Clay Dockery, Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA

Private Label Hall of Fame member Mark Husson, research analyst, Cedar Rock Capital and former retailer, Marks & Spencer and Tesco PLC
My recollection of Brian is of a man who absorbed information like a sponge. He was especially interested in what was happening in markets outside of the United States and that attitude drove private label marketers to such successes elsewhere. He was convinced that the destiny of U.S. private brands was to take share, but he knew that this was only going to happen if producers focused on improving product’s relative quality and performance. At the same time, he was drumming into people the need to switch from a production mindset to one that was marketing-driven with the consumer at the center. All the evidence points to his success in this endeavor. He was quite a guy.

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Private Label Hall of Fame member Mark Krakauer, president, MWK Marketing and first member broker of PLMA
I first met Brian Sharoff when we were in the first grade. In the fourth grade, our families moved to different parts of Brooklyn. I met Brian again when we were in high school and both enrolled in a private driver’s education program. The next time I saw him he was appearing on television as a New York State Assemblyman. In 1981 I received a phone call: “Hello, Mark. I see you’re a PLMA member. Well I just became president of PLMA.” That phone call was the beginning of a beautiful personal and professional relationship.

With Brian at its helm, PLMA went from a small trade group to an international dynamo. His management style encouraged the active participation of all classes of members, which wasn’t always the case prior to Brian. He held the unshakable conviction that private label was first and foremost a benefit to consumers, and so he firmly supported any aspect of private label. That conviction not only benefitted consumers, it also grew private label from both a financial and a product assortment perspective. Innovation was key to Brian’s success as well as PLMA member manufacturers’ successes. Often at first Brian could appear to be negative but he always reevaluated, and many times came up super-positive, a champion of new ideas, and private label gained from this.

Brian and I had planned for several years a Brooklyn Grand Tour with fellow Brooklyn natives, which sadly now will not happen. Also, I am never going to get back the 25 cents Brian always insisted I had lent him in the fourth grade. Plus, we never resolved the Peter Luger’s steakhouse issue: Which is better? Brooklyn or Great Neck?

Neil Stern, CEO, Good Food Holdings and former senior partner, Ebeltoft Group, McMillan Doolittle
Brian had a towering intellect and the impeccable timing of a Vaudeville comedian. He commanded a room and his outsized impact on the private label industry and retail in general is undeniable.

But I would also be remiss not to mention that he didn’t suffer fools lightly.

“Any conversation I had with Brian ended with my feeling more energized, informed and better prepared to face the challenges ahead. He will be missed.”
Neil Stern, Good Food Holdings

I have had the great opportunity to be on the faculty of PLMA Executive Education programs for over a decade as well as a frequent speaker at PLMA events. My small task: describe the state of the overall retail industry, consumer changes, trends in the retail industry and what will happen moving forward. And of course, provide a global angle as well.

I always had the sense (who am I kidding, I knew) that Brian was more of an expert on these very issues than I was. But I had better slides! We had great discussions and arguments on where the industry was headed, and Brian, not surprisingly had a wealth of knowledge that was unmatched from a global perspective. My favorite recurring argument was on the subject of millennials. Inevitably, an unsuspecting speaker at a PLMA event would make a throwaway comment on the “importance” of the millennial customer. Brian would be ready to pounce. Why are they a more important demographic than Gen X? Where’s your data to support this? I think he purchased the rights to American Demographics just to be armed with more material for debate.

Any conversation I had with Brian ended with my feeling more energized, informed and better prepared to face the challenges ahead. He will be missed.

a man holding a sign in front of a stage

Mike Dawson, international editor, Lebensmittel Zeitung
Brian Sharoff’s unexpected demise was a great loss to the trade. He built up the PLMA almost single-handedly with great acumen and turned what was at first only an interesting idea into a must-have global venue. To use an often-misquoted turn of phrase, he was a true internationalist and cosmopolitan with a genuine interest in foreign cultures.

Beyond his obvious brilliance and expertise, he was a really entertaining character with a wicked sense of humor and immense charm. He certainly deserved his success because he was as hard-working and effective in action as he was smart and quick in thought.

I only ever reported on the PLMA as a journalist, so I don’t know what he was like to work for, but he managed to create tremendous loyalty in his staff who were truly devoted to him. I can also recall that he always spoke very appreciatively about his colleagues, and one gained the distinct impression that their welfare was truly important to him.

Doubtless Brian is now in heaven and looking down with an impish, but benign grin as we mortals try to honor him here. Knowing him, he will be wheeling and dealing up there with the angels, marketing mana as a private label, organizing a big PLMA exhibition in the skies, and bringing tears of laughter to God’s all-seeing eyes.

Shalom, my friend, it was an honor to know you, and we miss you down here.

Private Label Hall of Fame member and co-founder Bob Anderson, former vice president/general merchandise manager, Walmart
To be inducted into the Private Label Hall of Fame several years ago was a great honor for me. Making it special was that the presenter was a good friend, great leader and the president of the Private Label Manufacturers Association, Mr. Brian Sharoff.

On March 18, Brian was inducted into the Private Label Hall of Fame, a well-deserved and overdue honor for a man who loved the industry and all the folks that worked in it. Brian had a special talent in bringing together people from retail and manufacturing to help share best practices and to understand each other’s needs and requirements. He did this, not only here in the U.S., but took it globally as well.

Brian had a special talent in bringing together people from retail and manufacturing to help share best practices and to understand each other’s needs and requirements.
Bob Anderson, Private Label Hall of Fame member/co-founder

Brian was a mentor to many, a great teacher and listener. He was the face of the PLMA, the go-to person for all of us, and for anyone who was wanting to know anything about private label. I will always remember Brian for his big smile and happy hello and welcome to every one of us at every PLMA event.

I’m thrilled and honored to have Brian join the many other leaders as part of the Hall of Fame.  I only wish he could have been here to enjoy it, but knowing Brian, he would smile and say the real thanks goes out to all of us.

Brian will be missed, but hopefully this honor and all his hard work will live on. I think of my friend often when I walk the stores in the United States and know he played a huge role in the development of private label here and around the world. Brian, much like Sam Walton, helped to bring quality products to market at an affordable price for all of us, the proof is in the market share it commands today.

Private Label Hall of Fame member Tom Ewing, former vice president/director national accounts, T. Marzetti and former chairman, PLMA board of directors
Brian Sharoff had a lasting impact on the private label business by fostering the credibility of the industry in the days when the image of private label was embodied by no-name generic items. Brian promoted the growing number of national brand manufacturers who also produced private label products to the trade press to change the perception of many that private label products were made by small packers focused on cheap products. As the industry grew and private label manufacturers consolidated into large conglomerates and even public companies, Brian ensured that the growing sophistication of the manufacturers was covered in the trade press and national media.

His message was that private label products were of equal quality of popular national brands and then he embraced premium private label products and touted their growth to further enhance the reputation of the industry. Brian’s ability to work with the trade press, media, retailers, suppliers and member manufacturers to create the message of equal or better product quality, consumer acceptance, retailer enthusiasm and manufacturer innovation was essential to enhancing the entire private label industry.

Without Brian’s insights, leadership, understanding, and ability to influence others, the private label industry would not have enjoyed the tremendous success we have seen during his tenure.

a group of people standing in a room

Enrico Zobele, honorary chairman emeritus, Zobele Group
I met Brian Sharoff in the early ’80s, at one of the very first World of Private Label exhibitions in Amsterdam. Since then, I have attended all the European PLMA shows that have followed. At the beginning, the discussion with Brian was to alternate years in Amsterdam and the year’s between in a different European capital. But the RAI proved to be by far more efficient and became the European home of PLMA, similar to the Rosemont in Chicago for the U.S. I remember the first years there being a few dozens of exhibitors in one hall, and then always bigger numbers of companies from all over the world wanting to exhibit, with new pavilions occupied and with long discussions to obtain larger and better-positioned booths.

This was the big idea of Brian, to bring industry and retailers together, to increase reciprocal awareness, to create and grow a brand-new business, private label. And to keep exploring new worlds, he was responsible for bringing PLMA exhibitions to Tokyo and Hong Kong in the ’90s and more recently in Shanghai, and organizing trade missions, conferences and roundtables in the Middle East, South Africa and South America. This was his vision, his life, his dream. Thus, he helped all of us to grow our business but even more our culture and friendship.

Jean-Pierre Bonvallet, international business development director, PLMA
Brian Sharoff’s impact on the private label industry has been — and continues to be — great.

First and foremost, Brian was a private label lover. He was totally dedicated to the industry. Second, he was a visionary who was able to predict the positive evolutions of the industry from basic, low-cost generics to premium and genuine retailers’ brands, not only in the various regions in the world but on a global scale. This vision was based on permanent contacts with suppliers and retailers internationally during as well as independent of the major events. Thematic workshops have been organized in the U.S. and in Europe with that purpose.

“He was a visionary who was able to predict the positive evolutions of the industry from basic, low-cost generics to premium and genuine retailers’ brands, not only in the various regions in the world but on a global scale.”
Jean-Pierre Bonvallet, PLMA

Brian also cultivated his contacts with the specialized retail press leaders in the key countries. He often sponsored surveys and research on consumer attitudes toward private label starting in 1981. The results were published by PLMA for the members or jointly with press partners to reach a larger audience.

Third, Brian was able to share his vision around the world by expanding tremendously the U.S. show in Chicago with local and foreign exhibitors, in addition to hosting shows and trade missions outside the U.S. to focus on markets for private label on every continent, where retailers and wholesalers could meet suppliers from the world over and improve their understanding of private label trends and innovations from diverse countries.

Brian was also an exceptionally creative individual when it came to developing the tools that could help the industry grow, whether conferences and roundtables, executive education, eScanner and International Scanner newsletters, private label industry yearbooks, Salute to Excellence Awards, New Product Expo, and Idea Supermarket, or PLMA Live!

Last but not least, although Brian was budget conscious, he was continually daring to launch new concepts. But then he would not hesitate to stop the experience if results were not as good as he expected. The development of store brands comes from the efforts and innovations of retailers and their private label suppliers, but nothing would have gone so fast and so widely without the impact of PLMA, whose spirit and right arm was Brian Sharoff.

a man and a woman posing for the camera